Fourth-placed Chelsea can stretch their lead over Manchester United in fifth to six points with victory over Bournemouth on Saturday, in their quest for Champions League qualification. Such is the inconsistency of Frank Lampard’s team and those scrabbling at their stuttering heels, it’s impossible to predict whether they will indeed end the season as one of the tallest dwarves or be left staring up at the you must be this tall to ride sign. But do Chelsea really want to be on the Champions League rollercoaster next season?

The Blues have never been torn apart at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League as they were by Bayern Munich on Tuesday night. Such was the difference in quality, there was no room for the feelings of frustration that have typified their season. And a sense of embarrassment as the Bundesliga giants eased into what is a seemingly unassailable lead in the tie were quickly replaced by a pure, if horrifying, acceptance that Chelsea were – and are – simply nowhere near good enough.

Qualification for the Champions League has become an all encompassing obsession. It far outweighs domestic cup glory and is frequently mentioned as a possible carrot for the winners, to encourage teams to even bother in those competitions; players are bought and sold according to whether they can boost a team’s chances of getting into the hallowed ground of the top four. Qualification is now somehow more important than how a team performs when actually competing in it – a notion which kept Arsene Wenger in a job at least five years past his sell-by date. Chelsea’s loss on Tuesday was met with little more than a shrug of the shoulders, whereas failure to qualify for next season’s competition would be a catastrophe.

Should this Chelsea side make it into the Champions League next season, they may win a knockout game for the first time since 2014 if they’re lucky enough to be drawn against a side similarly inferior. But even with the additions of Hakim Ziyech and another couple of quality summer arrivals, they will ultimately crash out when they come up against a side like Bayern, PSG or Barcelona; European juggernauts who have ended their fanciful hopes on the last four occasions.

While claims of useful experience against the very best may comfort those on the outside looking in, another thrashing could far outweigh the benefit of that experience and prove damaging to a fragile Chelsea squad that is simultaneously on the brink of brilliance and abject failure.

The last time Chelsea were not involved in European competition in the 2016-17 season, they won the Premier League title under Antonio Conte. Something of an academic point, firstly because the current Liverpool and Manchester City teams are far better than any of the sides Conte had to overcome to win that title. And also because if they don’t qualify for the European competition they are desperate to play in, they will have to play in the one they would probably rather not.

But the Blues have won the Europa League on the two occasions they have competed in it, playing a second string side for the majority while rarely breaking sweat in the tournament akin to the Champions League’s sick half sister. And it would be treated in the same way next season, allowing the first XI the time to hone their skills and tactical awareness in training and to implement a clear style of football on the pitch, that was – if anything – more apparent at the start of the season than it is now.

Despite many players requiring an upgrade, Chelsea do have some good young talent and individuals Lampard should look to build his team around. But it will be a process that requires time and real coaching. The sort of patience and clear-headedness that the added pressure of Champions League football hinders. Were Chelsea competing in the Europa League this week, Lampard either would have given his star players a rest or would have seen them win a relatively easy game to lift the spirits ahead of a return to Premier League action. Instead, he now has to pick his side up off the floor of home truths in the knowledge that they will likely be shoved back down again with the grim prospect of the away leg in Munich on the horizon.

The monetary losses of failing to qualify will barely be felt, and while attracting the top stars to Chelsea may prove slightly more difficult, the unwillingness of players to join clubs not playing Champions League football always seems to be over-exaggerated. An attractive style of football and an obvious forward momentum, as well as a lucrative contract, are more important; all promises Lampard can make to potential purchases.

The fans will of course miss hearing that Champions League anthem and the chance to travel to some of the great stadiums in Europe for away days, but will ultimately want what’s best for their team. And what’s best is not always what’s most obvious.

In this case, sugar cubes in the shoes should be avoided, as being slightly too short for a ride that makes you feel far worse than when you got on it, is not one to get a souvenir photo from.

 

Will Ford is on Twitter

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