Cup run crucial as Chelsea chase European place – Mauricio Pochettino

By Sports Desk January 05, 2024

Mauricio Pochettino hopes Chelsea can use the FA Cup to qualify for Europe next season despite their indifferent Premier League form.

The Blues host Preston at Stamford Bridge in the third round on Saturday and will be looking for respite for what has been a mixed league campaign during the manager’s first six months in charge.

They currently sit 10th, with an 11-point gap to make up on fifth and what would be a guaranteed spot in the Europa League.

A successful cup run culminating in victory in the Wembley final in May would earn them a place in the competition next term, whilst they will also be looking to secure a back-up spot in the Conference League by winning the Carabao Cup.

Pochettino’s side face Middlesbrough in the semi-final of that competition over two legs beginning on Tuesday, with the second leg set for January 23.

But with little sign so far of the consistency that will be required over the second half of the season to qualify via their league position, cup ties during the coming weeks look increasingly critical, starting with Saturday’s meeting with the side currently 14th in the Championship.

“Of course (we can win the FA Cup),” said Pochettino. “The Carabao Cup and the FA Cup are competitions we need to try to go far.

“But we need to build our run step by step and the first step is (Saturday). It’s a really important competition for us, because we are not in Europe.

“In the Premier League, we are in a position that we need to grow and improve a lot if we want to be in Europe next season. Through the FA Cup or Carabao Cup we can achieve that.

“It’s really important because we had three competitions at the beginning (of the season) and we’re still in them.”

Pochettino confirmed there will not be wholesale changes from the team that won 3-2 against Luton last time out.

He hinted at a possible start for striker Armando Broja, with Christopher Nkunku fit only for the bench and Nicolas Jackson having departed for the Africa Cup of Nations.

Long-term absentees Ben Chilwell and Carney Chukwuemeka – out since September and August respectively – are not yet ready to return, whilst Romeo Lavia has suffered yet another injury setback after making his debut in December.

“We are going to treat it like a Premier League game,” said the manager. “Just because it’s the FA Cup and it’s a Championship team, we are going to respect Preston. You will see we are going to put in place a starting XI with all the guarantees to perform.

“Armando is going to be a possibility to play. But Christopher is not going to start. He suffered some issue during the week. We need to be careful with him after the last six months where he didn’t compete.

“We really trust in (Broja). He has an amazing potential and quality. Now he must forget his (ACL) injury from the last year and start to behave normally.

“Chilwell and Carney are not available, we’ll see for Middlesbrough and Fulham (on January 13). They’re doing well, training with the group the last few days. We are happy with their evolution.

“Lavia, we still don’t know when he will be available again.”

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