• Champions League qualifying fear overshadows Benfica game
• 'It would be a year lost in the club's progression,' says keeper
Chelsea's campaign has lurched further into the surreal. If the political murmurings and managerial upheaval felt depressingly familiar, then a new twist is that this club is haunted by the very real threat of failing to qualify for next season's Champions League even before they have exited this season's competition. All the talk on Monday should be of how Benfica can be deflated and defeated at the Estádio da Luz. Instead, thoughts are already drifting disconcertingly towards the implications of a year outside Europe's elite.
The gap from fourth remains at five points following a spluttering goalless stalemate against Tottenham Hotspur with an awkward, and potentially cluttered, run-in to follow. This club has never been cast out of the aristocracy under Roman Abramovich's ownership, and to be thrust into the dregs now would constitute desperately poor timing.
"It would be a year lost in the progression of the club," admitted Petr Cech. "You always have years when you go through transition and the side needs to be rebuilt. Or you have changes in terms of managers. For a big club, you can accept that the team does not win the league because it is in transition, but you cannot afford to slip out of the Champions League spot. The big teams are about the Champions League."
It is as if the club never saw this coming after years as a permanent fixture at the top table. To slip into the Europa League would set back attempts to restructure, with the associated loss of media revenues at a time when financial fair play is in the process of being adopted, largely because this squad is still clearly in need of a major and costly overhaul. Roberto Di Matteo may have restored elements of solidity, and conjured unity after a spell of trauma, but he is no long-term miracle worker. Whoever is in charge in the summer will seek to add significantly, but would the likes of Eden Hazard, Edinson Cavani or Radamel Falcao be willing to join a club whose European commitments are limited to Thursday evenings when other suitors could offer so much more?
In the past, offering such newcomers lavish salaries might have smoothed their arrivals, but that landscape is supposed to have shifted. Times have changed and simply throwing money at the problem may not be the answer. Luka Modric, a high-profile target last summer in the heady early days of André Villas-Boas's tenure, has yet to sign new terms at White Hart Lane. The Croatian was superb in his promptings on Saturday, offering a reminder of the qualities that had Chelsea salivating, but he would surely be more likely to remain with Spurs in the Champions League next term than seek to revive a move across the capital, even if he is unlikely to make any decision at all until the identity of Tottenham's manager next term becomes clear.
The precedent for Chelsea most often cited is that of Liverpool, a club ousted from the top four by Spurs two years ago and, despite having won the Carling Cup, now a team marooned in seventh place that has claimed only eight points this calendar year. Their transition has been painfully prolonged, even if the process was complicated significantly by a change of ownership. "Liverpool had so many problems within the club, not really on the pitch, so that is why they kind of lost some time," said Cech. "This club has the structure, but I believe that even one season [out of the Champions League] will make a difference. It would slow down all the process, [and affect the perception] of being 'a Champions League club' hunting for trophies, even if it will not be the end of Chelsea. I believe that we will come back."
The hosts looked leggy on Saturday, their energy eclipsed by Spurs as the game progressed. Given the crammed schedule to come – the London club are semi-finalists in the FA Cup as well – it is tempting to wonder whether Chelsea stand more chance of qualifying for next year's Champions League as holders than by chasing down a five-point deficit.
That argument is, of course, rather shattered by Barcelona's continued, scintillating presence in the competition, but Di Matteo will be craving an opportunity to take on the Catalans in the last four should Benfica be deflected. He will travel to Lisbon on Monday morning with a fully fit squad, Branislav Ivanovic's thigh injury having eased, and with Fernando Torres and David Luiz potentially to start after featuring only fleetingly here. There is some solace to be found in blanket availability across the squad.
"But, if we do manage to get through to the semi-finals of the Champions League, we will have a crazy calendar with a lot of games," added Cech. "Being in the FA Cup is good because it means that you are in the hunt for trophies, but in terms of the Premier League we have put ourselves in a difficult position. There are still 24 points to play for, and you can overcome a deficit of five in that time, but you need to make sure that you win all your games or at least the vast majority of them. And that the other teams slip. We want to make sure that we will be there next season, somehow. But we have put ourselves in a position where it is not only in our hands."
Man of the match: Luka Modric (Tottenham Hotspur)