This might be the most important game against Birmingham City that Chelsea will ever play. It's certainly the most important that I can remember, but considering I have a bad memory and haven't been on the planet that long, that's not really that high a bar. Anyway, Chelsea play Birmingham City in the FA Cup at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. At stake is a place in the quarterfinals, one that looks pretty appealing with the two Manchester sides already out of the competition.
Why is this match so important? As you may have noticed, the Blues aren't exactly in a happy place right now. Since beating Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road in an unimpressive performance, Chelsea are on a run of three draws and a loss, and have dropped to fifth in the Premier League as a result. They need something good to happen, and this game presents us with the chance to either regain some confidence or make everything ten times worse.
We're fairly familiar with Birmingham, since they were a Premier League side last year, but this might not be quite the same team we remember. Like all relegated sides, they had a fire sale upon going down, with most of their big names leaving. They losr manager Alex McLeish, which makes them infinitely more likeable. In his place is former Newcastle boss Chris Hughton.
Hughton has lead his men on a thirteen match unbeaten run, which is considerably better than our current zero, and Chelsea will be looking to break that up on Saturday. Obviously, the Blues are much tougher opponents than anyone Birmingham's faced so far this season, so their form probably isn't anything to worry about, but it's still not entirely clear how Andre Villas-Boas is going to handle his squad.
Several players are on the very edge of a return from injury, and it may be better off to withhold some remaining stars for the more important match against Napoli next week. John Terry is back in training but could do with a few more days rest, so he won't play. Ramires is available but would more valuable at the San Paolo than here. Salomon Kalou and Didier Drogba have returned from the Africa Cup of Nations, but with minimal training for both they'd only be available to start in an emergency. Ashley Cole is definitely out.
The latest round of everyone-hates-AVB seems to indicate that the manager wants to field a young team but that the players want to prioritise the tournament and field the strongest team possible. Considering the way the youth team has been playing in their version of the FA Cup, I'm not sure that those two options are mutually exclusive, but as much as I'd like to see the likes of Islam Feruz and Jonathan Swift get a runout, that's clearly not going to happen.
Instead, I think we'll see a mix between old and new. Ryan Bertrand is almost guaranteed a start. Romelu Lukaku might beat out Fernando Torres up top, although I think that's unlikely, because Drogba will be preventing Torres from starting in the forseeable future. The tactics used for the Napoli game will inform some of Andre Villas-Boas's decisions here - he's going to have to counter a very good 3-4-2-1 in the San Paolo, and that means he'll have to have two energetic midfielders plus a holder ready to play on Tuesday.
Resting Juan Mata is an option, but if Mata isn't included and we lose, I'd expect the manager to get sacked faster than a roadrunner on cocaine (I assume this is fast, based on Looney Tunes). Instead, we're probably going to see something a little like this:
That'd leave plenty of players rested and ready for Napoli - the only ones I'd expect to start that match from the team above are Cech, David Luiz, Michael Essien and Juan Mata, and we'll have the ability to pull those off early to preserve their legs.
Birmingham also face some selection issues, although for Hughton there's no doubt he'll attempt to field the strongest team available. Unfortunately his squad is both small and rather injured, with Marlon King, Nikola Zigic and Guirane N’Daw each absent and a bunch of youngsters called up fill out the numbers. Expect to see a 4-5-1 with Adam Rooney as the lone striker. Birmingham will defend fairly deep with nine men and trying to hit Chelsea on the counterattack. It worked against us last year, and we're even more prone to the odd awful moment now, but I don't think it'll happen again.
Anyway, the match is on at 12:30 PM GMT (7:40 AM EST), which isn't very long from now. Join us here for the game thread, and leave your preferred lineups and predicted scores in the comments.