Only Chelsea FC could be so dramatic that the World Cup is among the least interesting things awaiting this summer. Will Antonio Conte get the sack, and if so, who will replace him? And when will the club hire his replacement? Will Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois leave for Real Madrid? Might they wait to see if Belgium wins in Russia before demanding a larger contract or transfer fee?
We have the luxury of salivating over every combination of possibilities. Antonio Conte and his players do not. They need to do the complete opposite. The Blues have to put on their blinders and take each training session one day at a time, each leading up to one game at a time, until the end of the season.
Conte must ensure his players keep their attention on the remainder of the season. The FA Cup is the only tangible reward remaining to the season, but Chelsea still have to see out the season in a professional and appropriate manner. They must be ready to pounce of Tottenham live up to their highest purpose and bottle the run-in. And they must be vigilant not to continue acting like Tottenham (step one: lose at Stamford Bridge) and bottle the season themselves, allowing Arsenal to pip their way back into the Europa League.
Chelsea’s upcoming fixtures are ripe for complacency and frustration. Of Chelsea’s remaining eight games (including the FA Cup semifinal), five are against teams battling relegation. These teams will be fighting for their survival, and will not be in the mood to show any respect to the fallen champions. If Chelsea are lackadaisical or distracted, they will drop more points to bottom-half teams.
Burnley are the first of two top-half opponents in the run-in. They scored three goals against Chelsea on opening day, courtesy of an early Gary Cahill red card. Since then, they have only scored three goals one other time: last month against West Ham. Even if Chelsea manage to keep 11 men on the pitch, Burnley will simply grind Chelsea into the Turf. The Blues do not need to worry about blistering counter-attacks or slick build-ups. But they cannot afford to lash out and concede mindless set pieces, or fall asleep and allow a simple, well-worked goal.
The other two games are against Liverpool and Newcastle. They should be up for these games, given the quality and rivalry of Liverpool and the Rafael Benitez factor at Newcastle.
However, teams cannot turn on motivation at will. They have to live in it. If the players think they can slog through West Ham, Southampton and Swansea but then turn-out for Liverpool, they will be lucky to end the first half only 3-0 down. Liverpool will still be riding high off another victory over Manchester City and will be challenging for second place. Chelsea cannot come into the game unprepared nor feeling hopeless. That process starts now.
Chelsea’s final eight (hopefully nine) games of 2017/18 may have little impact on the final table, and will be far less consequential for most players than the events of the summer. Many more futures will be decided in boardrooms and in Russia than at Turf Moor, Liberty Stadium or Stamford Bridge in the next six weeks.But those six weeks can be the only thing on the minds of Antonio Conte and his men. They are under no less pressure just because the table is all but a foregone conclusion. The season is 38 games long, plus the FA Cup. Those must be the only things on their minds.