Thomas Tuchel made it clear. The target when he arrived at Chelsea in late January was not winning the FA Cup but qualifying for the Champions League.
Although yesterday the head coach was politely at pains to stress he did not want to sound like a “bad loser,” it does, in theory, mean that tonight’s Premier League reunion with Leicester City just three days after losing the showpiece Cup final to them at Wembley is of greater importance.
Arguably that holds true for both clubs, certainly in financial terms.
Although Leicester’s FA Cup triumph was the first in their 137-year history, dropping out of the ‘top four’ would feel like a serious blow, especially as they have been up there all season.
“It would look like I am a bad loser if I say ‘yes’,” Tuchel said when asked if the league game at Stamford Bridge was more important. “I am not a good loser but I want to be a respectful loser and I am not here to play the [Cup final] match down because of financial reasons.
“We lost a big match, it was a huge match for us, we put out the best team possible, we did not rest anybody because we had the feeling that this game tomorrow is more important.
“But, but there is a but. Do we want to play Champions League next season? Yes, this is the target when I stepped into this club. I want to be very clear – the task was, ‘Let’s try everything to be in the top four’. The task was not, ‘Let’s try everything to win the FA Cup’ because the FA Cup, as big as it is, does not bring you to Champions League football next season. It’s top four that brings us that.
“So, yes, tomorrow is another huge game but, like I said, this game was big for us. It was a final. Once you can collect silverware you try everything simply out of respect. And me and the players – be very sure about this – we think zero about how much money we earn. This is not in our heads.”
Should they lose again to Leicester, should they eventually finish behind Liverpool then Chelsea still have one more chance of being in next season’s Champions League – and that is by defeating Manchester City in the final on May 29 in Porto.
Neither Tuchel nor Chelsea would want everything resting on one game although the last time they were in the final that was the case. In 2012, when it was win or bust against Bayern Munich they won the trophy and therefore qualified for the Champions League after finishing sixth. Finishing fifth this season would feel like a significant setback having worked so hard to make up the ground that led to Frank Lampard being sacked (after winning an FA Cup tie and having lost to Leicester in the league before that). Chelsea were in ninth place, five points outside the top four. Now they are in fourth but suddenly only a point ahead of Liverpool after goalkeeper Alisson Becker’s last-gasp winning goal away to West Bromwich Albion.
Tuchel, who did not watch the game because “I was a bit superstitious”, admitted that losing at home to Arsenal last week has put his team under the greater pressure. “It was our fault that it was close again,” he said. “We left the door open and Liverpool put their foot into the door. This is what they do. They are a strong team and anyway we had a huge effort to overcome them before.”
That, along with reaching the finals of the Champions League and FA Cup, has taken some impressive endeavour from Chelsea especially in such a congested campaign.
“Suddenly you end up in a pretty busy schedule and, honestly, we also suffered mentally from it. This race for the top four, we were constantly pushing, pushing, pushing to close the gap,” Tuchel explained.
In fact, no Premier League manager has rotated more than Tuchel, who is reprising the Tinkerman role at Chelsea that Claudio Ranieiri famously enacted two decades ago. Since Tuchel’s first game there have been 74 changes to his starting XI, two more than City and five more than Arsenal.
“It felt like this was necessary because of the huge demands to play in all three competitions,” Tuchel said before adding that there is a “daily exchange between me, fitness coaches and the medical team to predict the workload around what happens”.
Tuchel is expected to make more changes against Leicester although maybe not the wholesale seven that backfired against Arsenal.
There are now just three games to go. It is not, Tuchel said, a case of “black and white”, success or failure, because other factors come into place, but he added: “These are the two decisive weeks now of the whole season.”
Brendan Rodgers has faced a very different challenge over the last 48 hours.
The Leicester manager’s squad are buoyant after their Wembley success but have had to refocus quickly ahead of tonight’s repeat fixture.
“We’ve enjoyed the moment but it’s a quick turnaround now and there’s work to be done,” he said.
Chelsea v Leicester City,
Live, Sky Sports, 8.15
Telegraph Media Group Limited