Roberto di Matteo's reign has been characterised by a very strange trend. Despite claims that the goal was a top four finish, Chelsea's focus has clearly shifted away from league results and towards cup competitions, to the point that we're now throwing out sides that could easily be described as practical jokes in matches that in previous years we'd have taken very seriously indeed. Back in early March, when a top four finish looked difficult but not impossible, here are the five games I'd have seen as most critical to our run in:
- Manchester City (A)
- Tottenham Hotspur (H)
- Arsenal (A)
- Newcastle United (H)
- Liverpool (A)
I'd have eyeballed it at ten points required to be assured of 'safely' reaching the top four and a guaranteed spot in the Champions League playoffs this summer. Instead, we got two, and the closest we've come to doing any damage at all was in the first game of that set, where City were given a bit of a fright by Gary Cahill's second-half goal.
It's not that we can't beat those teams with our current squad - Chelsea have recorded victories over everyone in that list save Arsenal this season. They just haven't really tried very hard to do so in the league of late, with the bizarre 4-1 defeat at Anfield the most obvious (but least meaningful) example. The Blues had a chance at the top four, and they blew it, probably starting with the 0-0 draw against Spurs.
In addition to the five key league games, we've had seven massive games in the Champions League and FA Cup. And we've won all of them, save for a 2-2 draw against Barcelona at the Camp Nou which we played most of with ten men and no centre backs, which is as close to a win as makes no difference anyway. Chelsea's cup form is markedly different to their league displays, and the team selection is too.
When the Blues play an important cup match, their team looks as close to this as possible given injuries and suspensions:
Chelsea starting lineup (4-2-3-1): Petr Cech; Ashley Cole, John Terry, David Luiz, Branislav Ivanovic; Frank Lampard, John Obi Mikel; Salomon Kalou, Juan Mata, Ramires; Didier Drogba.
Compare that to, say, the starting lineup against Arsenal at the Emirates last month:
Chelsea starting lineup (4-2-3-1): Petr Cech; Ryan Bertrand, John Terry, Gary Cahill, Jose Bosingwa; Michael Essein, Oriol Romeu; Salomon Kalou, Florent Malouda, Daniel Sturridge; Fernando Torres.
David Luiz was out injured for this one, but he almost certainly would not have featured even if fit, and the only reason Kalou was playing against Arsenal was because di Matteo wanted a 4-5-1 for Chelsea's trip to the Camp Nou.
The club has been essentially ignoring theoretically important league fixtures for the Champions League and the FA Cup. They've already won one and are finalists in the other after some absolutely magnificent performances in the cup competitions, so there's very little doubt that they've done what they wanted to do so far. The big question is whether Chelsea were right to punt the league under Roberto di Matteo, especially since the top four is so important for Champions League qualification next summer.
The idea that we could effectively challenge on all fronts strikes me as silly. Our second-choice team is clearly not up to the challenge of, say, beating Newcastle United at home, and we've had several big injuries even when putting all of our eggs in the cup basket. So that leaves us with a different question - were Chelsea right to push for the FA Cup and the Champions League, or should they have focused on the table instead?
It's impossible to know what would have happened if the priorities were the other way around, of course, but I would suggest that it's fairly likely that we'd be in good shape to finish in the top four if we'd made an effort in the league - but would have failed to win the FA Cup and probably not managed to beat Napoli back in March. That's obviously a guess, because I do not have access to an alternate reality machine, but I think it's a reasonable one.
What does fourth place mean? Apart from the Champions League and a little bit of television money for next season, it doesn't mean anything at all. Fourth place in the Premier League is nowhere near the title this season. Only Manchester United and Manchester City can be anything like happy with their league form - everyone else has been pretty spectacularly poor. Finishing in fourth only matters for Champions League qualification. No Chelsea player would be happy with a top-four finish on its own merits.
What does Champions League qualification give you? Apart from the obvious, there are two major factors. The first is money - teams get a major chunk of change from participating in the group stages, and more if they get further. The second is the elusive idea of club desirability. Teams in the Champions League, the story goes, are more likely to get the best players, because they want to play in the Champions League against the best opponents.
I think that idea is... overstated, at best. Manchester City's spending revolution began a year or more before they were even qualified for the Champions League, and their relatively lowly position in Europe didn't stop them attracting the likes of Yaya Toure , Carlos Tevez or David Silva. Plenty of teams around Europe do just fine in the transfer market without being in the big boys' tournament. What players want, more than anything else, is money.
Which takes us back to the first benefit to being in the top four - the guarantee of extra money. Money is good. We all like Chelsea to have money, because until we have the academy producing star players, which does not appear to be happening anytime soon, it's what's keeping us in our place as one of the better sides in Europe. Qualifying for the Champions League next season would be a very useful thing to do.
Of course, there's more than one way to get to the Champions League*, and the club seem have found it. A win against Bayern Munich (by no means particularly likely) would see them qualify for next season's tournament as winners, which means a major windfall to add to their already major windfall from making it to the finals in the first place.
*I have written 'Champions League' about fifteen times already and I wish there was another reasonable name for it.
For, you see, if you consider qualifying for Europe's premier club competition as an exercise in money-making, and are angry Chelsea are taking the roundabout, more dangerous, route towards getting there for next year, you have to also remember just how much prize money the club has managed to swipe thanks to their run in this year's tournament.
According to the Swiss Ramble, Chelsea's guaranteed income - assuming they're runners up - from the Champions League this season is £46M, double Arsenal's earnings. Part of that is to do with league position in the 2010/11 season, but much of that is prize money. The second-round win against Napoli was worth €3.3M. Benfica? €4.2M. Barcelona? At least €5.6M. And that's not even counting the two additional home games that came as a result of the Napoli comeback.
In other words, Chelsea's run in this year's tournament has already recouped a significant fraction of what we could reasonably expect to be making next season, while giving us a chance to a) win the thing, which is rather the whole point of playing in the Champions League if you ask me and b) qualify for next year's tournament anyway.
Had we focused on the league, we'd probably have sewn up a top four position but finished trophyless, guaranteeing ourselves maybe £25M next year. Instead, we've racked up more than half of that cash in advance, won the FA Cup (the prize money there is miniscule, so I'm not including it), have given ourselves a chance to win the last major trophy we're missing and in doing so make that £25M next year regardless.
Is it a gamble? Certainly. But we've hedged our bets in such a way that I think the strategy is a supremely worthwhile one, and even if it doesn't pay off on the 19th, I'm glad we've taken this route.