By Josh Clarke at Stamford Bridge
To say that Roberto Di Matteo abandoned the chase for Premier League fourth place with his team selection for the visit of Newcastlemay sound pretty hysterical. Yet, it is surely and strangely not too far from the truth.
With two domestic outings left and a four-point gap to bridge between themselves, Tottenham and Newcastle, it seems like the only way the Blues will be nestled amongst Europe’s elite next term is if they go for broke and beat Bayern Munich in their own backyard come May 19.
Six changes were made from the side that demolished QPR 6-1 and though Chelsea looked to have carried over excess swagger from the derby victory, any vibrancy from the home side flat-lined into a rhythmless and muted performance after just 10 minutes against Newcastle.
Florent Malouda and Daniel Sturridge may have staked their claims for a starting berth following their goals at Loftus Road but both were culpable for a mechanical and uninventive Chelsea. The latter was withdrawn at half-time.
Young full-back Ryan Bertrand may be cast in the mould of Ashley Cole yet he does not yet have his counterpart’s ability to govern his side of the pitch. Cotton wool-covered Michael Essien could have done with the minutes.
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All-in-all, it was one or two rotations too many.
It would be ridiculous to suggest that Di Matteo should never shuffle his pack yet it was clear to all that this was very much a Chelsea B team. Such a notion either belies Di Matteo’s post match assertion that he selects match-winning sides on a game-to-game basis, or points towards an underestimation of Newcastle.
After all, it would be unfair to discredit Newcastle. Their’s was as good an away performance witnessed all season at Stamford Bridge.
The Magpies defended resiliently and other than being slow to get out of the starting blocks, never looked troubled by a Chelsea side that they controlled and dispatched with two outrageous Papiss Cisse strikes.
While serving to bring Chelsea back down to earth, the loss was also a stark reminder that this is still the same squad that failed so spectacularly to serve Andre Villas-Boas, and that at the heart of Chelsea’s 2012 renaissance is a return to key, senior figures.
That is the theory covered. The practicality is that a top-four finish is now all but beyond sixth-placed Chelsea and that 2012-13 Champions League football is hanging in the balance.
With a trip to Anfield followed by the hosting of Blackburn the Blues' only remaining Premier League fixtures, the gap will not be breached if Tottenham or Newcastle win just one of their remaining games.
Of course, Chelsea have exceeded expectation on numerous and notable occasions this term but Di Matteo’s declaration that a top-four finish is within Chelsea’s means was a dutiful sound bite rather than a firm belief.
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The many necessities of securing Champions League football nowadays need not be overemphasised here but it should be stated that Di Matteo is playing a dangerous game if he willfully rested players ahead of Saturday evening’s FA Cup final against Liverpool.
A trophy in the cabinet may look nice after a season characterised by difficulties yet Blues fans will not be placated if they miss out on Champions League football next season, particularly after making this year’s final against the odds.
At least – if a top-four finish is a write-off for the Blues – Di Matteo can rest up his squad adequately for a Champions League final that has even more riding on it than usual.