Chelsea's 4-2 win at Aston Villa on Saturday was very encouraging but its importance has been made all the more evident when set against the results of the rest of the teams chasing Champions League spots.
Tottenham's win against Swansea cemented their five point lead over the Blues while Newcastle's victory over hapless Liverpool ensured they remain hot on our heels. The reverse that Arsenal suffered at the hands of QPR means that they are now looking over their shoulder once again despite previously winning 6 on the bounce. In fact, now it seems that Chelsea's trip to the Emirates Stadium on 21st April could have added significance should the same pace be maintained by the four interested parties.
While events at Villa Park spoke of a new stoicism within the team - having recovered from the loss of a two-goal lead to power on and win the game again – the need for those types of showings to continue every week is imperative as the need for a top-four finish cannot be emphasised enough.
There can be no doubting that Chelsea are going through a transitional phase with some players lacking the fizz of previous years and the need to bring in fresh blood being abundantly clear. Creativity, width and pace in midfield and attack – as well as a right back – will be sought in the summer with eyes cast covetously over the likes of Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Eden Hazard and Luka Modric amongst others. But would they be happy to join a club not involved at the top table of European football? The calibre of player needed to regenerate the playing staff to the level to which we have become accustomed in the past decade is unlikely to sign a contract at Stamford Bridge if also offered a role at another club playing in next year’s Champions League.
One mitigating factor could be the kind of astronomical wages that Chelsea can provide, a policy proven by Manchester City’s recruitment of Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, David Silva et al even though the Europa League has been the pinnacle of their continental aspirations. However, with the implementation of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations (FFP) – that restrict clubs to making a total loss of €45m over the next three seasons – the likelihood of bumper pay deals being offered is low without the economic advantages of the Champions League at Chelsea’s disposal. The same goes for the huge transfer fees that would be needed to sign the players mentioned above. Champions League qualification can be worth up to £70m and those figures can prompt big purchases. Without that windfall, meeting FFP rules and recruiting top quality players will be a very tough task.
Of course, Roman Abramovich could stick two fingers up at the rules and spend whatever he likes. Should European aristocrats such as Real Madrid, AC Milan or Barcelona follow suit then Chelsea could get away with it as there would be little appetite in the corridors of UEFA to exclude the main attractions from their money-spinning flagship tournament with sponsors interests and the value of television rights of paramount concern. But it would be a very bold move and could backfire spectacularly if Michel Platini takes a hard line on offending clubs.
As with everything in the modern game, another implication of not finishing in the top four of the Premier League is also concerned with money. Chelsea’s modest stadium capacity of around 42,000 earned the club £67.2m in matchday revenues in 2010, the most recent financial results currently available. Sounds good but when you compare it to Arsenal (£93.9m) and Manchester United (£101.8m) then it is clear that the Blues lag behind significantly. Without Champions League football the gap will widen and with Tottenham likely to compete in our absence should we fail to make it, they will have an added boost next season ahead of the building of a new stadium that will hold a reported 56,000 spectators. It is obvious that Chelsea will either have to redevelop Stamford Bridge or seek a new home to keep up with their rivals but in the meantime the gold reserves of European football have to be mined.
The implications of failing to finish the campaign in the top four are clear and that is why nothing less than full throttle must be expected from the players in the remaining fixtures. Though, perhaps I am just being pessimistic. After all, you never know, we could yet qualify by winning the thing this season. And that would have the added bonus of denying the fourth placed team a place in the competition which could well be Tottenham.
Now wouldn’t that be sweet.
You can read more of Phil's opinions at ShoutyAndSpitty.com