Football

Cup adventure could cost Chelsea top four

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Chelsea chase a top four finish (©GettyImages)
Chelsea chase a top four finish (©GettyImages).

Chelsea and Tottenham's comfortable victories at the weekend point towards a tight race for the final two Champions League qualification spots.

One point separates Spurs, Newcastle and Chelsea with three games to go, while Arsenal enjoy a four point cushion having played a game more. The riches offered by the Champions League prove a powerful motivation against end of season lethargy, but Spurs have stumbled as they near the final hurdle.

Sunday's win over Blackburn arrested a run of one win in nine league matches, but Redknapp's side still sit best placed to secure fourth spot. Arsenal should have a qualifying spot locked up with games against Norwich and West Brom to come, which means Newcastle and Chelsea have the most to gain and almost nothing to lose with three matches to go.

The Blues are in the middle of a run few thought possible less than a month ago. Somehow, from somewhere, Fernando Torres has rediscovered his scoring touch, in the process giving his west London club the possibility of turning an unmitigated disaster of a season into one of it's most successful.

Next month's pair of finals represent a unique opportunity for Chelsea and Di Matteo, but they also highlight the idiosyncrasies of Roman Abramovich's leadership. He bought Chelsea with the goal of European domination. Mourinho delivered domestic glory, as did Ancelotti, but both got the boot for their continental failures.

Luiz Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas-Boas each arrived with impressive pedigrees but both clashed with senior players, with which there was only going to be one winner. Oddly, the two successful managers - as measured by Abramovich's yardstick - are the two least qualified.

Avram Grant and Di Matteo, each installed after their bosses got the chop, parachuted into the hot seat and conspired to lead the Blues to Abramovich's holy grail, the Champions League final.

Grant's side failed on penalties, victims of a John Terry slip, but Di Matteo's team have salvaged another chance. It seemed unlikely back in February, when Villas-Boas charges slumped to defeat in Naples, but Chelsea's players seem to rise to adversity.

The turnaround since that last-16 encounter has been remarkable, and Di Matteo deserves a tremendous amount of credit. However, with three games to go in the Premier League, victory over Bayern Munich in Germany may be Chelsea's only route back into the competition. Focus on the FA Cup and Champions League finals may led Di Matteo to rest key players in the league, potentially costing the Blues points in their run-in.

In their path also stands Alan Pardew's Newcastle. Inspired by their Senegalese frontmen and a mercurial French winger, the Magpies have climbed quietly into position to challenge for an unlikely top four finish. Their run-in may ultimately prove to be their undoing, however, with fixtures away to Chelsea and Everton, as well as at home to City still to come.

Their match against Wigan was an excellent opportunity to move three points clear of Tottenham. Instead, they remain level on points with three tough fixtures to come. Chelsea will feel confident that they can be overhauled.

That leaves Spurs, who currently occupy the final qualifying spot on goal difference. Their late-stumble threatened to cost them a top four finish, let alone third place, but victory over Blackburn and a favourable fixture list makes them favourites to seal a qualification place.

Redknapp's side travel to Bolton and Aston Villa before a final home match against Fulham. With matches against two of the bottom six and a final match against a side with nothing to play for, Spurs will surely be targeting at least seven points from a possible nine.

That tally would be enough to clinch fourth, a position Spurs arguably need more than the other two clubs. Gareth Bale and Luka Modric have spoken about the importance of Champions League football and both may feel two consecutive years without it is not acceptable.

Chelsea's stars would be more likely to stick around in the close-season, especially if it ends on a high with a trophy. Alan Pardew may have trouble keeping hold of his top players but the Toon manager has proven adept at replacing his best players with even better ones.

The race for the top four has really been a race for third and fourth. Arsenal's stellar run from their 5-2 defeat of Tottenham has seemingly secured them a spot, demonstrating how a short run of excellent form can catapult a team up the league, even if much of their season has largely been a disappointment.

Spurs' season has mirrored the north London rivals. However, Chelsea's cup adventures may sideline their quest for a top four space while Newcastle threw their chance away on Saturday.

That leaves Spurs and Harry Redknapp posed for another tilt at European football. They last qualified by piping Manchester City to the qualification post in 2010. They should have qualified more comfortably this season but find themselves scrapping once again.

Strangely for Spurs, despite leading the race for fourth, it remains out of their hands, while for Chelsea the final provides their best opportunity for qualification but also acts as a distraction during their Premier League run-in.

As such, the race for fourth is set to extend beyond the final day of the season and is likely to only be resolved in Germany on May 19.

Topics:
Tottenham Hotspur
European News
Football
Chelsea
Premier League
Newcastle United
UEFA Champions League
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