Chelsea: Top four finish or cup double?
Chelsea's tiring squad need to prioritise Champions League qualification over cup success
In the time that Roman Abramovich has been the owner the club has won the Champions League, three Premier League titles, four FA Cups and a selection of other less notable trophies.
In that period since July 2003, they have also hired and/or fired Claudio Ranieri, Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scholari, Carlo Ancelotti, Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto Di Matteo.
Chelsea are the enigma of the Premier League. They're facing a period of transition with an 'interm manager' and club legends John Terry and Frank Lampard falling out of the starting XI.
They're being pushed all the way in their pursuit of a top four finish this season by Arsenal and Tottenham. With Chelsea still in the FA Cup and Europa League, Rafael Benitez's side are facing the prospect of a cup double. However, will the club’s cup pursuit cost Chelsea a top four finish?
On Saturday they faced Southampton, losing 2-1, whilst Spurs and Arsenal both won. Benitez's side then faced Manchester United in the FA Cup just 48 hours later, winning courtesy of a Demba Ba strike. Tonight, it's Ruban Kazan in the Europa League and then Sunderland on Sunday. That is four games in nine days.
It would appear that the gruelling fixture pile-up has already led to injuries. Ray Wilkins has already accused Benitez of causing an injury to Ashley Cole. He has injured his hamstring leaving the Blues with only one recognised left-back in Ryan Bertrand.
Benitez claimed Chelsea were having a “great season” and in some respects it's difficult to argue with a manager who, for much of the season, has faced the anger and vocal condemnation of the west London club's fans.
On course for a top four finish and with a FA Cup semi-final and Europe League quarter-final on the horizon, most clubs would be more than satisfied. Not Chelsea – greatness and success is expected, the problem is this season, and arguably last season too, are seasons of transition.
Players coming in such as Oscar, Eden Hazard, Victor Moses and Cesar Azpilicueta all point to a promising future. Joining players such as Juan Mata, David Luiz and Ramires, most believe that Chelsea are trying to change the brand of football they play.
If the team is being revitalised with Didier Drogba, Alex, Salomon Kalou and Nicolas Anelka all moving on in recent times, it seems clear that a change is happening. Should this period of change lead to lower expectations?
It would appear that at Chelsea the answer is no. Already, we have seen Roberto Di Matteo win the FA Cup and the Champions League, the trophy Roman Abramovich had craved since he acquired the club, and yet after a poor run in the league and Champions League, he was relieved of his duties.
Apparently there is no time for transition. The manager tasked with guiding the club must win in all competitions at all costs. In that case, should Benitez play his strongest team in the knockout tournaments rather than the league? Perhaps Benitez is looking to enhance his CV with wins in the FA Cup and Europa League? The Spaniard is to leave the club in the summer and will no doubt be looking to get back into management quickly.
It may be a cynical viewpoint but when looking for his next managerial role, one could argue that Benitez would be more concerned with having medals and trophies behind him rather than fourth place finishes.
Right now, Chelsea need to finish in the top four. Arguably their best XI cannot handle the number of games that are pencilled in across such a short space of time. If that is the case then surely the league takes preference?
Arsenal haven’t won a trophy in eight years and they are not buying top-class players, so many Arsenal fans are disillusioned with the lack of progress in the domestic cups and the ongoing prioritisation of a top four finish. This is not the case for Chelsea – they have been successful, they are buying top level players and they will build and come again.
However, draws and losses this season to Southampton, QPR and Reading will be blamed if Chelsea finish fifth. Next season, as nice as another FA Cup and perhaps a Europa League trophy would look in the trophy cabinet, I imagine most Chelsea fans, if given the choice between one or the other for one season only, would pick Champions League qualification.
Chelsea dodged a bullet last season by finishing sixth and winning the Champions League to ensure qualification – they will not be so lucky if they finish outside the top four this season. Trips to the Camp Nou, the San Siro and the Allianz Arena are definitely more appealing than those to Rubin Kazan and Bucharest. Given that neither cup win is a given, it is even more crucial that Benitez ensures Chelsea finish third or fourth.
Chelsea have to play Spurs, Manchester United and Liverpool - if Chelsea are to continue rebuilding with players of the highest calibre and hope to attract a top-class manager when Benitez leaves, these games and league position must be the number one priority.
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