I will admit to still being slightly in a state of shock that we have qualified for the Champions League with a game to spare. I am sure I am not the only one who spotted Arsenal going 1-0 up against Brighton on Sunday and immediately lost interest thinking that is was a ‘done deal’.
Not this season of all seasons it wasn’t! Joy of joys, a third-place finish and a European final look like a real possibility as well. After the weekend’s mad results it also helps that the boss can now concentrate fully on the Europa league, putting all the efforts in that direction.
Before going to the Chelsea v Watford game I was down on the south coast for the Bournemouth v Spurs match. Once more Spurs managed to implode when the pressure got to them but it was also clear they were jaded. Before the game I noted that they had won only three in their last 10 league games, but it was more than that, they lacked a team spark in that first half.
With Champions league football for next season in the balance I was amazed at how sluggish they looked in that first 45. With a little further consideration it became apparent that just too many of their players where running on empty. They have a limited squad in terms of depth, their Champions League run has stressed them too far and in the season after a World Cup it was all just too much to overcome. They didn’t manage to, or weren’t able to, rotate their squad enough, especially the most vital players. That’s why they have only picked up 10 points from the last 33.
The reason for mentioning this is that last week before the first leg against Eintracht Frankfurt I was amazed by the reaction to Maurizio Sarri putting Eden Hazard on the bench. Clearly with such massive games coming up, surely our star man had to be used intelligently? To have him on the side lines ready to go if he was needed was a perfectly reasonable stance. Even so, when Eden did come on he still looked a little jaded but we still got a fine result. That left-hand side was seriously dangerous anyway with Willian and particularly Ruben Loftus-Cheek terrorising the opposition as the game wore on. It was the right call and a brave one to make.
Many personnel decisions by the boss have been questioned this season but it would appear in the final analysis that the decisions have worked often enough to deliver the desired result, i.e. Champions League football next season. No one gets all the tactical calls right, but we also find ourselves on the cusp of a Europa League final having frequently used players who weren’t starting each week in the League. Some of the time it has looked questionable but as Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester United have all ran out of gas it has been Chelsea who have had enough left in the tank to get over the line first.
It is hard to argue that in the longer term Maurizio has managed the squad extremely well in his first season, giving the players rest when needed but still staying competitive. Winning the title is a different thing altogether, to be brutally honest I think that would have been beyond any coach for us this season with the quality of Manchester City and Liverpool.
The biggest shame right now is that however careful we have been there have still been important casualties as we try to finish with a flourish. N’Golo Kante’s injury is hopefully only short term, but Toni Rudiger and Callum Hudson-Odoi will clearly be unavailable until next season. N’Golo is one of those many players who had a long campaign in the World Cup and he has eventually paid a price. Plenty of others did too, Harry Kane obviously suffered but so have the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Christian Eriksen, Romelu Lukaku and earlier on in the season, even Liverpool’s Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino had spells out. Chelsea, and that includes the medics as well as the manager, have managed this situation better than most of the other sides when you look at it now with the benefit of hindsight.
'I was particularly surprised this week as the games went on against Eintracht Frankfurt and Watford that our lads weirdly seemed to get stronger!'
— Pat Nevin
Considering Watford had so much more recovery time than us, I expected their initial livelier start to last longer, but Chelsea grew in stature as the goals rained in. This is encouraging with the second leg of the semi-final to come on Thursday. It is no walkover obviously but with an away goal in the bag we start with a decent advantage, but not a huge one. The position for the visitors will be the classic one where they scarcely care if they lose the first goal. They know they need to score an away goal to go through anyway, so they will be very positive to start with, if they have any sense!
The big personnel decisions continue to surround the manager; not least does he start with Olivier Giroud or Gonzalo Higuain up front? The former has been on fire in the Europa League but missed a couple of very presentable chances when he came on against Watford. Gonzalo has had a bit of grief in the press of late but scored a lovely goal against Watford and was unlucky not to get another. Personally I am not sure that decision matters too much, both are perfectly capable of leading the attack and getting us over that particular line.
Another decision will be at centre-back and although David Luiz and Andreas Christensen will probably start the next couple of games, Gary Cahill may well be called on again at some point. That will be fun after all his emotional goodbyes at the weekend. It was great for him to be given that opportunity to receive the best wishes of the fans on the day and in his turn get the opportunity to thank them for their support. He has been a huge part in the success of a glorious time in our history. Moreover he has been a credit to the club with his commitment, play and his attitude from day one. Who is to say however that there isn’t another trophy waiting for him to win for the Blues? Anyone for a late back-post header in Baku, I think that would be very fitting.
Those sorts of dreams have to be put on hold until Eintracht Frankfurt have hopefully been dealt with. If they are beaten at the Bridge and we finish the season in two finals from three and a top-four position, it will have certainly surpassed all of my expectations in the first year of the Sarri experiment.