With Tottenham only managing a 0-0 draw against West Ham earlier today, this game's lost a tiny beat of meaning, but Manchester City's visit to Stamford Bridge still represents an opportunity for both City and Chelsea to solidify their hold on the Champions League places as well as to put pressure on second place Arsenal. The winner of this match takes third place in the league, and if Chelsea manage to emerge with three points they'll be just nine shy of leaders Manchester United with a game in hand. It'll be interesting times to say the least.
However, Chelsea have picked up a grand total of zero points in their last three matches against City, with an aggregate scoreline of 7-3 against. We lost 1-0 earlier this season after Carlos Tevez scored on the break to go along with 2-1 away last year and an embarrassing 4-2 reverse at home. For all of the Blues' good work against other top teams in the past couple of years, they've been abysmal against a re-tooled City, who've repeatedly soaked up pressure and scored goals on the counterattack. Can Chelsea stop the bleeding in one of the most important matches of the year?
With several key players rested for most of the Blues' home 0-0 draw to FC Copenhagen in midweek while City were forced to chase a game against Dynamo Kiev (and with ten men no less), Chelsea should be in better shape to play. However, I'm not convinced that fatigue will be a huge factor. It's good to be well-rested, of course, but that's hardly going to decide the match.
If history is anything to go on, Roberto Mancini will play a very defensive 4-2-3-1 with Kolo Toure dropping back much deeper than we're used to seeing from the centre man in the third band. In Carlos Tevez they have a striker more than capable of hurting the Blues. David Silva is often talked about as among the best in the league out wide, although his best work was mostly done a few months ago. On the other flank we could see either Shaun Wright-Phillips or Aleksander Kolarov with an off chance that Adam Johnson plays after the England winger made a swifter than expected recovery from an ankle injury.
City will probably field a defensive shield of Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong to block off the centre and stifle Chelsea's attacks. The pair will sit in front of the centre back and offer support should Chelsea field two true centre forwards (which is a little more likely after Didier Drogba's excellent all-round performance against Copenhagen). Joe Hart's goal will be further protected by an underrated defence including the majestic Vincent Kompany. Manchester City have produced more clean sheets than anyone else in the league.
Carlo Ancelotti, meanwhile, is faced with an interesting dilemma. His 4-4-2 has beaten FC Copenhagen in the Champions League, beaten Manchester United, and beaten Blackpool. Three out of the more matches in which Chelsea fielded a flat 4-4-2 were against similar formations - only Blackpool used a different shape, and Chelsea were hardly convincing at Bloomfield Road despite winning that match 3-1. Now the Blues are faced with a very good team that will field an extremely dangerous three man midfield. How will they react?
It might not be totally insane for them to keep the shape as is - Ramires, who's much improved since his last outing against City, plays centrally enough to provide support to the middle pairing, and even if City do dominate possession they won't be able to use the counterattack nearly as effectively if they dominate the match. If Ancelotti keeps the 4-4-2 rather than going back to the 4-3-3, it's because he's willing and happy to cede possession to his guests, probably in the hope that the ball will actually blunt their attacks.
Whether or not that's a particularly clever idea I'm not entirely sure, although it's not what I would do - John Obi Mikel needs to be reinstated into the team as soon as possible and there's no way he fits into a 4-4-2 without dropping Frank Lampard to the bench, a move that will never, ever happen. Matching the midfield shape with a 4-3-3 makes much more sense to me, although that does lead to some selection problems with Ramires and Michael Essien seemingly battling it out for one spot.
The defence is a little more obvious - it'll just be Chelsea's standard back four at this point. They've been playing very well lately and there's no reason to mix things up. David Luiz will start after being cup-tied alongside captain John Terry in the centre, and they'll be flanked by Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic. After all of our injury problems, it's nice to finally have some stability in the back line again. Petr Cech's place in goal is also unquestioned.
Striker is a different story. We know that Fernando Torres will start, but if Chelsea run a 4-4-2 again that leaves only one out of Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, and Salomon Kalou to start. I think we'll see the Drogba/Torres partnership run out for another test, to be honest - Drogba was just too good on Wednesday to consider dropping, and his strength combined with the finesse of Torres' play should prove a lethal combination.
In other words, I'd expect a Chelsea team geared for the counterattack against a City team also looking to hit on the break, so things might get a little bit weird. Manchester City should keep the ball more thanks to their numerical superiority in the midfield, but Chelsea will be more dangerous on the break - no matter how good Carlos Tevez may be, he's not better than a Drogba/Torres combination. Assuming Chelsea defend solidly, this really shouldn't be too much of a problem.
Expected Lineup (4-4-2): Petr Cech; Ashley Cole, John Terry, David Luiz, Branislav Ivanovic; Florent Malouda, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Ramires; Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres.
Score Prediction: 2-0 Chelsea