Thomas Tuchel does not want to find himself in this position again next season. Although finishing in the top four was the minimum target when he joined Chelsea, Tuchel knows that sneaking into the Champions League on the final day will not wash with Roman Abramovich in the long run.
The demands at Chelsea are relentless. Abramovich expected a stronger campaign after spending £220m last summer and the owner did not hesitate to act when results dipped during the winter. It did not matter that Frank Lampard was a club legend. Performances were unsatisfactory and Abramovich responded ruthlessly, firing Lampard and asking Tuchel to save Chelsea’s season.
Yet Tuchel did not inherit a team geared for a title challenge. Chelsea were languishing in ninth when Tuchel arrived at the end of January and although they have risen to third before visiting Aston Villa on Sunday, they need one more win to be certain of qualifying for the Champions League.
It has been this way since Tuchel’s appointment. Chelsea have had little margin for error and could still miss out to Liverpool and Leicester. “We can read the fixture,” Tuchel said. “You don’t have to be a genius. I am very, very poor at mathematics, but I know what can happen if we lose. But listen, it is a big difference between fear and danger. Are we in fear? No. Why? Because we trust our skills.”
Tuchel is right: Chelsea should be good enough to beat Villa. They were excellent against Leicester on Tuesday, avenging their defeat by Brendan Rodgers’s side in the FA Cup final with a forceful display at Stamford Bridge, and face Manchester City in the Champions League final next Saturday. They are hardly crying out for major change, particularly with a tactician as smart as Tuchel.
Nonetheless concerns linger. Chelsea remain imprecise in attack, which is why Tuchel did not mind talking about Tottenham’s Harry Kane on Friday, and sometimes look as if they need more edge. They have lacked ruthlessness at times, particularly against weaker opponents, and the frustration for Tuchel is that he would have been in for a much more relaxing Sunday if his side had played with more intensity against an average Arsenal 10 days ago – or, indeed, had they managed to avoid losing 5-2 at home to West Brom last month.
It is why talk of a title challenge next season comes with caveats. City are far more relentless than Chelsea, who are 16 points below the champions, and Tuchel knows greater consistency is required. “The gap is too big,” he said. “We want to be in the middle of it from the first day.
“It’s next season’s target to start good and to improve in consistency because we can produce high-level performances. This is the fundamental for results. If difficulties come up, look at Liverpool. They will be absolutely delighted that they have a chance to compete in the top four. We are as well. It’s what was needed to respond to adversity. We will try to iron out these big difficulties if we can.”
Tuchel sounded ready for the immediate challenge, acknowledging that Villa could give Chelsea an uncomfortable afternoon. “Are we in danger?” he said. “Of course. If I go over the street after training I am in danger, but I will still go over the street because I will not sit here the whole day. I will go over the street because I trust myself.
“Will I drive my car today? Yes. Is there a danger of an accident? Yes. Still I will drive my car because I trust my skills. This is the difference. There is no fear because we trust ourselves and we are aware of the danger. Can I guarantee we win? No, I cannot. But we will be prepared.”
Tuchel believes that his players take the message on board. Yet the former Paris Saint-Germain manager sounded restless. Although Chelsea are capable of beating City in a one-off game, Tuchel knows that his real challenge is matching Pep Guardiola over the course of a league campaign. A final-day scrap over fourth place is not enough.