Chelsea's recovery of form is too little, too late in lost season
After what has been a fairly disastrous few months and a difficult season overall, Chelsea's campaign could yet end on a high. Dropped points, a loss of intensity and a fragile mindset have all contributed to lowering standards and a slide down the table.
Nevertheless, there remains the faintest glimmer of hope that the season could still be salvaged. Having struggled to string two wins together since the dawn of 2018, the Blues have achieved three in a week. OK, Southampton (twice) and Burnley might not be the most celebrated of opponents so there is little reason to get too carried away, but momentum should never be underestimated, especially when that winning feeling has so often eluded Chelsea of late.
Should they make it four wins in a row with a victory at Swansea City on Saturday then they might just exert the slightest of pressure on those above them in the Champions League spots. It would close the gap to fourth place Tottenham, who do not play until they face Watford on Monday, to just two points. Any slip-up by Spurs against Javi Gracia's men would open up a genuine threat of being overtaken.
Mauricio Pochettino's side have had an excellent campaign but have shown themselves to have a certain vulnerability. After coming from behind to beat a profligate and self-sabotaging Chelsea 3-1 at the start of April, they have managed just one win in their four games since, and even then they were hanging on in their 2-1 win at Stoke. Although their focus is now solely on finishing in the top four, their inability to win decisive games such as the FA Cup semifinal with Manchester United or their Champions League tie with Juventus hints at a possible lack of self-belief at key moments.
Liverpool are currently eight points ahead of the Blues, but with only three Premier League matches remaining, one less than both Chelsea and Spurs. With a potential Champions League final on the horizon, it is perfectly conceivable that they become distracted from their domestic commitments with last weekend's concession of a two-goal lead at relegation certainties West Brom being a case in point. They also travel to Stamford Bridge three days after the conclusion of their semifinal in Rome, providing a perfect opportunity for Chelsea to take advantage of a tired and emotionally drained side.
Despite the glass appearing to be half full for Chelsea, in truth, it is almost certainly too little too late. If the defeat to Spurs wasn't damaging enough then the 1-1 draw at West Ham is likely to be seen as the fatal blow when the dust settles on this Premier League campaign. Chelsea now need to win all four of their matches and hope that either of their rivals drop points in two of theirs. With Spurs playing three of their four remaining fixtures at home against modest opposition and Liverpool at home twice in their three games, it seems highly unlikely, if not mathematically impossible, that either of them can be reeled in.
Even so, it has been pleasing to see the team pick themselves up after their rotten start to the month appeared to have hammered the final nail into their top-four ambitions. Following a familiarly frustrating opening hour at St. Mary's, the displays have improved with Olivier Giroud, Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata all shining sufficiently to provide hope for the immediate future and beyond. Sunday's semifinal win over Southampton also saw the team keep a clean sheet for the first time in two months, a startling statistic but one that should be valued if not exactly celebrated.
Equally, a place in the FA Cup final should never be sniffed at, especially when the club have not lifted that particular trophy for six years and could now do so at the expense of Jose Mourinho's Manchester United. Given their respective league positions, Chelsea will go to Wembley as underdogs, though in the knowledge that they have outplayed their free-spending opponents twice this season, even if only three points were acquired.
If miracles were to happen and Chelsea were to somehow qualify for the Champions League and win some silverware, it would still merely paper over the cracks of a disappointing season by the club's standards. But what has gone has gone. With five matches remaining in all competitions, Chelsea can still make a statement. Win all five and perhaps the Blues can look towards next season with a greater spring in their step.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.