Football: Chelsea and Stuttgart caught in quandary over Uefa Cup

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CHELSEA are set to defend the Cup-Winners' Cup next season if they lift the trophy on Wednesday - despite hints that they could opt out. That means Blackburn, Leicester, West Ham, Aston Villa or Derby could sneak into Europe after all - even if they finish outside the Premiership top six.

The suggestion that Gianluca Vialli's side could take part in the Uefa Cup even if they beat VfB Stuttgart in next week's Stockholm final came after senior officials of Uefa, European football's governing body, faxed the German club. Like Chelsea, who are Coca-Cola Cup winners and likely to finish fourth in the Premiership, Stuttgart - poised to earn a top- six Bundesliga spot - will also earn a place in the Uefa Cup.

The correspondence from Uefa suggested that Stuttgart would be given the option of choosing which competition to play in, an offer which would also be made to Chelsea if they triumphed in the Rasunda Stadium. With the Uefa Cup containing an extra money-spinning round, Stuttgart's president, Gerhard Mayer-Vorfelder, had been reported to be asking Bundesliga rivals to chip in money to compensate his club for playing in the Cup-Winners' Cup instead.

Confusion reigned at Uefa's Swiss headquarters yesterday, with different officials sending divergent signals over what the regulations stated. If Chelsea do win, and defend the trophy, it would open up an extra Uefa Cup spot for the club finishing seventh in the Premiership.

Chelsea's managing director, Colin Hutchinson, said: "The evidence of everything we've heard from them is that we would be required to defend the Cup-Winners' Cup, because Uefa ranks it second only to the Champions' League in importance."