There were words of defiance from Roberto di Matteo after Chelsea’s 2-0 defeat against Newcastle on Wednesday that ended his side’s chance of a top four finish, but they rung hollow.
The Italian gave no quarter in his rhetoric but he knew the game was up; that the margins of error had diminished beyond existence, that time has run out.
"It's going to be difficult now for us to get fourth spot. The season has proven difficult. We will keep pushing to the end though – we won’t give up," he opined after a defeat on a water-logged Stamford Bridge pitch which not so much dampened but doused his team’s recalibrated league ambitions.
Lost amidst the (deserved) flurry of praise heaped upon Papiss Demba Cisse for his brace of breathtaking strikes was a Chelsea side suffering from an impoverished resource of energy, sucked dry by a draining run of six exhausting games in 17 days.
Worryingly for Chelsea, Di Matteo, and the Italian’s job prospects - although that is a fast and loose use of the word ‘worryingly’ for a team with two trophies up for grabs - they face a further four games in 12 days, including an FA Cup and Champions League final.
Di Matteo shuffled his pack against Newcastle, spun the wheel and lost. Out went six players that started the 6-1 win over QPR last weekend as the former Blues midfielder rummaged deep into the murky depths of his squad in order to ward off fatigue. It didn’t work.
“We have been pushing the players very hard for the last two months and they have given everything, but in the first half we couldn't raise our tempo to where we needed,” he admitted afterwards.
It was a calculated gamble with a date at Wembley on the horizon but gamble none the less.
Now what was his qualification safety net, the Champions League final, is his only hope – Di Matteo may have to face up to lurching from saviour to the man who was in charge as Chelsea recorded their joint lowest finish in 16 years, potentially without the solace of silverware to boot if exhaustion continues to blur their senses.
One man’s anguish is another’s ecstasy, or in this case two. While Alan Pardew mouthed ‘unbelievable’ at Didier Drogba and grinned like a man who knew he’d achieved the rare feat of finding a £10 million bargain in a market apparently filled with expensive tat, Spurs boss Harry Redknapp registered his shock at a result that puts his side at the front of a queue they should have cleared a long time ago.
Spurs dip in form that developed into a chasm moved them briefly out of the top four prior to their second coming which started with last weekend’s win against Blackburn.
Such is the beauty of timing in football that their 4-1 romp against Bolton on Wednesday offered Redknapp solace that if he wants to manage a golden generation of footballers, he is better off at White Hart Lane rather than hankering for a call from his country that will now never come.
So what was once a four-horse race, then a three-horse race that went back to a four, is now a straight fight between Tottenham, Newcastle and Arsenal. Where Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham have all found themselves out of the top four, dead and buried, at some point. Even the Gunners aren't assured of a top four place yet with just a point separating them from being stopped from making their cosy annual pilgrimage to a Champions League spot.
Three are alive and kicking and one looks a cadaver. Newcastle, coming up on the rails, continue to progress unabated - and it is that delicious conundrum that makes the race for a top four spot perhaps the most engrossing aspect of an absorbing season of English football.
For months now the mad dash for Champions League qualification has been top of the agenda for as many as five clubs, with few acknowledging that the race to get over the bridge alongside both Manchester clubs before it is pulled up could be scuppered by a trap-door that opens if Chelsea emerge successful in Munich.
This has been the season in which any dated notion of a ‘traditional top four’ has been blown apart – Chelsea and Liverpool, two former members of that elite club, have both spent in excess of £100 million in the past 18 months, yet won’t even finish in the top five.
Spurs by contrast spent pittance in the summer and if anything managed to make their squad worse in January, yet they are the current occupants of one of the most sought-after positions in football.
That is not to say the title race has been a demure, sober affair, far from it. With Tottenham’s title challenge running out of steam by February and the Manchester civil war raging on after the battle of the Etihad there is plenty to hold the interest of the nation with two games remaining, but it is the ebb and flow of the top four race, and the sub-plots and dramas that demands the lion's share of attention.
Wondrously, the two worlds collide with collateral damage assured for the teams with a vested interest at the top of the table when Newcastle meet Manchester City on Sunday.
City win and the title is pretty much theirs. However with one point separating Arsenal in third and Newcastle in fifth the permutations for the rest of the top four are more nuanced.
Tottenham travel to Aston Villa, Chelsea play Liverpool again in mid-week after the pair go for broke at Wembley on Saturday while Arsenal entertain Norwich, with any manner of outcomes possible to add another twist in the tale.
If results go as expected it is Spurs who look the likely recipients of fourth, but at what stage has anything gone to plan this season?
And even if they do play out as league position suggests, Redknapp's side must watch the Champions League final at the Allianz Arena later this month, desperate to know if the goalposts they have been aiming for all year have been moved.
No silverware is at stake for any of the three clubs still in contention. Most sports make fourth place the most agonising, tear-inducing place to come home in. Football is the only one that makes it the most sought after of the lot.
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