Yesterday’s goalless draw at home to Tottenham put a serious, perhaps fatal dent in Chelsea’s aspirations of a top four finish and a Champions League place for the 2012-13 season.
With the Blues facing a five-point deficit and a much harder run-in to the end of the season, questions must now be asked as to what the club’s approach to the remaining eight weeks of the campaign is.
The first leg of a very winnable Champions League Quarter Final tie is next on the agenda, whilst the FA Cup will prove more than just a pleasing distraction as it too carries the guarantee of European football, which is far from being secured in the league.
Roberto Di Matteo stopped short of completely writing off catching either Arsenal or Tottenham yesterday but admitted that qualifying for UEFA’s elite competition is a tough ask at this stage, and so attention now turns to Tuesday’s trip to Lisbon.
Winning the Champions League might well be the most realistic route into next season’s competition, but Benfica are a capable outfit whilst Barcelona or AC Milan await in the Semi Finals.
Does Di Matteo now have to put all of his eggs in that particular basket and do little more than attempt to get by in the league and hold onto fifth place, attempting to stave off the advances of Newcastle United?
Saturday’s starting eleven offered little insight into the Italian’s mindset as he picked a very strong team for such a decisive match. However, there was no place for David Luiz or for John Obi Mikel, two players who have performed exceptionally well of late, nor was Branislav Ivanovic risked after a muscle injury sustained at Manchester City on Wednesday.
The trio are all likely to play in Lisbon, with Fernando Torres also likely to return ahead of Didier Drogba.
Should the game not go to plan and leave Chelsea requiring another second-leg turnaround, look for Di Matteo to rotate his squad for the league matches against Aston Villa and Wigan either side of it. The Wigan game in particular should see opportunities for the likes of Salomon Kalou, Raul Meireles and maybe even the likes of Oriol Romeu and Romelu Lukaku as the first of two games in three days during the Easter Weekend.
Successful progress past Benfica will leave the Blues facing a potential four games in eleven days against Tottenham or Bolton, Barcelona or Milan and then a trip to the Emirates Stadium to face Arsenal before jetting back off to Europe for the second away leg of a European Semi-Final.
How Di Matteo rotates his squad for these four fixtures will undoubtedly reveal the club’s aims. Will key players be rested in the cup and in the league to allow for a full-on assault on the Champions League or will a balanced approach be taken in the (probably ill-advised) belief that the club can still fight on all fronts?
Failure on all fronts will leave a spartan May fixture list away to Liverpool and at home to Blackburn when the best anyone can hope for would be to see some of the younger generation given minutes in meaningless fixtures. This being Chelsea, of course, makes that a fairly unlikely proposition in the first place.
Those eleven days will make or break this season and shape the future for the club. Potential new managers will be enamoured with a place at Europe’s top table and not the Europa League, but the reality is that they may well have to settle for second best.