Chelsea are used to entering the final quarter of the season with pressure and expectation laden upon their shoulders but this time it is of a different kind. The previous eight seasons have all seen the Blues fighting for the Premier League title and eyeing a maiden European Cup yet this time it is a top four finish and progress to the last eight of the Champions League – a mandatory requirement - that is preoccupying all those connected to the club.
Another difference to days gone by is that now there is very little margin for error. Arsenal’s run of last-gasp victories has seen them win their last four league matches after coming from behind – three of them courtesy of injury time winners – and has seen them look increasingly like favourites to secure one of the two remaining Champions League spots ahead of Tottenham and Chelsea . It is particularly galling seeing as these wins have come in fixtures in which they were fully expected to drop points. Taken in conjunction with their impressive battering of AC Milan, it could be that now Spurs are the target for Roberto Di Matteo to chase.
The Italian’s reign has begun steadily, if unspectacularly, with the 1-0 win over Stoke proving to be hard work despite Ricardo Fuller’s first half sending off for the Potters. That isn’t to say that Chelsea did not deserve it. There was only one team playing football even when both sides had ten men on the field and it was particularly encouraging to see Di Matteo’s positive attitude to having the numerical advantage by introducing Juan Mata to add more craft to proceedings; a decision that resulted in the game’s only goal thanks to a beautiful reverse pass from the Spaniard to Didier Drogba.
The inability to kill off inferior opponents was still evident but the woodwork was struck twice to suggest that a more ruthless streak is being instilled in the squad. However, one factor that has me feeling conflicted is that it was the defenders on show that looked the most likely to score. Branislav Ivanovic rapped the bar with a fiercely shot while Gary Cahill stung the fingertips of Asmir Begovic before clipping the woodwork with a header. In the second half, desperate to break the deadlock, even John Terry let fly from distance only to see his shot curl just wide of the opposition’s upright.
While it is clearly an asset to have a goal threat from less obvious areas, the inability of Salomon Kalou to contribute anything was frustrating once again; all the more so as the match provided the Ivorian with a rare start and a chance to shine under a new regime. With Daniel Sturridge having seemingly misplaced his shooting boots of late and Fernando Torres’ confidence in tatters, finding the back of the net could be the major problem that Di Matteo has to address. Thank God for Drogba.
Chelsea have ten matches left and, if we are realistic, the target should be to end the season on 72 points. That would allow us one defeat (Manchester City away), two draws (Arsenal away and Liverpool away) and wins in our remaining fixtures including Tottenham at home a week on Saturday. While some fans might see that as negative and demand wins at The Etihad Stadium, The Emirates and Anfield, personally I have ceased looking at life purely through blue-tinted spectacles and, while I still believe that a top four finish is achievable, I similarly cannot see Chelsea not slipping up in our remaining fixtures such has been the hap-hazard nature of this campaign. 23 points from a possible 30 - given the fact that we also have to travel to in-form Fulham, host high-flying Newcastle and face three teams (Wigan, QPR and Blackburn) who are all fighting for Premier League survival – is going to be a stiff challenge.
In fact, Arsenal’s unexpected resurgence and Tottenham’s relatively straightforward run-in could mean that the Blues have to win this season’s Champions League in order to qualify for next year, starting with a morale-boosting victory over Napoli on Wednesday.
No pressure, then, Roberto.