With Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur looking certain to occupy the three automatic places, there is just one space up for grabs in Europe’s elite competition.
Although it’s anticipated that one of London’s big boys will secure the much coveted fourth spot, there is the possibility that both clubs will miss out if Newcastle United or Liverpool manage to sustain a challenge until the end of the season.
|Arsene Wenger and Andre Villas-Boas are both expected to deliver|
Having almost definitely gone seven seasons without winning any silverware, there is a growing sense that finishing outside the top four will be the final nail in the coffin for the Frenchman.
Chelsea chief Andre Villas-Boas may not have been expected to transform his team into genuine Premier League contenders in his first season in charge, but missing out on the Champions League would surely leave owner Roman Abramovich with no other option but to show him the door.
The race for Champions League football could effectively be a race to beat the sack for Wenger and Villas-Boas.
Ironically, Arsenal and Chelsea are the only two English sides to make it through to the last 16 of this season’s competition with City and United both falling into the much maligned Europa League.
Unfortunately for the Gunners, a 4-0 mauling by AC Milan in the San Siro last Wednesday has all but ended their chances of progressing into the quarter-finals.
Chelsea face a seemingly less difficult first-leg task away at Napoli tonight, but any hopes they harbour of going onto win the trophy, and securing automatic qualification for next season’s competition, are severely hampered by the presence of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in the knockout stages.Neither Arsenal or Chelsea are currently up to the standard required to compete with the giants of the continent which in itself highlights the steady decline in the quality of English outfits since they dominated the semi-final line ups in 2006-07, 2007-08 and 2008-09.
You would have to believe that their fates will be determined by their league form and with both sides neck-a-neck on 43 points with thirteen games remaining, it’s all to play for.
Chelsea face tough trips to Manchester City (19 March), Arsenal (21 April) and Liverpool (5 May) and also play host to Tottenham (24 March) and Newcastle (14 April).
Arsenal’s fixtures are less treacherous but home games against Tottenham (26 February), Newcastle (12 March), Manchester City (7 April) and Chelsea (21 April) will test their resolve, along with a tricky trip to Anfield to face Liverpool (3 March).
These are the crucial games that will make or break Wenger and AVB as they battle to claim fourth spot and prove their worth to their respective employers.