Maybe on some level it's a problem or one of football's flaws that achievements, teams and individuals get compared to previous successes and failures. Attempts to work out the best, the worst and everything in between are generally pointless due to how inconclusive an answer one can get and the sheer fact that it's what happens in the present that counts.
Yet, there are times when you can't help but wonder. And despite acknowledging that this is a meaningless task that some will use to taunt and others will dismiss as a waste of time, I wondered whether this Chelsea side are the worst defending European Champions in the Champions League era. Why that time period (since the 1992/93 season)? I'm too lazy to go further back and it ties in nicely with when football actually properly started*.
To start, a few little facts: there have been 20 winners in that time from seven different countries. The Premier League's performed quite well actually with four champions, bettered by Italy (5) and Spain (6). Generally defending champions have gone on to perform well in their domestic league with eight sides going on to win their league title the season after. In fact only three sides have gone on to finish outside the top three which suggests it's rare for defending champions to drop off badly.
Today, Chelsea sit fourth in the league and in all likelihood will cling onto that place or better for the remainder of the season. It's mathematically possible for them to be champions still but a gap of 19 points to United with 10 games to go would require miracles of Red Sea proportions to make that happen. It would be easy to forget that this is a side that finished sixth last year, 25 points off the Manchester clubs and had £80million+ worth of talent join in the summer whilst talismanic striker and hero, Drogba departed. For the time period I'm looking at, they are indeed the first defending champions not to make it out of the group stages and are now struggling against Steaua in the Europa League (written pre second leg).
It's not really been a happy 2012/13 for the London club - CL winning manager gone; hated interim manager in charge; soon to be record breaking midfielder still not tied down for another year; failure in various competitions; and general discontent among the fans. Still, you could argue that Marseille's defence of their title won in 1992/93 was worse.
Despite being reigning champions of Europe with a free pass into the Champions League again, Marseille never had the chance to defend their crown in the 1993/94 season. A match-fixing scandal saw them banned from European competitions and despite finishing Ligue 1 in second place, they were eventually thrown down into Ligue 2 in what became a very dark few years in the club's history.
Mind you, Chelsea haven't quite 'done a Dortmund' domestically. Some (me) might suggest that Dortmund had been lucky to win the 1997 Champions League at all after Cantona and United should have beaten them in the semi-final home and away but nevertheless they went on to win in the final. The following season they went on to finish a whopping 25 points off the lead in the Fußball-Bundesliga - a record for defending Champions League winners to date. Their final league position was a lowly 10th out of 18 teams and they were closer to the bottom than the top in terms of points. Their European performance maybe was the saving grace somewhat as they managed to get as far as the semi-finals but with no back-to-back wins it confirmed that they'd be without European football in 1998/99 (when another German team made headlines)
With the exception of that Marseille team, all defending champions have automatically had re-entry into the tournament for the following season but with no team able to defend the trophy win, they've all had to rely on league performance for entry the season after and with the exception of Dortmund all have managed it, sort of. I say "sort of" because AC Milan have made it into the UEFA Cup/ Europa League twice rather than Europe's main competition. Having won the tournament in 1994 and 2007, AC went on to finish fourth and fifth in Serie A the season after which wasn't good enough for a Champions League spot. To be fair, they did make it to the final again in 1995 but didn't fair too well in 2008 when they conceded twice late on at home to Arsenal in the first knockout round.
The tricky nature of defending the title is well documented but many sides have gone deep into the competition before falling late on. Nine teams have made at least the semi-finals although it feels harder to achieve now with cycles ebbing and flowing at a greater pace and teams more able to invest crazy money over a summer. For four years in a row, the defending champions fell at the first knockout stage - Porto in 2005, Liverpool in 2006, Barcelona in 2007, and AC Milan in 2008. Incidentally, as reigning European champions, Barcelona only lost the La Liga title in 2007 on their head-to-head record with Real Madrid, despite having a goal difference that was 19 goals better than Madrid's.
So how do Chelsea compare? One shouldn't scoff at their group - Shakhtar are a good side whilst Juventus look like rising again as a force in European football but even so, as European champions their performance was unquestionably bad. Whilst wrong to assume they should beat everyone in their path, one can give the other group teams too much credit and overlook just how much has been spent on putting a squad of quality together.
Are Chelsea better than they were last year? It would be easy to look at cup performances and say no but they'll end up performing better in the league - they're just 12 points short of last season's total with ten games left to play. Sure, they lost their mountainous striker and let a few other squad players move on, but they brought in raw talent for big money and added some depth with Azpilicueta, Moses and Marin. Even the most staunch of Chelsea fans would struggle to deny that luck aligned for them in Barcelona and in Munich - they probably should have lost on both occasions to better sides. Is one Drogba more valuable than a Hazard and Oscar? Maybe, but that feels like the difference between the two teams.
To answer my original question, I don't think they are the worst defending European Champions yet but failure to qualify next season might give them that unwanted title. Only 1997 champions, Dortmund, are worse off with their 10th place finish despite a good European cup run in 1998. That I'm even debating whether a side with such wealthy resources as Chelsea are the worst says everything about their season so far. The warning bells have been ringing for many months and may yet continue to do so into the summer.