Gary Cahill's grit and character could benefit Chelsea with England place at stake
Chelsea's season of glaring inconsistency could yet yield silverware in the form of the FA Cup. Champions League qualification also remains a faint possibility.
The Blues' chances of success hinge on Antonio Conte getting his team selection and tactics right for each of their remaining five matches, starting with Saturday's Premier League fixture away to Swansea City.
To keep the pressure on Tottenham, who have a five-point advantage in that precious fourth place slot that brings qualification for Europe's elite club competition, Chelsea have to beat the Swans and they will need to keep winning. Home games against Liverpool and Huddersfield follow before their league campaign concludes with an away match with Newcastle United.
Should Chelsea somehow succeed in overhauling Tottenham -- who also have four games remaining -- or indeed third-place Liverpool who have played a game more but have an eight point advantage over the Blues, Conte would be feted a hero once more. The mood at Stamford Bridge would be exceptionally buoyant heading into FA Cup final showdown with Manchester United at Wembley.
While Conte will call the shots off the pitch, he needs all his players on it to stand up and be counted -- a trait that has been far from apparent over the course of a stumbling season. Lack of inspired leadership has been a big part problem, but a solution may have already presented itself to the Italian -- Gary Cahill.
As Chelsea have had a troubled season, so has captain Cahill. As early as 14 minutes into the first game of the new campaign, Cahill was sent off for a shocking challenge on Burnley midfielder Steven Defour. The Clarets subsequently charged into what proved to be an irretrievable 3-0 lead and the fingers of blame pointed squarely at the skipper.
Suspension and a dip in form followed which culminated in Cahill being dropped in favour emerging young talent Andreas Christensen, whom Conte would go on to describe as Chelsea's present, future and a potential captain of the club. These comments came after a mistake by Christensen handed Barcelona an equaliser in the first leg of the round-of-16 Champions League tie at Stamford Bridge that ended 1-1.
Despite this error, Conte persisted with Christensen in the away Premier League games with Manchester United and Manchester City which followed. The Blues lost 2-1 to United and 1-0 to City and Christensen was arguably at fault for all three goals Chelsea conceded. An unused substitute in these three games, Cahill cut an impassive figure in the dugout, though deep down he must have been seriously hurting at being continually left out as the Blues struggled defensively.
Being marginalised by Conte also had a knock-on effect for Cahill's chances of making the England squad for this summer's World Cup tournament in Russia. Having started regularly when available for the Three Lions' qualifying matches, after the turn of the year Cahill was deselected by national team manager Gareth Southgate for friendlies with Netherlands and Italy. He now faces the task of having to prove himself once again if he is to make the squad for Russia.
Entering the veteran stage of his career, the chance to represent his country at the World Cup won't come round again for Cahill, who will know that if he wants to add to his 58 England caps he has to demonstrate he still has the focus, ability and desire to make a telling difference at club level. These attributes were in evidence at Wembley last weekend when Chelsea beat Southampton 2-0 to advance to the FA Cup final and Cahill also put in a robust display, galvanising his team as they'd ground out a 2-1 win away at Burnley in a league match three days prior to the Saints game.
In a little over six years as a Chelsea player, Cahill has won the Premier League twice and has a winner's medal for each of the FA Cup, League Cup, Europa League and Champions League. He may be in the twilight of his career at the Bridge and indeed on the international stage, but his experience and the motivation for one last hurrah for club and country could make him a serious asset to Conte as he bids to salvage something memorable from Chelsea's otherwise disappointing season.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco