“The race for the Champions League looks set to go down to the final day”
Chelsea and Tottenham’s comfortable victories at the weekend point towards a tight race for the final two Champions League qualification spots.
Four points separate Spurs, Newcastle and Chelsea with two games to go, while Arsenal enjoys a point cushion. The riches offered by the Champions League prove a powerful motivation against end of season lethargy.
Sunday’s win over Blackburn and win over Bolton on Wednesday arrested a run of poor form, making Redknapp’s side 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 two 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.
This month’s pair of finals represents 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 two 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 as it was witnessed in the loss to Newcastle on Wednesday
Inspired by their Senegalese front men 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 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.
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 victories over Blackburn and Bolton have made their path easier.
Redknapp’s side travel to Aston Villa before a final home match against Fulham. With a final match against a side with nothing to play for, Spurs will surely be targeting at four points from a possible six.
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 revamp their chances with a win over Chelsea on Wednesday.
Spurs and Harry Redknapp 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.