Pat Nevin: So much still to play for

Pat Nevin looks ahead to the remaining weeks of this season and our prospects for next in his latest column…
 

There is no point trying to put a positive gloss on the weekend’s result against Spurs. Yes, Chelsea were the better side in the first half, and probably ought to have gone into the break one or even two nil up, instead of the deflating 1-1 after Eriksen’s screamer, but it matters little now. It is particularly painful because it feels as if we have gone out to the Champions League twice in a couple of weeks. First against Barcelona for this season, and now next year is a long shot after Sunday.

Trying to win our remaining seven league games and also the FA Cup must be the main target, but it looks like qualification for the Europa League is most likely now. In times gone by that would have been considered a pretty damn good season for the club, but much less so in the Roman era I think we would all agree. Just considering the dip in finances alone from the lack of Champions League football is enough to blacken the clouds above our heads even more, but it should as always be kept in context.

How many clubs would love to have had the success of Chelsea over the last few years? 99.9 per cent of them I would argue. Even the much-lauded Spurs can’t come close to boasting the silverware that has been paraded around the Bridge of late. It may be feast and famine, but it is great to have those banquets pretty regularly as most clubs do not gorge themselves on trophies that often.

What about the idea of the much derided Europa League itself? There are lots of games in store if we get there and I think most fans who enjoyed the run to the final and win in 2013 accept that there is good sport to be had in that adventure. There is of course the carrot of a Champions League place if you win it, and with the quality of the competition in the Premier League at the moment, this route cannot be ignored lightly.

Winning it is one thing, but also the experience gained by some young and some of the new players in particular could prove invaluable in the long run. Our Under-19s have done incredibly well in the UEFA Youth League, and some will definitely benefit from the massive step up that European football provides. I also enjoy the unusual places the Europa League throws up in terms of travel for the intrepid Chelsea fan. The Champions League has very similar teams in it year in, year out; so a new stadium, city or country is always fun. I write this en route to Turin to cover Juventus v Real Madrid, but if it was Genoa instead of Turin again (I love Turin even though I have been here many times for Juventus games), I would thoroughly enjoy the trip as would most fans.

I am not and never have been a competition snob and outside England the Europa League is still held in extremely high regard, but in the midst of saying that we would all obviously rather be in the big one of course.

There is another alternative and perfectly reasonable argument that undermines the case for our Europa League participation. What happened last time Chelsea weren’t involved in European football at all? That was last season and we won the league at a canter under Antonio. Tiredness never seemed to be a problem and injures were limited which helped the cause hugely but it was an unusual season. Since then Spurs, Liverpool, Manchester United and especially Manchester City have improved enormously and that has changed the landscape. You want to, and have to, challenge on as many fronts as possible.

These are all discussions that Chelsea fans can start having now but the players and the staff cannot. There is no choice but to knuckle down and do the best possible for the last seven league games in the hope that Liverpool or Spurs have a meltdown, however unlikely that is. Apart from the Europa League qualification there also other things to play for such as pride in your performance, a duty to the fans who are still paying good money to be entertained and of course future contracts in the longer term and positions in the team in the shorter term. Each of these should be hugely important to any footballer with a conscience.

The initial driver for the players should be getting themselves foremost in the manager’s thoughts for a starting berth in the FA Cup semi-final and then hopefully the final at Wembley. At the end of any career these days, the bank balances will be bulging anyway so it is the experiences, the triumphs, the great memories and the fact that you have given something lasting to your fans that will linger longest in the heart and the soul. An FA Cup final win is one that no player will ever forget, so it is still worth giving everything even in the midst of a disappointing period.

There are some players in world football who are already beginning to save themselves physically for the World Cup in Russia this summer but even that is risky. It isn’t easy to turn good form on and off like a tap, so beware of soft peddling to the summer. I hope and trust no-one at Chelsea will think that way, it would be unfair on the fans as well as the club in the widest sense.

But perspective isn’t really needed from Chelsea fans. We know that all our thoughts at this time are with Ray Wilkins and his family. A gentleman admired and loved by all in the game, he is where all our thoughts really are just now.