Chelsea has made a significant move in the English Premier League’s frenetic race to qualify for the Champions League, a competition the club’s hierarchy secretly tried to destroy in its ill-fated attempt to form a European Super League.
A 1-0 win at West Ham, coupled with Liverpool conceding a stoppage-time goal to draw with lowly Newcastle 1-1 at Anfield, saw Chelsea open up a gap to its two main rivals for a top-four finish on Saturday.
With five games remaining in the league, Chelsea occupies the fourth and final Champions League qualification place — three points ahead of West Ham and four clear of sixth-placed Liverpool.
“It was a six-pointer,” said Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel, whose team’s packed end to the season also includes an FA Cup final against Leicester and a Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid.
A smiling Tuchel congratulated each of his players on the field after the final whistle at the Olympic Stadium, a contrast to the reaction of Liverpool counterpart Jurgen Klopp after a dramatic finish at Anfield when his team’s season-long vulnerability in defense proved costly again.
Joe Willock’s deflected goal in the fifth minute of injury time has left Liverpool a big outsider to finish in the top four of a league it won by 18 points last season.
“I didn’t see that we deserved today playing Champions League next season,” a deflated Klopp said. “We learn, or we don’t play Champion League.”
A failure to reach the Champions League — and all the riches that come with it — will be painful for a club whose American ownership, Fenway Sports Group, was one of the key instigators in the scheme to set up the breakaway Super League.
That would have seen 12 of the continent’s biggest clubs create a 20-team rival to the Champions League with finances dwarfing the current elite competition, and Liverpool’s place locked in courtesy of it being a founder member.
How galling, then, that the Reds could yet end up in next season’s Europa League — or not playing European competition at all.
In Liverpool’s favor is a benign schedule that sees Klopp’s team finish its league campaign with games against Southampton, West Bromwich Albion, Burnley and Crystal Palace — teams placed 13th or lower. Before that, though, is a trip to fierce rival Manchester United next week, a match that will be marked by protests owing to both clubs’ American owners’ attempts to create the Super League.
There were fan protests outside both of the teams’ stadiums on Saturday.
Mohamed Salah moved onto 20 goals, becoming the first Liverpool player to score at least that total in three different Premier League campaigns.
It was a superbly taken goal, too, the Egypt forward bringing down a high ball with his left foot and swiveling to fire a fierce finish high into the net.
Salah missed the best of Liverpool’s following 21 shots in a chaotic match that had a fittingly wild ending as Newcastle poured forward.
Substitute Callum Wilson had an equalizing goal disallowed in the second minute of stoppage time when the ball rebounded off his arm from Alisson’s save, before the striker bundled it into the net. There was still time for Willock to score with a shot that deflected in off sliding Liverpool defender Fabinho, continuing the on-loan Arsenal midfielder’s role as a recent super-sub.
Three late goals from Willock have earned Newcastle four points just this month: An 85th-minute equalizer against Tottenham on April 4, an 82nd-minute winner against West Ham last weekend, and now his goal at Anfield.
Timo Werner secured the win for Chelsea with just his second league goal since Nov. 7 in what has been an underwhelming first season in England.
The Germany striker scored from close range following Ben Chilwell’s low cross in the 43rd minute for his first goal in 12 appearances in all competitions.
Werner missed an even easier chance in front of a virtually open goal before West Ham’s Fabian Balbuena was sent off for following through on a clearance by landing his studs on the back of Chilwell’s right leg. The referee showed the red card after reviewing the incident on a pitchside monitor.
West Ham still has a chance to catch Chelsea but has lost its last two games and is missing the presence of injured pair Declan Rice and Michail Antonio.
Brighton was still not safe from the drop after losing at already-relegated Sheffield United 1-0.
David McGoldrick scored in the 19th minute.
Brighton stayed seven points clear of third-to-last Fulham.
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80