Has Roman taken his eye off the ball?

FROM the moment they turned up for the Community Shield looking like a pub team to ending extra-time against Norwich with nine men, it has been easy to forget that Chelsea are champions.

They survived Wednesday's shootout and are still in three cups, but the title has long gone. In truth, they never looked like defending it and while they're a long way from having 'a Mourinho season', it has not been the kind Roman Abramovich envisaged when he drenched Stamford Bridge in roubles 15 years ago.

Of the Big Six clubs, only Arsenal have shown less ambition and with that club fast sinking to mid-table irrelevance, you have to wonder what is going on down the King's Road.

The manager has changed for a start. Antonio Conte is still there but he's not the man he was last season. Not as manic, not as committed, not as good. Slovenly dressed at Wembley and letting his keeper take a pen set the trend.

Denied the credit he deserved and the players he wanted, he looks to be going through the motions.

He set such a frenetic standard when he came, any lessening of intensity was bound to be noticed. And if the boss is pining for Italy, why should the players be arsed?

Neither of their recent Player of the Year winners, Eden Hazard and Ngolo Kante, have reached their award-winning heights and while Chelsea are still a formidable force, they've conspicuously failed to build on their title-winning side.

None of the new boys have been better than so-so and they badly miss their spearhead, Diego Costa. If Conte must carry the can for his departure, he was vehemently opposed to Nemanja Matic leaving. So, who is calling the shots?

When Ross Barkley joined for £15m (RM82m) from Everton, he was the third successive player to arrive carrying an injury! Tiemoue Bakayoko and Danny Drinkwater preceded him.

And then they discovered Barkley had signed too late to be eligible for the cup replay anyway. But dodgy recruitment and lax admin are not the only signs of drift.

It has seemed an alien concept since Abramovich arrived. As one of the leading beneficiaries of the fall of communism, he might not have been expected to practise Leon Trotsky's 'permanent revolution'. But that would not be too outlandish a view of the way he runs Chelsea FC.

Of the dozen different managers in 15 years, one was sacked after winning the Double, another after winning the Champions League. He made offers for players that clubs could not refuse and once stole a Brazilian from under the stethoscope of a rival club's doctor during a medical.

He may be a Russian diffident in person but he ran Chelsea in the manner in which he mopped up the wealth of the Soviet Union – ruthlessly.

The last few months, however, have been rather different. In whichever of his yachts or bolt holes he happens to be lazing, he could reflect on not having had the best of times.

First was the split from his third wife, Dasha, and the chunk of his fortune that will be disappearing. Then the stadium project stalled. Then the team stalled. Favoured go-to man Michael Emenalo quit while the managerial love of his life, Pep Guardiola, found happiness elsewhere.

His current manager is eyeing the exit and Hazard and Thibaut Courtois are flirting with Real Madrid. And instead of signing the likes of Messi and Ronaldo, the club are chasing Barkley and Andy Carroll!

The low point was sometime on Monday. The Barkley deal was under police investigation, Blues' own fans screamed in protest against Carroll and the Hammersmith & Fulham Council met to discuss the stadium project. It was being held up by a stubborn resident complaining about losing his daylight!

You give a billion pounds to build a state-of-the-art stadium and the neighbours object! Wouldn't happen in Russia, Roman, but it happened in London.

How, we have to ask, had it come to this?

Short of penetrating the owner's inner circle, there is no way of knowing precisely, but a guess is that he's taken his eye off the ball. He may watch every kick from wherever he is in the world, but he has left the running of the club to his right-hand woman, Marina Granovskaia, and trusty cohorts on the board. Emenalo was another of his acolytes.

But as he has tried to be more hands off, the others have squabbled – especially over transfers – and Emenalo couldn't stand the aggravation any more. Rumour has it that Russia's 'Iron Lady' and Italy's 'Combustible Man' have had their differences.

You'd say the owner has to sort this before Chelsea can be a force again. But don't be so sure. Things have picked up - the cops found nothing wrong, the council is backing the club and Conte was more like his old incandescent self – rowing with the ref – against Norwich City.

He would also have noted that amid the chaos the Blues managed to take five perfect penalties to win through.

Trotsky might have approved but it's no longer good enough for a modern superclub.