It was the greatest night in the history of Chelsea Football Club. Not for the first time during their Champions League run in 2011/12, the odds were stacked against the west Londoners heading into the final on 19 May: not only did they have to face a formidable Bayern Munich team stacked full of world-class players, they had to do so at their opponents’ own stadium, the Allianz Arena. Yet the Blues once again dug deep and found a way to win, becoming the first team from London to claim the continent’s biggest prize.
By almost any measure, Maurizio Sarri has done a good job in his first season as Chelsea manager. A scoreless stalemate at Leicester City on Sunday, together with Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-2 draw with Everton, secured a third-place finish in the Premier League. The Blues also reached the final of the EFL Cup, which they were a little unfortunate to lose to Manchester City on penalties, and are one game away from winning a European trophy for the fifth time in the club’s history. All things considered, it has been far from a bad campaign.
The anticipated sprint to the finish line became a crawl. At times in recent weeks it has appeared as if no one beyond Manchester City and Liverpool wants to play Champions League football next season, but the two final qualification spots have been decided ahead of the final day. Almost in spite of themselves, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur will be representing English football in Europe’s principal club competition in 2018/19.
Arsenal may yet join them if they emerge triumphant from their Europa League campaign, but their domestic collapse suggests that they could easily throw it all away on the continent too. After their 2-0 victory over Newcastle United at the start of April, Unai Emery’s side moved into third spot and two points clear of Manchester United in fifth. Their run-in looked by far the most straightforward on paper, with no big-six opposition left to play. A Champions League spot was the Gunners’ to lose.
And lose it they did, with a dismal run of results which brings into question whether Unai Emery really is the right man to life Arsenal back into contention at the top of the Premier League tree. That aforementioned success against Newcastle was followed by a 1-0 loss to Everton; although the north Londoners bounced back to narrowly beat 10-man Watford by a goal to nil a week later, they then proceeded to lose consecutive matches against Crystal Palace, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester City. Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Brighton and Hove Albion, opponents who had nothing to play for after Cardiff City’s prior defeat by Palace secured their survival, was the final nail in the coffin for their top-four chances given Tottenham’s vastly superior goal difference.
United are not quite as guilty as Arsenal of throwing away a position of strength, but they too failed to capitalise after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had hauled them back into contention. Defeats by Arsenal, Wolves, Everton and Manchester City proved costly for the Red Devils, with the 1-1 draw with Huddersfield Town at the weekend another example of the major surgery that needs to be done at Old Trafford ahead of next term.
In truth, it was down to their rivals’ failings as much as their own successes that Chelsea and Spurs squeezed over the line to secure a place in the Champions League for 2019/20. Maurizio Sarri’s side were convincing in Sunday’s 3-0 dismissal of Watford, but that was their first win in four top-flight assignments. The ex-Napoli head coach has done a good job at Stamford Bridge this term given the circumstances, but even in that triumph over the Hornets there was unrest on the terraces. On the face of it, it would be harsh to dismiss the Italian this summer – even more so if he lifts the Europa League trophy later this month – but it is equally difficult to envisage this becoming a long-term relationship given the level of antipathy towards him from those who follow the club.
Tottenham, meanwhile, can thank a combination of their form in the first half of the campaign and the end-of-season incompetency of others for their top-four finish, which is guaranteed barring a final-day folding of epic proportions at home to Everton. At the turn of the year Mauricio Pochettino’s men were still being spoken of as title contenders; that now seems like a distant memory, with Saturday’s 1-0 defeat by Bournemouth – albeit in difficult circumstances following the harsh dismissal of Son Heung-min in the first half – making it just one win in four in the Premier League. Even that victory was not the most convincing, with an 88th-minute Christian Eriksen strike required to get past relegation battlers Brighton and Hove Albion at home.
There is a comprehensible argument that the unprecedented performance of the top two has skewed perceptions this season; that is to say, Liverpool and Manchester City’s consistent excellence is raising our expectations for those four teams below them. Nevertheless, the collective collapse at the business end of the campaign points to the need for improvement at Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United this summer; even at this early stage, it is hard to envisage any member of that quartet getting close to Liverpool and City next term. The crawl to the finish line in the ‘battle’ for the Champions League places is sufficient evidence for that.
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In the end, it was a good result for Chelsea. A 1-1 draw against Manchester United keeps the Blues three points ahead of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side in sixth spot, while they also hold a two-point advantage over Arsenal in fifth.
With two games left to play, Chelsea know that their Champions League fate is in their own hands. Victories over Watford on Sunday and Leicester City on the final day of the campaign would guarantee a top-four finish, and a return of four points from those two encounters could also be enough given their superior goal difference.
Ahead of Sunday’s showdown at Old Trafford, we pick out half a dozen memorable league matches between the two teams in the last few decades.
Chelsea 2-3 Manchester United, 1994
A thrilling game at Stamford Bridge brought United an important victory on Boxing Day in 1994. Chelsea were an inconsistent side under Glenn Hoddle – they went on to finish 11th – but they were certainly capable of giving top teams a bloody nose on their day. Mark Hughes broke the deadlock against his future employers, and an Eric Cantona penalty early in the second half appeared to seal the deal for United.
Neil Warnock was not happy in the slightest. The combustible Yorkshireman has never been shy in venting his anger at match officials, but even by his standards this was quite the tirade.
“”It’s difficult because I am really flat. I am so proud of my players,” the Cardiff City manager said after his side’s controversial 2-1 defeat by Chelsea on Sunday.
“To get let down by the officials… roll on VAR. We worked three weeks for this but to get let down by decisions… no major decisions went for us. They don’t realise what is at stake. If I was a Burnley or a Brighton fan, they will be absolutely loving it today.
With the March international break now over, the business end of the club campaign is upon us. Premier League clubs have just seven, eight or nine fixtures left to fulfil, while the Champions League and Europa League are both approaching their denouement. At this stage there is still everything to play for both domestically and on the continent, but a few bad results could leave a team’s ambitions in tatters.
More than most of their Premier League rivals, the next couple of months will be pivotal for Chelsea. Maurizio Sarri’s side are three points adrift of fourth-placed Arsenal in the race for the two remaining Champions League qualification spots, while they are due to take on Slavia Prague in the quarter-finals of the Europa League next month. Off the field they are also waiting to hear the outcome of their appeal against a two-window transfer ban, which was handed to the west Londoners for breaking FIFA rules regarding the signing of under-18 foreign players. There is also the small matter of Sarri’s future, not to mention the persistent rumours linking star man Eden Hazard with a big-money summer switch to Real Madrid.
One step forward, two steps back. That has been the story of Chelsea’s 2019 and the trend continued with Sunday’s 2-0 defeat by Everton, a result which leaves Maurizio Sarri’s side as outsiders in the race for the top four.
Not for the first time, Chelsea relied on a moment of magic from Eden Hazard to get them out of jail. A goal down to Wolverhampton Wanderers in second-half stoppage time on Sunday, the Belgium international stepped up to find the net with a superb strike from just outside the box. That goal prevented a second loss of the season against Nuno’s men and extended the Blues’ unbeaten run to six games.