In the run up to last weekend, Rafael Benitez stated that a Champions League place was Chelsea’s priority. He said so again after Monday’s FA Cup victory over Manchester United. But what if it isn’t his priority? His Saturday and Monday selections certainly gave pause for thought – and an annoyed Ray Wilkins, for one, seemed suspicious when interviewed on Talksport that perhaps the Spaniard is taking liberties with Chelsea’s season.
On the surface, the idea would seem daft. But then should Benitez manage to steer his interim players to qualification, he will not be there to experience that competition next season. And should he fail, well he’s not going to be there anyway.
On the other hand, should Chelsea win the FA Cup and the Europa League, he will experience both and add two actual trophies to his CV – and not the virtual “top four” trophies Arsene Wenger has filled the Arsenal trophy cabinet with these last eight years. The logic and importance of Champions League qualification is clear – but no club lists its top four finishes amongst its honours, not even Arsenal.
The general view is that Chelsea should be able to win silverware and qualify. But perhaps two trophies and qualification, given the prolonged run of fixtures required on top of an already heavy workload, would stretch their squad to breaking point? Last season, the Pensioners won the FA Cup and the Champions League in thrilling fashion – but at the expense of their league campaign. You sense something has got to give this season.
There’s no doubt this Chelsea side has serious quality – but their levels of consistency and durability are not quite so clear cut. By pushing for all three prizes, is Benitez putting all three at risk? It’ll certainly be a very close run thing. Benitez and the Chelsea coaching staff will know better than anyone the fitness levels of the players, but having already played considerably more games than anyone else this season and having to do even more if they are to achieve their three goals, there must be a temptation to do a Martin O’Neill in the biggest drain of them all – the Europa League.
Four years ago, in February 2009, Villa travelled to Moscow level at one apiece with CSKA Moscow in a last 32 tie of the competition. O’Neill more or less threw the game by fielding a weakened side, explaining that he wanted to focus the club’s efforts on a top four finish. Benitez has a much better squad – but with a trip to Moscow in the offing next week, there must be concern that this competition puts all else at risk.
To win the Europa League, Chelsesa will need to come through five more games. To win the FA Cup, they need only win two more. Logic would seem to dictate that a focus on the former, plus emphasis on the league, might yield the best results. But then European competition has a hold on European coaches (note AVB’s efforts in the same competition this season). Perhaps Benitez would value lifting that trophy more? Perhaps prospective employers might value it more also?
Time will tell – and Chelsea’s line up in the next two home games, this Thursday against Rubin Kazan and on Sunday against Sunderland, will give us more clues as to the Spaniard’s priorities. In a way, given his nightmarish time at Stamford Bridge, it’d hardly be surprising if he were to put his own wishes ahead of those of the club and its supporters. And that would be deliciously funny parting shot in a way; the first manager to win two major trophies in a season and be thoroughly despised for it.