Chelsea boss Rafa Benitez risked the fury of the fans with a strange team selection against Southampton. Despite missing two key players in Gary Cahill and Juan Mata through injury and illness respectively, Benitez left out many other first-team regulars in a match that most people predicted to be an easy victory for Chelsea.
Apart from Cahill and Mata, Benitez left Ashley Cole, David Luiz, Ramires, Eden Hazard and Demba Ba out of the starting line-up. And while he may argue that he was resting players with the Manchester United game in mind, his decision to make wholesale changes backfired, with Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham all emerging victorious.
Finishing in the top four is far from a certainty for the Blues, especially with their exhausting fixture pileup, but Benitez seems to favour winning a trophy over Champions League qualification, which is where he is going wrong.
Of course it would be great for Chelsea to win a trophy after a turbulent season, but winning one at the cost of qualifying for Europe's premier cup competition would be a big blow to Chelsea for next season for two reasons.
The financial implications
Winning the FA Cup or the Europa League does involve prize money of course, but nothing compared to what the Champions League qualification offers. The total prize money Chelsea would get from winning the FA Cup is £1.8 million and for the Europa League, around £8.5 million. On the other hand, mere qualification for the Champions League group stage fetches over £7 million.
On top of that, money earned from subsequent rounds and Champions League TV rights would be significantly more than that from the Europa League. With Financial Fair Play coming in, the revenue earned by clubs is becoming more and more important, especially for a club like Chelsea, who spend big and will surely be in the market for a big-name striker in the summer.
Attracting a top manager
Rumours about Jose Mourinho returning to the Bridge next season have been flying around for a while. But what is the likelihood that he would return to a Europa League team? Quite small. Having already won the Champions League twice, with Inter Milan and Porto, Mourinho is bidding to become the first manager to win the competition with three different teams. With an ego like his, a second-tier competition like the Europa League would hold little appeal, and he may decide his considerable talents would be better applied elsewhere. The same can be said of any top-quality manager. But should Chelsea secure a Champions league spot, don't be surprised to see the fans get their wish of having Jose back at SW6.
Add to these, fulfilling Chelsea's need to hold onto star players while having the ability to attract new ones, while also satisfying their fans is a must. Hence Rafael Benitez must prioritise a top four finish over everything else this season.
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