Wednesday night at Stamford Bridge will once again show, as if it needed emphasising, how the Champions League has become the kingmaker in English football.
A match between the teams placed fifth and sixth in the Premier League never used to mean much, but Chelsea versus Newcastle United is a huge game in the context of a season in which both clubs have surpassed expectation on some level.
Such a big game, in fact, that you couldn’t be sure that given the choice, Blues boss Roberto di Matteo would take a win in this fixture ahead of the FA Cup final Chelsea contest with Liverpool on Saturday.
I personally find it ridiculous that should ever be the case, but money talks and there is no doubt that Chelsea’s full focus will be on beating one of their unlikely rivals for fourth place.
Chelsea are a point behind Newcastle, who are below fourth-placed Tottenham on goal difference, so the race is as tight as it has been for years.
There will be no resting players for Wembley – Di Matteo has said as much – as Chelsea look to assure qualification for Europe’s top competition via the league, rather than having to rely on beating Bayern Munich in their own stadium in this season’s final later this month.
And the way Chelsea are playing, I’d say they are on course to bridge the one-point gap to Spurs. Under Di Matteo, they are a team transformed: QPR’s defenders might as well have been training cones for all the resistance they put up, but nevertheless Sunday’s 6-1 win was breathless stuff and to be 4-0 up inside 25 minutes in a Premier League match is great work in anyone’s language.
Fernando Torres is showing signs of returning to his old self and the goals are flowing at the Bridge: Di Matteo has won seven and drawn one of his eight home games in all competitions, with his men banging in 21 goals in the process.
But for all that, this is Chelsea’s key fixture. There wasn’t one pundit or supporter in the country who would have predicted that a clash between Chelsea and Newcastle would be a potential Champions League qualification decider, so it shows just what a marvellous job Alan Pardew has done in keeping United in contention for a top-four place right until the season’s end, but I fear for the Magpies that a restoring of the order could be taking place.
Chelsea are the strong odds-on favourites at 12/25, with the draw at 13/4 and an away win quoted at 21/4 and I can’t see past a Chelsea win, despite Newcastle’s form.
A six-match winning streak was brought to an end by a thumping 4-0 defeat at Wigan that, while it won’t bring everything crashing down, is a reminder that Pardew’s men have to be on top of their game week-in week-out to compete.
Going toe to toe with the big guns has been a problem for Newcastle though, especially away from home.
On the road against teams in the top half, the Toon have lost five and won just one of their seven fixtures, conceding 20 goals in the process.
Only seven sides have let in more than Newcastle’s 31 on the road and I think they could struggle against Chelsea’s renewed firepower.
Fernando Torres is showing signs of returning to his old self and the goals are flowing at the Bridge: Di Matteo has won seven and drawn one of his eight home games in all competitions, with his men banging in 21 goals in the process, and with their priority solely on the league, I think they will have too much for Newcastle.
I think Chelsea will win so the 12/25 is reasonable enough, but the 3/1 that Chelsea win 2-1, 3-1 or 4-1 is worth investigating. Newcastle carry an obvious goal threat and in 16 games under Di Matteo, Chelsea have only kept six clean sheets.
Recommended bet: Chelsea to beat Newcastle @ 12/25 Outside punt: Chelsea to win 2-1, 3-1 or 4-1 @ 3/1
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