Early winners in the most literal sense, Chelsea’s injury-time clincher in the early kick-off at Rennes meant they, along with Sevilla, were able to secure qualification even earlier than Barcelona and Juventus did. That’s just how time works.
More importantly, boxing off Champions League qualification in the swiftest possible fashion – albeit via slightly more late drama than would have been ideal – allows Chelsea to really aim their focus on a crucial run of league games.
Because this could have been a nasty little spell for the Blues. They face Sevilla away next week, and if that match had qualification riding on it then it would have sat particularly uncomfortably between massive Premier League games against Spurs and Leeds. With Everton to follow the weekend after a closing Champions League clash with Krasnodar, and then a midweek league trip to Wolves, it all had the potential to look a bit tricky.
Now it’s far more straightforward. Chelsea against Spurs is always huge even when it isn’t third plays first, but I always think you’re going to have to play somebody on the back of a European week and therefore it might as well be someone else who has that added burden. As it is, Spurs being in the Europa gives Chelsea a two-day headstart on the prep for that one.
Chelsea are in fine fettle right now, but the nagging doubt remains that they have yet to truly beat anyone of note this season. Even in the Champions League they drew with Sevilla and have beaten the also-rans. They have yet to beat a team currently in the top half of the Premier League having lost to Liverpool and drawn with Manchester United and Southampton. They went out of the Carabao on penalties to Spurs.
Clearly, that is something that will need to change if Chelsea are to maintain any kind of title challenge, and it’s something that absolutely should now they can focus firmly on it. Frank Lampard’s team also face West Ham, Arsenal, Villa and City before the first weekend of January is out.
It’s a run of games that will tell us much about where exactly Lampard’s promising yet still a touch unproven side truly are, and dealing with the nuts and bolts of Champions League qualification with minimal fuss gives them the best shot of providing a positive answer.