Thomas Tuchel has admitted his Chelsea side face an uphill battle to compete with Liverpool and Manchester City next season - regardless of whether they make some key additions in the transfer market.
Having led the Premier League in the opening months of the season, Chelsea fell away dramatically over the winter period due to a combination of poor form, injuries and Covid-19 issues. Meanwhile, Liverpool and City have emerged as arguably the two finest teams on the planet at present.
Although they have clung on to third place, the Blues are a whopping 18 points behind the Reds in second going into the final day of the season, while fourth-placed Tottenham have closed the gap to their London rivals to just three.
To rub salt into the wounds, Chelsea have also lost both the Carabao Cup and FA Cup finals to Liverpool on penalties.
Speaking ahead of hosting already-relegated Watford at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, head coach Tuchel admitted he did not anticipate next season being any easier for his side, regardless of what was achieved in the upcoming transfer window.
"It is going to be very difficult because even if we keep the team and have maybe the chance to add one or two key players it would already be difficult. Maybe even very difficult," the German said. "Still we are not sure if we play the same season again.
"It was an incredible season from [Man City and Liverpool] and in the end I don’t lie to myself."
Tuchel went on to suggest that his players would have to go above and beyond to stand any hope of challenging England's top two.
"The numbers we produce from our offensive players don’t allow us to over-perform and we need over-performance if we want to be anywhere nearer to the top two teams. I am not pointing fingers, I am not blaming anybody," he continued.
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"If we stick to the group then we will try to solve it with these players. Is it necessary to bring more offensive players around the box to create more distractions, to create more space? Can we push players more? Did we rotate too much? There are a lot of options."
On Chelsea's rivals' business, Tuchel said: "You look at the top teams and they look to combat this by making their existing squads stronger. Liverpool bought a fantastic player [Luis Diaz] in January to improve and Man City have signed [Erling] Haaland for next season to make them stronger.
"We are losing players so, at the moment, my focus is to build a strong team and to see what’s even possible and then we can think about how we close the gap to the top."
Asked whether the continuing sanctions imposed on the club are having an effect, Tuchel added: "Maybe we suffer already from the delay. But we will try to have our impact. We have a strong opinion on what’s missing and what we need. We will try to find it and give our opinion and fight for it."