By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – After Chelsea coach Thomas Tuchel’s relatively low-profile start to life in the Stamford Bridge hot seat the German will welcome Manchester United in the Premier League on Sunday after a week in which he has stamped his mark on his new club.
Last weekend’s 1-1 draw at Southampton maintained Tuchel’s unbeaten start but cost Chelsea their place in the top four. More significantly, it offered proof that Tuchel is not afraid to bruise egos.
In hauling off England international Callum Hudson Odoi after 76 minutes, having sent him on as a halftime substitute, the German made it absolutely clear that he expects his instructions to be carried out to the tee.
Humiliating players so early into a managerial reign could be perceived as a risky strategy but if proof were needed that Tuchel’s methods worked it came on Tuesday when his side produced a European masterclass to beat Atletico Madrid 1-0 away in the first leg of their Champions League, last 16 tie.
Significantly Hudson Odoi started against Atletico as Tuchel completely outfoxed his wily counterpart Diego Simeone.
That win means confidence will be high as Chelsea welcome second-placed United to Stamford Bridge but Tuchel is well aware that the next five games could define their season.
“Now we play Man United, Liverpool, Everton and Leeds and we cannot get too comfortable, we cannot get lazy,” said Tuchel, whose side are fifth with 43 points from 25 games, two points behind West Ham United and six off Leicester City and United.
After all the hard work to claw themselves back into the top-four race, having slipped to ninth under Tuchel’s sacked predecessor Frank Lampard, Chelsea can ill afford any dip in form now.
United returned to winning ways after a couple of draws with a 3-1 victory at home to Newcastle United last weekend and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side can put nine points between themselves and Chelsea if they win on Sunday.
However, with runaway leaders Manchester City up next weekend, Solskjaer knows that what looks like a healthy cushion could quickly disappear.
West Ham’s stunning form has put the cat amongst the pigeons and there is mounting belief in east London that manager David Moyes could be on the verge of something special.
A gritty 2-1 win at home to Tottenham Hotspur last weekend left the Hammers in the top four after at least 25 matches of a top-flight season for the first time since 1985-86.
They have won seven of their last nine league games but face the ultimate test at Manchester City on Saturday where Pep Guardiola’s side’s will be seeking a 20th successive victory in all competitions. West Ham did draw 1-1 with City earlier in the season, however, and will pose a threat.
Liverpool’s players have enjoyed a rare week with no fixtures and it was probably required to clear their heads after four league defeats on the bounce.
Their hopes of retaining the title are over and they are in serious danger of finishing outside the top four, having fallen to sixth spot following last week’s home derby defeat by Everton. They are now five points off fourth spot.
The Reds have an opportunity to get back on track with a trip to bottom club Sheffield United who are all but doomed.
Time is also running out for second-bottom West Bromwich Albion who play Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday, but Fulham can suddenly see an escape route.
Scott Parker’s side have closed to within three points of 17th-placed Newcastle United and go to Crystal Palace on Sunday having put together a four-match unbeaten run. Newcastle host Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris)