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 By Phil Lythell

Hazard, Courtois futures on line as Chelsea chase Champions League

The majority of Chelsea's playing staff are away on international duty though they could be forgiven having their minds still concentrated on club matters. When they return to London next week they will be entering the home straight of the 2017-18 season firm in the knowledge that there is no room for error.

The Blues might be two games away from lifting the FA Cup yet there is no question the primary focus is securing a top four finish. Without Champions League football next season, the futures of key players Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois will be cast into serious doubt while preferred transfer targets will need far greater persuasion to join the club ahead of those sitting at Europe's top table.

With eight Premier League games remaining, it is highly likely Chelsea will need to win the lot in order to achieve their goal. That includes the six-pointers against the two teams presently occupying third and fourth place: Liverpool and Tottenham respectively.

On paper, all of the fixtures are winnable. In reality, they are a little tougher than they first appear.

One of the bankers should be the home game with London neighbours West Ham, a club at war with itself and one that has gleaned just three points from the last 15 available. Chelsea's excellent record at St Mary's should give them confidence when they travel to Southampton while three points should be inked in for the visit of Huddersfield.

Burnley away, however, will be much trickier even if the second half of their season has not been as impressive as the first. Sean Dyche's men stunned Stamford Bridge on the opening day by winning 3-2 and are one of only four teams to have taken points off Manchester City this season. The trip to Newcastle should also not be taken for granted given Chelsea's poor record at St James' Park, where they have just one point from their last four visits. The meetings with Tottenham and Liverpool are must-win matches against top class opposition, pure and simple.

Chelsea cannot afford to drop points and not just due to the five-point gap that separates them from fourth-place Tottenham. With Manchester United nine points ahead and unassailable from the Blues' perspective, the hunt is on to chase down either Spurs or Liverpool. The problem is that both rivals have benign run-ins to the end of the season.

Eden Hazard cut a very frustrated figure against Man City on Sunday.
A poor run of form has left Chelsea's Champions League hopes for next season in doubt.

Tottenham's schedule mirrors Chelsea's in that they also have eight matches remaining with an even split between home and away. But apart from their trip to Stamford Bridge they only have one truly testing clash when they host Manchester City.

Unfortunately, Pep Guardiola's team might have already clinched the title by then and they will also have just concluded their two-legged Champions League quarterfinal with Liverpool. It is not inconceivable if the champions-elect might take their foot off the accelerator when they travel to Wembley. Otherwise, Spurs are due to face teams mired in the relegation battle as well as home games against teams with little to play for in the shape of Watford and Leicester.

Liverpool's early exit from the FA Cup means they have just seven Premier League matches remaining. But apart from the trip to Chelsea on the penultimate weekend of the season, their only other potentially difficult opponent is Everton, a team they haven't lost to for almost eight years. There have, however, been four draws in the six league meetings at Goodison Park since that defeat. The other positive to take is that the match is sandwiched between the two legs of the aforementioned Champions League tie with Manchester City.

Essentially, both Liverpool and Tottenham have two games that could potentially end in defeat amid a tranche of fixtures that they will be heavily fancied to win. Assuming that scenario does indeed come to pass, it would leave Liverpool on 78 points (79 if they draw at Everton) and Tottenham on 79 points. The maximum haul Chelsea can achieve is 80 points.

With Antonio Conte's men having lost four of their last six league matches, it is imperative they build on the slightly restorative 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace and take heart from the gritty display that dragged them into the last four of the FA Cup at the expense of the Leicester City.

While neither were performances to have opponents quaking in their boots, the front foot attitude in the defeat at Barcelona might just have that effect. That particular 90 minutes -- without the individual errors -- is the template that must be followed in the final eight games of the season. Do that and Chelsea might just snatch a Champions League spot from the jaws of the Europa League.

Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.


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