Six days to shape Chelsea's season
Under their interim manager the Blues face key FA Cup and Premier League ties
The banner hanging from Chelsea's Shed End reads: "London Is Ours". Finishing as highest placed club in the capital for the past seven seasons may or may not justify the hubris but there are two particular problems with it.
Firstly, the old enemies of Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal – not to mention a pair of clubs from further north – currently sit above them in the Premier League table. Secondly, Roman Abramovich, a man for whom The World Is Not Enough could have been made, has always set his sights on conquering rather more than one city.
The Champions' League trophy has been the Chelsea owner's holy grail ever since he watched enthralled as Manchester United and Real Madrid played in it nine years ago. Each successive disappointment for him, which has included four semi-finals and one penalty shoot-out final, has at least been ameliorated by the Russian equivalent of "there's always next year".
The danger this time is that unless Chelsea can finally break their duck in Munich in May, "next year" will mean nothing more exciting than the Europa League.
"It's very important for the club to be able to play Champions' League football next year," said the stand-in manager, Roberto Di Matteo. "We've emphasised that it is crucial for us." That is why the excitement of last Wednesday's thrilling victory over Napoli and the prospect of a Wembley FA Cup semi-final by beating Leicester City today need to be subjugated to the critical importance of League games against Manchester City in three days' time and then Tottenham on Saturday.
By this time next week, Chelsea could be either top dogs in London again, lording it in third place, or stuck back in fifth.
"We've a big week ahead of us," said their captain John Terry, who was still buzzing from the Napoli triumph as he spoke and probably still is. Didier Drogba, another of the senior warriors to have shone against the Italians, sounded more downbeat in suggesting at the launch of his fund-raising Foundation for a clinic in the Ivory Coast: "We're gonna do everything we can to come back to a good spot in the table. For Chelsea it doesn't look good to be out of the three first places but that's football and we have to accept it. We're gonna fight because we want to be in the top three.
"They are big games and that's why we're all playing football, because we want to live this moment, so it's very exciting. The FA Cup is an important competition for the club and for me as well. We managed to qualify at Birmingham so now we have to try to win this game and do everything to be at Wembley."
Unlike some of his fellow imports, Drogba quickly assimilated what the FA Cup means here, and his scoring record in it bears comparison with anyone's: winning goals in finals against Manchester United (2007) and Portsmouth (2011) and an equaliser against Everton (2009) after Louis Saha had broken Di Matteo's record for the fastest goal. So the "interim head coach", as he is styled at the club, is equally well versed in the competition and expects none of the complacency this afternoon against Championship opposition that almost allowed Birmingham City a giant-killing four weeks ago.
Di Matteo is benefiting from the initial bounce that normally accompanies the sacking of a manager (see chart above). By definition in these instances, things had been going badly for the previous incumbent; players start trying a little harder for the new man, whether they have been in the team or (especially) out of it; the trick for Di Matteo is to keep the current run going longer than another caretaker, Terry Connor at Wolves, who lifted the team for only one match after Mick McCarthy departed and desperately needs to do so again against Manchester United today.
Andre Villas-Boas was the spectre at Wednesday night's Stamford Bridge feast, not forgotten by Chelsea's captain. "Things have changed for the better for us, but that's no disrespect to Andre," Terry said. "I think credit has to go for what he started here. He had a vision and a plan and unfortunately that gets cut short with disappointing performances from us.
"At the end of the day we're the ones out there performing and we weren't performing as well as we could do. Unfortunately, the club made a tough decision, but the players don't forget what he started at this football club and Robbie's continued that with Eddie [Newton] as well. I'm still in contact with him [Villas-Boas], like a lot of players here and probably will remain that way. On nights like [Wednesday] you don't forget things like that."
Being drawn against Benfica with the winners to take on either Barcelona or Milan was a mixed blessing for Chelsea, Terry admitting, "I think Barça stand out obviously from everyone. But at the moment I think teams would be sitting there and thinking, 'Chelsea have probably had a difficult season but I wouldn't fancy [playing] them'."
Leicester, losing hope of a play-off place, may be less respectful than that in chasing their own little bit of glory today and will want to catch a tired Chelsea resting on their laurels. Terry insists: "Realistically we're out of the League but we've got the FA Cup and the Champions' League. It could go down as one of the best seasons in Chelsea's history."
Chelsea v Leicester City is on ESPN today, kick-off 2.05pm. Manchester City v Chelsea is on Sky Sports 1 on Wednesday, kick-off 7.45pm. Chelsea v Tottenham is on Sky Sports 2 on Saturday, kick-off 12.45pm
How victorious Blues could deny London rivals
Arsenal or Tottenham could lose out on a Champions' League place even when finishing fourth in the Premier League, Uefa have confirmed. If Chelsea won the Champions' League and finished fifth, where they stand at the moment, they would automatically go into the group stage next season, but England would still be allowed only four entrants. The team in third place - currently Spurs - would have to play a qualifying round and the fourth-placed team would be relegated to the Europa League.
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