D-Day for Thomas Tuchel as Chelsea FC set out to finish top four job

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 (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Thomas Tuchel is 90 minutes away from the minimum target set for him when being handed the reins at Chelsea. And a top-four finish is set to see him rewarded with a new contract as soon as this summer.

But in the week when Frank Lampard opened up on his ruthless sacking in January, Tuchel will know Champions League qualification alone will never be a cause for celebration for Roman Abramovich.

Lampard discovered that to his cost when his high-minded hopes of culture change and legacy-building were brutally cut short the moment it became clear that progress under him had stopped.

Like Tuchel, he had been set a top-four target in his first season that saw him operate under a transfer ban and without departed icon Eden Hazard.

And like Tuchel, who took over a team that had plummeted from top to mid- table, he was seen to be working under exceptional circumstances. But that all changed in his second season, as much as he claimed otherwise.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Victory against Aston Villa on Sunday will see Tuchel exceed expectations by securing Chelsea third place. Overall, the German has hugely over-performed by reaching the finals of the FA Cup and the Champions League.

Yet the importance of the League and ensuring Chelsea would be back at the top table of European football next season was emphasised by the anxiety felt by Tuchel after defeat to Arsenal last week threatened to derail the end to the campaign.

Defeat to Leicester at Wembley cost him his first trophy, but it was the potential impact on the League encounter with their top-four rivals that was of greatest concern. For all the plans to reward Tuchel with a longer-term deal than the 18-month contract he was originally handed, his position would be considerably more precarious if Champions League qualification slipped through his grasp, even if there is a second bite of the cherry against Manchester City in Porto next week.

Three points at Villa Park are by no means guaranteed — just ask Tottenham about the threat posed by Dean Smith’s team, who also held Chelsea to a draw in December to add to Lampard’s mounting crisis.

But Chelsea’s fate is in their own hands and victory against Leicester felt like a significant mental hurdle had been passed. The FA Cup will soon be forgotten if a third-placed finish can be followed with glory in Portugal.

But even if they lose to City, there can be no doubting Tuchel is ahead of schedule and will start next season as well-positioned as anyone to challenge the dominance of Pep Guardiola’s side.

That comes with its own pressure, but Tuchel has welcomed the demanding environment at Stamford Bridge. As well as a new contract, he can expect the weapons to aid his title bid.

Lampard was given more than £200million to close the gap to City and Liverpool. Tuchel will be handed the top-class striker that his side have so desperately lacked.

Timo Werner remains as frustrating a figure as he was under Lampard; Tuchel has just done a better job of making up for his shortcomings.

A centre-back has also long-been in Chelsea’s plans and, despite their outstanding defensive record under Tuchel, may be required if he switches to a less-conservative back-four.

He already has ideas on where he needs to strengthen if he is to build on a hugely-impressive four months in charge. But it has been his ability to galvanise the group he inherited that should give Chelsea the greatest cause for optimism.

Assuming they get the job done on Sunday, Chelsea fans have much more to look forward to than just the Champions League final.

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