Chelseas late season surge creates unlikely late drama in the race for top four

Chelsea are now two points away from a top-four spot as Liverpool and Tottenham continue to stumble toward the Premier League finish line.
English Premier League: Olivier Giroud (32′) Chelsea 1-0 Liverpool

LONDON — So we have a race for the final Premier League top-four spot after all, but it really should not have come to this.

When Chelsea suffered a 3-1 defeat at home to Tottenham on April 1, Antonio Conte’s team found themselves eight points adrift of the top four with just seven games to play.

If Spurs were too far ahead to catch, then Liverpool, in third, were as good as over the horizon with their 10-point lead over Chelsea seemingly enough to banish any prospect of them slipping out of the top four during the final weeks of the season.

But after Olivier Giroud’s first-half header delivered a 1-0 win against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge, the scramble for fourth during this final week of the campaign was triggered, with Conte admitting that he thought a top-four finish was “impossible” after the Spurs defeat.

“As you know very well, one month ago I think it was impossible to make it and fight for the Champions League,” Conte said. “But now there is hope because we are getting three points in every game and our rivals are dropping points.

“Our future is not in our hands, but we have to try to win the points and put the pressure on the teams ahead of us and we are doing that.”

Chelsea have come from nowhere to give themselves a chance of sneaking into the top four on the final day of the season.

Tottenham also have done their bit, losing two and drawing one of their five league games since that triumph at Stamford Bridge — a victory that appeared to be a seminal moment considering it was the first time they had collected three points away to Chelsea since 1990.

Meanwhile, having blown away Manchester City and Roma to reach the Champions League final against Real Madrid later this month, Liverpool’s domestic slump has gone somewhat unnoticed, but Klopp’s team have won just one of their past five league games.

Against Chelsea, they failed to score for a second successive league game for the first time since August 2015, so as they enter the final straight, there can be no guarantees of the victory they need against Brighton at Anfield next Sunday to be certain of a top-four finish.

If they beat Real in Kiev on May 26 to win a sixth European Cup, they will not need to worry about finishing in the top four, but it would be a high-risk strategy to put all of their Champions League eggs in that particular basket.

Chelsea improbably have climbed their way back into the top-four picture.
Chelsea’s win over Liverpool gives them a chance to pull level with the Reds with a win vs. Huddersfield.

But if Chelsea defeat relegation-threatened Huddersfield at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, they will move level with Liverpool ahead of their trip to Newcastle on the final day of the season.

“Chelsea need to win too, don’t they?” Klopp said, when asked whether he was concerned about Liverpool’s task. “We need to win at home to Brighton, they need to win at Newcastle. That’s not a holiday trip — I certainly don’t think it is a holiday trip.

“What did I want today when I woke up? 3-0 win, enjoy the sun, then forget about Brighton and prepare for the final. Did I think it would happen? Not sure.

“But that’s my life. Always the last game. I saw Brighton against United on Friday and it didn’t look like an easy game, but this is football and if you want guarantees, you really need to do something else.”

The landscape will look even healthier for Chelsea if Spurs slip up against Newcastle at Wembley in midweek ahead of their season finale at home to Leicester next Sunday.

But while Chelsea are the outsiders, they are also the form horse in the race.

Tottenham look to have hit the wall, with back-to-back Wembley defeats against Manchester City and Man United — one in the league, the other in the FA Cup — knocking Mauricio Pochettino’s team completely off their stride.

Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at West Bromwich Albion should be as much of a concern to Pochettino as Harry Kane’s recent loss of form.

Spurs have a track record for stumbling over the line in the closing weeks of a season and they are doing so again.

But they have two home games and four points would be good enough due to their superior goal difference — plus-six over Chelsea at present.

Liverpool also have a home game in which to complete their business and confirm a top-four finish, but their last home game was a 0-0 draw against now-relegated Stoke City, so they will be wary of Brighton, especially if their players, quite naturally, have one eye on the Champions League final 13 days later.

For Chelsea, though, the objective is clear and uncomplicated.

They simply need to win two games and hope for a slip elsewhere.

If nothing else, they are forcing Liverpool and Spurs to earn their place in next season’s Champions League.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_