After the hugely pleasant surprise of winning the Premier League title last season, it was always going to be a tall order to repeat the trick this time around. With rival clubs lavishing fortunes on strengthening their squad and Chelsea simply trying to replace those departing the club, Antonio Conte knew that he was going to find life more difficult. Even so, he will be disappointed in some of his players, those that have not been able to maintain the same level of performance they exhibited on the way to becoming champions of England.
Asking Victor Moses to replicate his stunning displays at wing-back on a regular basis might always have been too much to ask, though Pedro Rodriguez's downturn and Gary Cahill's hesitancy have all contributed to a different outlook. Yet Conte is likely to be most disappointed with Thibaut Courtois this season.
Often touted as one of the top three goalkeepers in world football prior to this season -- alongside Manchester United's David De Gea and Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer -- on this campaign's efforts, it is far from certain that Courtois would be considered one of the top three in England. The Belgium international's performances have dipped -- perhaps not alarmingly, but definitely to the detriment of the team. His shot stopping remains largely outstanding, though other key aspects of his game have been found wanting.
Although far from being the only one to make a costly mistake in the two legs of the Champions League tie with Barcelona, his error at the Camp Nou was fatal. Allowing Lionel Messi to squirm a shot inside the near post in the opening two minutes gave his teammates a mountain to climb, though they did give it a real go for the rest of the game.
It could have been written off had it been an isolated incident, but it was simply the most high-profile of many little mistakes made by the usually immaculate Courtois during the season.
At Swansea on Sunday, there was even the extremely rare sight of Courtois not looking comfortable dealing with an aerial ball. Usually utterly dominant in that situation, and arguably the best in the world in that regard, he flapped at a cross and allowed Jordan Ayew a header at an empty net that he thankfully put over. In fairness, Courtois is probably just guilty of setting such high standards that any indiscretion is instantly magnified, though it hasn't made Conte's job any easier.
Last year, the back six were a model of consistency, at one point keeping the opposition from scoring for five matches in a row. This year, especially since the dawn of 2018, has been a different story. In fact, Sunday's 1-0 win at Swansea was Courtois' first clean sheet in two-and-a-half months in all competitions, a 3-0 home win over West Brom on Feb, 12.
Of course, keeping the ball out of the net is not the sole responsibility of the goalkeeper, though such statistics are what they are ultimately judged on. A top goalkeeper will win a team vital points through the course of the season and Courtois has done exactly that several times since he's been at the club. This campaign, however, such moments have been fewer and farther between.
There has been a malaise hanging over the club since last summer, catalysed by the board's confusing transfer policy and prolonged by Conte's ensuing sulk. That might be one explanation for standards slipping. In Courtois' case, it could also be a result of questions regarding his future. His contract is due to run out at the end of next season and while he claims he is in no hurry to discuss new terms, constant speculation over his future must have been a distraction.
From Chelsea's perspective, Courtois is a key asset who must be retained. Despite a disappointing season, he remains a top-quality goalkeeper and somebody who should help form the foundation of Chelsea's squad for the foreseeable future. He speaks with authority and, when on form, is one of the few genuinely world-class players in Chelsea's squad. In much the same way as Petr Cech arrived at Stamford Bridge at a relatively young age and grew into being one of the leaders of the group, the same pathway is there for Courtois to tread.
With replacements of similar quality thin on the ground and no guarantee of attracting them without Champions League football to offer, losing Courtois would be damaging and potentially send the wrong signal to other members of the squad. The other side of the coin, however, is awarding a bumper contract to somebody playing well below par, which might emit some equally confusing signals.
It is a strange and complicated situation for player and club both on and off the field. With luck, all will get sorted out quickly one way or the other, with Courtois producing a match-winning display in the FA Cup final and a new contract signed soon after. If not, there might just be more of the same next season.