Chelsea try to focus on FA Cup but Champions League final looms large
Wembley win will be of no consolation to owner if it's Europa League next season
Can there have been a more downbeat managerial mood on the eve of an FA Cup final than that which Roberto Di Matteo proffered deep within Stamford Bridge on Wednesday evening? But then this is a football club that is defined by another trophy; the Champions League.
There has been much talk of elephants in rooms recently, notably when Roy Hodgson was unveiled as England manager on Tuesday, and this is how Chelsea now roll. The spectre of the Champions League has become interchangeable between not winning it and not qualifying for it. It is difficult to quantify which is worse.
Roman Abramovich can surely not envisage walking away from his time in English football without having once touched the trophy that would signal his £1bn dream had become reality, but if Chelsea cannot now not find life from their battered, bruised, and on Wednesday evening's evidence, beaten, pool of players, then next season will offer only the kind of abyss to which he could not possibly have imagined existed.
Abramovich has not spent a vast fortune to idle down to the Bridge on a Thursday night to a half-full ground to face a team he may well not even have heard of, and it is with that sort of magnitude, and not the slightest guarantee of continuous employment, that Di Matteo must somehow pull a performance from the fire of a season of potential failure in Munich on 19 May at Bayern's home ground.
If he cannot do it, then the Premier League inadequacies of recent seasons seem certain to rob Chelsea of the top-four finish that had become de rigueur for the previous nine years. That sort of continued success can breed complacency and perhaps there is a more barbed nature to Arsène Wenger's repetition of the amount of times Arsenal have reached the competition under his leadership (14), and for a fraction of the outlay, with a far more luxurious style.
Bravery, experience and the DNA of a football club (plus a fair amount of woodwork against Barcelona) have carried Chelsea to the Champions League final, and somehow those factors must rise once more to see off a refreshed home side.
Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and Juan Mata were called from the bench on Wednesday evening, as the fourth place unexpectedly slipped out of Chelsea's grasp, but within were tired men, tired of playing most probably, nine times in 29 days, enough to stretch any player or manager. To galvanise for an FA Cup final tomorrow is one thing, against a Liverpool side emerging from an even more disappointing league campaign themselves, which will help, but where does it rank in importance to the power men at Chelsea compared to the other final in two weeks' time? That is where the real tears will flow, either with exhausted joy or the bitter realisation that it may never happen, and that it will certainly not for Mourinho's old guard.
As Jon Obi Mikel admitted yesterday: "The European Cup is what everyone wants, what the fans want and what we really want. But we have to make sure we win the Cup final on Saturday. We can't let that pass us by."
If they do not win at the Allianz Arena, then what next? The Champions League run to the final this season has earned them £45m, with a further £2.8m if they go on to lift the trophy. They continue to spend big, to pay off big and to pay big, but the shadow of Uefa's financial fair play is coming at a bad time for a club that is set for a staff overhaul, whether they win the competition or not.
It is to this backdrop which Di Matteo must make some sense; and he knows all too well it is a backdrop that has done for all who have gone before him.
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