Chelsea vs. Sunderland. Last year, this was our darkest hour. A 3-0 loss at Stamford Bridge to a team that ended up in tenth place. That sort of thing just didn't happen. Not at home. Fast forward 14 months and we're all a lot more used to weird home losses after a half season of epic failure, so that defeat isn't quite the festering psychic wound it used to be, but I'd still really really really like to avenge it.
At this point, that sounds easier said than done against a revitalised Sunderland team. Since Martin O'Neill took the helm of the Black Cats, they've done some pretty impressive things, including becoming only the second Premier League team to dispatch Manchester City. However good the results are, though, Sunderland simply cannot field as good a team as Chelsea can. Against City, they relied on luck (a lot of it) and a fluke offside goal at the death to snatch three points. It's a formula that can work against the top clubs - goodness knows it's worked against us plenty - but it's not the mark of a team that expects to get a result.
There's a lot of fear that Chelsea will lose this game. That's reasonable, considering the way which we've wantonly discarded points this year, but when you compare these two sides it's difficult to see a rational reason why anyone would be picking Sunderland to win. But irrationality is the heart of fanhood, so I guess I shouldn't make too much of a fuss about that one.
Branislav Ivanovic, John Obi Mikel and Micheal Essien are all probably out (although close to returning), but Daniel Sturridge returns from injury, making the front line significantly more fearsome than it is with Juan Mata and Florent Malouda flanking Fernando Torres. It will be interesting to see if Torres gets another chance to start up top - there's a decent argument to be made in favour of a front three of Mata, Sturridge and Ramires. The last one of that trio has been incredibly impressive when he's been pushed wide forward, and with Sturridge in significantly better goalscoring form than Torres it might makes sense to just play the hot hand.
That front three would be an intriguing proposition, but there's also real merit into giving Torres, who isn't playing horribly, a little more time and seeing just what he ends up doing. I'd hesitate to assume he'll rip apart a well-organised, deep-lying Sunderland defence, but he's moving away from the centre of the box and creating overloads in fun areas of the pitch, so he may be able to avoid the worst of things (although his drifting is taking him away from goal, which isn't a huge plus). Andre Villas-Boas will probably go the 'safe' route and play Torres - hopefully that pays off.
That means Ramires goes into the midfield, and after a series of relatively weak performances I'd expect Raul Meireles dropped with Frank Lampard (who was really rather good against Portsmouth) retaining his place. Oriol Romeu is uncontested at the base of the triangle, so in he goes. We're rather constricted in defence as well with Gary Cahill not yet official and Ivanovic out, so expect the standard back four.
Here's my projected Blues lineup, then:
Look for Lampard to be sacrificed for Malouda should Villas-Boas decide to switch to a 4-2-3-1 if the game's level around the hour mark.
CareFree Chronicles has pointed out Sunderland's threat on the break, so there's not that much point rehashing it. Their counterattacks, however, are not the only threats Chelsea will have to navigate on Saturday - they've got Sebastian Larsson and his magical free kicks to deal with as well.
Considering how bad we've been at defending free kicks this year and how good Larsson is at taking them, I'd be incredibly worried about conceding free kicks anywhere near Cech's box, and our defence is not exactly good at not fouling people. Fortunately, Larsson's main threat is direct, and you'd expect the goalkeeper to do reasonably well against shots from free kicks, but the Swede is still dangerous when he's delivering crosses, and the prospect of him banking the ball off Nicklas Bendtner's head and in is fairly unpleasant.
So! Don't give them too many opportunities to do that, please. Ultimately, I think we'll be fine, although that might be the confidence that comes with not having watched the Aston Villa debacle. Anyway - confident or not, join us at We Ain't Got No History for the match thread at 3:00 PM GMT (10:00 AM EST). It'll be fun. Guaranteed*!
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