Chelsea braced for nerve-wracking climax

Posted by Phil Lythell

Gary Cahill AssociatedGary Cahill should return to boost Chelsea's end of season drive

Seven games remain in Chelsea's Premier League campaign and there can be no doubt that both they and their rivals for Champions League qualification are entering the phase of the season that Sir Alex Ferguson so memorably termed 'squeaky bum time'.

That quote has morphed into a modern day cliché but there is no better way to describe this stage of the season, which will decide so much at the four clubs involved in the scrap for two places - with one contingent on safe passage through a qualifying round - in Europe's elite cup competition. Transfer budgets, player and manager contracts, managerial appointments and even season ticket sales will all depend on how the next six weeks pan out with fans of Arsenal, Tottenham and Everton all joining their Chelsea counterparts in biting their nails as the horizon approaches.

At present there are just six points separating each club in the table and of the four teams, Chelsea arguably have the most difficult run-in. The Blues do not face what could be thought of as a guaranteed three points in any of their remaining opponents. There are trips to local neighbours Fulham, relegation-threatened Aston Villa, perennial rivals Liverpool and champions-elect Manchester United as well as home six-pointers with both Tottenham and Everton. Only the home fixture with Swansea - a team with absolutely nothing to play for - could possibly be pencilled in as a win for the Blues.

That is not to say that Chelsea will not do well in those other games as United should have the title wrapped up by the time of that meeting and let's not forget that eight were netted in the Christmas meeting with Villa when the score could have been well into double figures. But whatever way you look at it, it is the two games against Tottenham and Everton that command the attention. Win both of those and hopefully the rest of the matches will take care of themselves.

Those two opponents themselves face stern opposition in some of their remaining games with Manchester City next up for Spurs and the Toffees having to travel to the Emirates and Anfield as well as Stamford Bridge. Arsenal are the ones sitting pretty with their two toughest tests - Man United and Everton - both taking place on their own patch.

But fixture lists alone will not decide who makes the Champions league grade, the condition of the playing squads will have just as much bearing. Arsenal are still sweating on the fitness of Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott, who are both due back from injury. However, the Gunners' notoriously poor medical record means that nothing can be taken for granted. Abou Diaby is out for the season.

Tottenham are currently without their star man Gareth Bale although Andre Villas-Boas has promised that he will be back sooner rather than later. That could come to pass, though there is no guarantee that he will instantly return to his explosive best and rushing him back too quickly could undermine his effectiveness. Aaron Lennon and William Gallas are other short-term absentees as is Jermain Defoe. Should they all be out for longer than expected, it could spell the end of Tottenham's challenge.

Chelsea are unable to call on either Gary Cahill or Ashley Cole at present, though neither of them should be out for too long. The main concern for the Blues is the sheer weight of fixtures that they have to contend with, exacerbated by their continued presence in the FA Cup and Europa League. By contrast, Everton have little in the way of injuries or congestion to worry about and their clean bill of health could give them a timely fillip.

Ultimately it will come down to finding a way to secure results and on that measure Chelsea are not faring too badly. Arsenal are top of the mini-form-league having won six of their last seven Premier League outings to sit two points behind Rafael Benitez's team, despite having fallen 10 points behind them after their January defeat at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea's aberration at Southampton is the only blemish on their record since Manchester City swatted them aside in February and the ability to grind out results will be vital to any success. Everton have also been getting the job done and even managed to secure the notable scalp of champions Manchester City in a comfortable 2-0 win at Goodison Park.

At the other end of the scale, Tottenham have faltered since they beat Arsenal at the beginning of last month and could be four points behind their North London rivals, and five behind Chelsea, by the time they next take the field.

Which, if any, of these intangible elements will have the most impact on the final standings remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain, it will not be an easy ride for Chelsea or their rivals.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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