Thomas Tuchel, in typically considered fashion, said he understood the point of the question. Could the darkening mood towards Chelsea, due to the nature of their ownership and the strength of feeling towards Roman Abramovich and Russia, be used to create a siege mentality within the first-team squad?
The German’s answer was emphatic: not this time, and not on an issue as significant and horrifying as the outbreak of war in Ukraine. Yes, football managers often amplify perceived injustices in an attempt to strengthen the mindset of their players. But not now. Not when thousands in Europe are either fleeing their homes or taking up arms.
“In this case, I think the issue is too big,” said Tuchel. “Given the situation that we have, a war, this is simply not important enough. It will unfortunately not help. If it would help, I am happy to lose the match. I know what you mean but this subject, I think it is too big to be used by us to turn it around. We are emotionally involved, we suffer with everybody.”
The unfortunate reality for Tuchel and his players, though, is that while they have absolutely no intention of consciously manufacturing an ‘us-against-the-world’ mindset, it truly will feel like Chelsea-against-the-world in the days to come, starting at Wembley on Sunday. They have rarely been the neutral’s favourite since Abramovich’s cash first flowed into Stamford Bridge, and they definitely will not be now.
Is it fair for Chelsea’s players and coaches, rather than just the owner, to feel the flak over a geopolitical crisis that has nothing to do with them? That depends on your personal view. What is certain is that, as the world stands outraged at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a renewed hostility awaits Chelsea as an institution, rightly or wrongly.
Such resentment is not, of course, an entirely new situation for Chelsea to be dealing with. Even now, almost two decades after Abramovich’s takeover, they are still met with chants of “you’ve bought it all” by opposition fans. The “Chelski” nickname is no longer as prevalent as it was in the early days of the Abramovich era, and other mega-rich owners have since joined the Premier League party, but the discontent lingers.
Chelsea’s insistence is that Abramovich’s decision to step back from the running of the club has been taken in order to protect it from reputational and strategic damage. They surely cannot, though, expect the wider public and footballing community to suddenly disassociate the club from its owner of the past 19 years. Just a few weeks ago, Abramovich was celebrating on the pitch after Chelsea had won the Club World Cup.
In the medium and long-term, the impact of this potential damage on Chelsea as a club will be seen in their sponsorship deals and perhaps even in the actions of their employees, current or prospective. In the short-term, their players and coaches must be preparing themselves for the uncomfortable reality of representing a club that many observers regard as part of the problem.
To play this weekend was already uncomfortable enough, even without the Abramovich situation. Tuchel said as much in advance of the final, when he admitted to feeling a “bad conscience” about the game. To be clear, he was not speaking in relation to Abramovich or Chelsea, but in general about playing a high-profile match while such dreadful events are taking place in Europe.
Asked whether football can lift the mood in times of darkness, Tuchel said: “Yes it can. Clearly yes. And still, maybe because it is so close and so fresh, it maybe comes a little bit with a bad conscience on Sunday. Are we allowed to fully engage and fully celebrate? Is this inappropriate? I have to say, this is how I feel about it because it is so new and fresh. It is a bit of a mixed feeling.”
The Chelsea head coach will not be alone in feeling this way, and it will be curious to see how the victorious team treats victory at Wembley. Perhaps, in the moment, it will not feel “inappropriate” to “fully celebrate”, as Tuchel fears. Perhaps it will.
What is clear is that a challenging and uncertain period awaits Chelsea as a club. The focus will not be on the coaches and players, but equally they will not be immune to it. A siege mentality might be the natural consequence of these events, whether Tuchel likes it or not, and the first indication of the public feeling towards Chelsea the football team will come at Wembley on Sunday afternoon.
There is more than a hint of south London lilt when Andreas Christensen speaks, which is understandable. Aside from his two seasons on loan in Germany, it has been a decade in England. As he points out, he is not far from spending as much time in England as his native Denmark.
“After so long, I don’t know anything else,” he says in his considered manner as he prepares for training at Chelsea’s training base in Cobham, which has been home for the period where he has gone from adolescence to manhood.
The 25-year-old gives thought to every question asked, whether it is war in Ukraine that could have implications for Chelsea’s owner, or preparations for an EFL Cup final at. Or on his own future at Stamford Bridge, which is not straightforward.
He is in contention to start for Chelsea at Wembley, given he has been picked for the last five games. At times recently he feels a central part of the team but it has not always been the case. And there’s the rub. As he explains he is at the crossroads as he approaches the end of his contract, with clubs around Europe alerted to his situation.
“I don’t look at it that way,” he replies when asked whether 10 years at Chelsea is a lot to walk away from. “Things can still be done. For me being part of winning team is all that I want to be as a football player.
“Being involved and feeling you deserve it is an amazing feeling. It’s what keeps me going. I was part of winning many trophies but at same time didn’t really feel like you’ve deserved it because you weren’t playing. You’re a young boy who might have played the first rounds against the smaller teams and you don’t feel like you’re part of it.
“The recent years have been very good for me personally. I played the whole of the Europa League and the final. Then there was the Champions League, a big part of it last year and most recent the World Club Cup.”
While the constant in Chelsea’s defence has been Cesar Azpilicueta, or Thiago Silva recently, having a player like Christensen is a necessary part of success. It was the Dane who stepped off the bench in the Champions League final to play a key role in defeating Manchester City last season, after suffering the disappointment of missing out on a starting place.
“I had the feeling that I was going to start in the weeks going to the final. I picked up a hamstring injury that kept me out for two weeks,” he said. “I could understand the decision at the time but I was obviously very disappointed I couldn’t start.
“It kind of helped me that I went on so quick. No time to think, literally just shinpads on and out on the pitch trying to do what I had to do. It’s insane to win a Champions League. It’s amazing and I’m proud of it.”
Victory at Estádio do Dragão in May meant Christensen made himself part of Chelsea’s European history after joining them straight after their 2012 triumph, setting the bar high. Despite a decade with Chelsea, it will take more than an old-fashioned tactic of getting stuck into Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.
“The old English mentality… I’ve never really done that,” he said. “They come with energy, the runs, just never-ending movement. They’re all coming at you at one time. We have a good balance to deal with it as a back five, never alone, so you’re not one against one all the time.
“You always have someone backing up, that’s important because they are a phenomenal front three, they are dangerous all the time and they never seem to get tired.”
Getting the responsibility in the big matches, against the big players, is what Christensen has always wanted. He understands it has been difficult for managers to give him the space to make mistakes under the pressure of needing to win.
“For me, in the last few years it has come together more like it should have been from the beginning,” he said. “I’ve been here for so long, a lot of different managers as well and it is hard for a young player to prove himself all the time.
“But coming from the Academy where people know me so well, it has been the last couple of years where I should have been for a long time at a comfortable level. If I had to say something about myself, that is probably my biggest flaw that I wasn’t consistent enough but I have that in the last few seasons, I’ve been a lot better and being part of what we are trying now is great.
“Thomas (Tuchel) came in and knew me from Germany and I got the idea quite early. It has helped me massively. I had the space to do the mistakes that I made and still play, while earlier in my career I might have struggled to get back in the team.
“That helped me massively with my confidence and the team. He has given a lot of space to me and others, to allow them to make mistakes. It happens. We learn from them. He has helped me a lot.”