Nine matches into what history will soon seal off as Chelsea’s 'Abramovich Era', the new, ambitious Russian owner of the club had his first hard sight of the high standards of the league he had signed up to.
Chelsea went to the old Highbury stadium. They were beaten for the first time in the Premier League since the stunning, big-spending takeover. Arsenal’s 2-1 victory that October 2003 day, it turned out, would form part of a record-breaking 49-match unbeaten league run.
Chelsea ended the season second, Roman Abramovich’s initial tranche of player-investment having established them as a would-be superclub. Arsenal still finished 11 points clear of them, but the 2003/04 season had pivoted around several epic encounters between North and West London.
In February, Arsenal twice came back from a goal down to beat Chelsea in league and FA Cup. In the Champions League last eight, they met each other in a see-saw tie settled by a Chelsea winner in the 87th minute of the second leg.
By which time the tall, gaunt manager of Arsenal had begun to complain about how a sudden influx of new-owner wealth was disturbing the balance of English and European football.
Arsene Wenger would be repeating that line for the next decade-and-a-half, as Abramovich’s Chelsea went on to win five Premier Leagues and Arsenal were obliged to keep looking back on the 2004 title as their last.
Abramovich’s 19-year hold on Chelsea will come to an end before the beginning of next season, and possibly within what remains of this season if there is quick agreement on the sale of the club, made inevitable because of UK government sanctions against Abramovich for his links to a Russian government that has ordered its troops into Ukraine.
Wednesday’s last Chelsea-Arsenal fixture of the Abramovich Era reminds how the London hierarchy has altered over his ownership. Win at Stamford Bridge, and third-placed Chelsea would extend their lead over sixth–placed Arsenal to the same 11 points that distanced the 2003/04 English champions from the newly-enriched runners-up.
For the tall, gaunt manager now on the Chelsea bench, Thomas Tuchel, these are uncertain times. As Wenger was never shy of pointing out, Chelsea’s ownership model over the last 19 years has granted special privileges.
Abramovich has been bearing financial losses in a way that cannot be assumed of the club’s next owners, who will come from one of three business groups all interested in Chelsea’s potential to make a profit.
Pending the purchase, the club operate under government sanctions, freezing their ability to commit to new player contracts, among other restrictions.
Besides Chelsea’s edge-of-the-seat dramas on the pitch – the reaching of an FA Cup final, the extra-time elimination at Real Madrid from the Champions League quarter-final – there is suspense over the sort of squad Tuchel, assuming he remains as manager, will work with after July.
Antonio Rudiger, a pillar through Tuchel’s 15 months in charge, is out of contract this summer. Chelsea, because of sanctions and the limbo of their ownership cannot formally commit to a new deal Tuchel would urge the club to offer the German defender. Cesar Azpilicueta, the captain, may well be entering his last month wearing the captain’s armband.
Tuchel is also wary his players, fatigued after a period of high-stakes knockout assignments - in Madrid and at Wembley, where they defeated Crystal Palace 2-0 in the FA Cup - do not carry a sense of limbo into their league run-in.
Chelsea 2 Crystal Palace 0: player ratings
They are five points above fourth place, so seem relatively secure in qualifying for next season’s Champions League, but too far behind the title-chasing duo, Liverpool and Manchester City, to aspire to leapfrogging them.
“It seems like things are pretty safe but things can change so, so quickly,” Tuchel said on Tuesday. “I am not sure we won’t become second or fourth [in the table]. It is a big challenge mentally and physically to dive back into the main competition, which is the Premier League.
“We will fight hard, and we have a crucial four matches in a short period, with Arsenal, West Ham, Manchester United and Everton.”
The first three of those are all in the bottleneck for fourth place, but Arsenal have slipped back in that joust after three successive defeats, the latest against Southampton at the weekend. Nor are trips to Stamford Bridge undertaken with great optimism. Since Arsenal beat Chelsea twice in that first season of the Abramovich era, they have won there only three times in 19 visits.