Chelsea’s chances of qualifying for next season’s UEFA Champions League look to be dwindling by the minute.
Their latest Premier League outing, a 6-0 embarrassment caused by defending champions Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium dropped them down to sixth, below Manchester United and Arsenal, the two sides that seem to be Chelsea’s main competitors for fourth place in the table.
Whilst the Blues remain just a point behind fourth-placed United, their stuttering form has not shown any signs of easing anytime soon and their final 12 league games include tricky away matches at Old Trafford and Anfield, as well as the prospect of an all-London affair with Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge.
Outside of the league, Chelsea’s schedule is an incredibly hectic one. As well as facing the side that trounced them in their last match, City, in the Carabao Cup final in 10 days’ time, their next domestic match sees them face Pep Guardiola’s side’s city rivals, United in the fifth round of the FA Cup.
But tonight could see embark on a more realistic, yet difficult, path to next season’s Champions League group stages. Tonight, they face a trip to Sweden in their first leg tie with Malmo in the Europa League’s round of 32.
Here are five reasons why Chelsea should make winning the Europa League a must-win objective of theirs this season.
A guaranteed place in the Champions League
In short, winning the Europa League will guarantee a spot in next season’s Champions League, regardless of how the final 12 matches of Chelsea’s league campaign pans out.
Of course, fans will certainly ask even more questions of Maurizio Sarri than they already are if he debates prioritising the Europa League, but there just may be a reasonable amount of logic to doing so.
Whilst winning the FA Cup or the Carabao Cup is a fantastic achievement, ultimately, its rewards are no greater than a piece of silverware and a guaranteed place in the Europa League, but because one of Manchester City or Chelsea are going to win the Carabao Cup, either Chelsea will have sealed a place in next season’s Europa League or, if City win, the side that finishes sixth, which may well be Chelsea, will take the Carabao Cup’s designate Europa League spot.
Therefore, Chelsea have essentially already got a place in next season’s Europa League sealed, unless they throw away an 11-point advantage over Wolverhampton Wanderers in the final months of the season, a scenario that seems ridiculously unrealistic.
It’s a trophy – a good trophy too
I, for one, would genuinely rather see Chelsea finish fifth or sixth in the Premier League and win the Europa League to get into the Champions League, rather than just finishing fourth.
Winning the Europa League a fantastic achievement for any club, although you’d possibly argue that a few clubs, such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern Munich, this may not be seen as such a prestigious accomplishment.
Nevertheless, when Chelsea won this competition in 2013, it may have seemed like a slight step backwards having won the Champions League 12 months earlier. Yet, in hindsight, it was still a fantastic moment in the club’s recent history.
Winning the FA Cup and the Carabao Cup are both great, but for a club like Chelsea, given their accomplishments since Roman Abramovich took ownership of the club in 2003, they should be aiming to win the higher-profile competitions and whilst in their current situation, the one they should be prioritising out of the three cup competitions they are in is the Europa League, due to its rewards.
The pulling power for big players
The club’s star man, Eden Hazard and conveniently, the same man who has scored the most goals for the club since Diego Costa’s departure to Atlético Madrid has been consistently linked with a move to Atlético’s city rivals Real Madrid, for the majority of the past couple of seasons; Chelsea’s stuttering form hasn’t eased the ever-present speculation.
Chelsea must be thinking that ‘if we miss out on qualification, it will be incredibly difficult to keep Hazard, especially with his contract running out in less than 18 months’ time’; Champions League qualification is essential for the Blues.
It’s not just Hazard whose future lays in doubt. David Luiz and Olivier Giroud are two first-team regulars whose contracts expire at the end of the season. You could hardly blame them for wanting to let them run down if there is no Champions League football to look forward to.
The wide quartet of Hazard, Pedro, Willian and academy prospect Callum Hudson-Odoi all have contracts which expire at the end of the 2019/20 campaign, leaving the Blues with just one guaranteed winger for the long-term, Christian Pulisic and he hasn’t even kicked a ball in a Blue shirt yet.
It’s not just the players that they currently have where this is an issue, as their recruitment could be limited based on players not wanting to sign for clubs that haven’t qualified for the Champions League. In the summer, Leandro Paredes, a man heavily linked to signing for Chelsea from Zenit St Petersburg opted to instead join French giants Paris Saint Germain, who continued to prove their worth with a 2-0 win at Old Trafford over United on Tuesday evening and based off that performance alone, you can see why.
A chance to prove themselves amongst some big teams
Whilst the Europa League is seen as an incredible competition by some and a knock-off Champions League by others, the sides left in this season’s competition alone prove just how high the calibre of competing teams are in this competition.
The likes of Inter Milan, Napoli, Bayer Leverkusen, Arsenal, Valencia, Lazio, Sevilla, Sporting and Benfica are all still left in the competition among a number of other top-quality teams.
It shows that winning the Europa League is never an easy task and it is one that sees teams have to conquer a few world-class sides on their path to success.
You look at those names alone and think ‘they are all Champions League clubs’ and just because they aren’t in Europe’s top club competition this season, it doesn’t mean that they should be taken lightly.
Whilst Malmo is a favourable tie for the Blues in this competition, their matches in Group I saw them lose just once in six games and do the double over Turkish side Besiktas, who they consequently finished second ahead of to reach the knockout rounds.
If the Blues do beat Malmo, there is certainly no guarantee that they will avoid the higher-ranked sides in the latter stages and in order to be the best, you still have to beat the best.
Potentially an easier path than the top four
Having said that, whilst there are some top teams in the Europa League’s knockout rounds, on paper, there aren’t many teams that Chelsea should feel threatened by.
In UEFA’s club coefficient rankings, where Chelsea currently sit in 18th position, only Sevilla (eighth), Arsenal (10th), Shakhtar Donetsk (13th), Napoli (16th) and Zenit (17th) currently sit above them and this season alone, they have already beaten Arsenal in the Premier League, meaning that they can beat the better sides left in this competition.
From the same rankings, Thursday’s opponents Malmo are ranked 72nd, two places below Leicester City, whose 2016/17 escapade in the Champions League was their only outing in European club competitions in the past 18 seasons.
Meanwhile, 26 of the other 31 sides left in the competition are ranked below the Blues, half of which are ranked outside of Europe’s top 50 clubs, including the likes of Inter Milan (55th), Valencia (60th) and Galatasaray (71st).
It shows that unless either Chelsea crash out to Malmo, or, should they progress and receive an unlucky draw in the next round, they are almost certain to be drawn against a lower-ranked side in at least the next round, if not, much of their fate in this season’s Europa League could be decided against lower-ranked sides.
Compared to the Premier League, where their two main rivals to finish above them Arsenal and Manchester United (15th) are both ranked above them, both of which will provide tougher challenges for the Blues to overcome.