Chelsea's last clash with Tottenham Hotspur feels like an age ago. Roberto Di Matteo was still manager, Fernando Torres was his only option upfront, and Chelsea were exciting the neutral with Juan Mata and Eden Hazard running rampant in an impressive 4-2 win.
The circumstances will be vastly different here. Rafa Benitez is in charge of Chelsea, the stakes are much higher, and significantly, Gareth Bale is available for selection. His recent awards suggest he is the most dangerous attacking player in the division, which isn't far from the truth - when he is given the time and space. Having started out as a flying winger, he's increasingly become a central attacker, where his game has become less about his pace, and more about his incredible long-range shooting. His goal against Southampton is the latest evidence of this, but the sheer threat of his raw speed shouldn't be underestimated, as his double against Arsenal in March illustrated.
Where former Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas wishes to deploy the Welshman will decide his side's formation. They've largely preferred a 4-4-2 in recent weeks, with Bale used behind Emmanuel Adebayor or Jermain Defoe - but they've also looked more comfortable in a 4-3-3, with Bale cutting in from the flank.
That largely depends on the availability of Moussa Dembele - the Belgian has struggled for fitness in recent weeks and appears an injury doubt for this clash. Tom Huddlestone will certainly play a role, either as part of a midfield two, or as the deepest player of a trio. He's impressed in that role in recent weeks - against Manchester City, he helped Tottenham gain control, enjoying the fact he had great freedom and increasing the tempo of the clash with clever distribution. A sliding through ball to Bale for Tottenham's third, decisive goal was a deserved assist, and Chelsea must be wary of his accurate long passing.
Lewis Holtby, a January signing, doesn't seem to be trusted as part of a midfield two (although he played the majority of the Southampton match in that position) - so if he starts, Villas-Boas will have opted for 4-3-3, with the German playing higher up the pitch than Huddlestone, looking to fire passes into the path of Bale. That said, Holtby's only featured in fits and bursts so far for Tottenham due to fitness concerns, and Villas-Boas might be tempted to save him on the bench as an option to mix things up in the second half.
Instead, it might well be an all-English Tottenham midfield, with Scott Parker likely to start despite injury problems. He shared a good relationship with Luka Modric last season, playing deeper in the pivot with his energetic, abrasive style suiting the frantic nature of Harry Redknapp's team. This year, he's become more box-to-box, unusually keen to play more ambitious passes, when he's probably better suited to sitting deep and playing safe, sideways balls to his more talented teammates. He's also prone to some bizarre positional errors, guilty of playing too high up the pitch and leaving space in front of his defence. That's an unusual trait for a ‘defensive' midfielder to have, but the reality is that Parker isn't really a defensive midfielder anymore, and with his lack of creativity, there's no real defined role he can play within the side. Still, due to a lack of options, he'll feature.
Another English midfielder that could feature is youngster Tom Carroll. Carroll won't be particularly well-known to most, but he's an exciting talent in the mould of Luka Modric, or Michael Carrick - excellent technically, and always looking to carry the ball forward. He'd be a very risky choice given his inexperience and [lack of] physicality, but again, he might feature in the second half should Tottenham be chasing the game.
As you can see, there are tons of different midfield options that Villas-Boas has at his disposal for this clash. It's very difficult to give a clear picture of what we can expect from Tottenham on Wednesday, and on that point, it's likely that the selection will be informed by the threats that Chelsea pose. Therefore, Villas-Boas will want to keep things tight between the lines, to prevent Mata, Hazard and Oscar running riot - and so a Huddlestone-Parker pivot seems preferable, with Holtby, Dembele or Carroll tasked with the burden of creativity.
Meanwhile, higher up the pitch, Aaron Lennon appears available for selection once more and will play only one role - wide right, always looking to go down the outside of the defender and cross into the middle. This is where I think Villas-Boas will elect for 4-3-3 - it'll allow Bale to come inside from the right, cutting into the space between the full-back and centre-back, a position where Chelsea have looked vulnerable in recent weeks.
The last team to really negate the threat of Bale was Manchester United, who effectively used two players as a blockade to prevent him coming into central shooting zones. Phil Jones was deployed in a very deep midfield role - Chelsea's most similar player is John Obi Mikel, who appears out of favour under Benitez. Therefore, Ramires will likely play a key role - as always, ‘connecting' the side in attack with his energy, but also tracking back and helping double up on Bale, to limit his influence.
On the opposite flank will almost certainly be Clint Dempsey, who had a slow start to life at Spurs but has grown into a more reliable - not necessarily good - goal scorer. Even when he entered a spectacular run of goalscoring form at Fulham, it was never entirely clear what his best role really was. That trend has continued this season, and the American's been used in a variety of positions, but now seems best suited to playing on the left, coming narrow to offer an extra passing option as well as spinning in behind the defence towards goal.
Up front, it's a straight choice between either Jermain Defoe or Adebayor - the latter theoretically provides hold-up play, and his tendency to drift towards the channel encourages Bale to move centrally, but has been hugely disappointing this season. On the other hand, Kevin McCauley of the Cartilage Free Captain blog sums up Defoe pretty well:
"Independent of how he fits into the team, he's having a better season than Emmanuel Adebayor. He's certainly the better finisher of the two. He's been better at holding up the ball and distributing to his teammates this season than he has been in previous seasons. He is also 5'2" and is still not good at holding up and distributing. He was poor against Southampton."
So that's the striker situation. I think Villas-Boas will opt for Adebayor, mainly as a placeholder for Defoe to come on in the second half and use his pace against tired legs.
Finally, the defence. After facing a laughable ‘dilemma' earlier in the season between Brad Friedel and Hugo Lloris, the latter has firmly become the first-choice for Villas-Boas. He's very quick to come off his line, sweeping in behind Tottenham's high line, which sometimes looks brilliant and sometimes looks awful. His aggressive nature and quick style of distribution makes him a good fit for the system that Villas-Boas has envisaged for this Tottenham team...and while that remains in development, Lloris remains a very good keeper, capable of some stunning reflex saves.
The back four in front of him is marshalled by the recently unshakeable partnership of Jan Vertonghen and Michael Dawson. At first, the Belgian was used at left-back and the Englishman was nearly halfway out of the club and down the road at QPR, but instead they've struck up a good understanding in the centre. Vertonghen is the more forceful, more likely to rush up quickly and stick tight to his designated man, with Dawson covering in behind. The former Ajax product is also the more acclompished technically, and will bring the ball into midfield to attempt creative passes - so much so, he was described as "Ajax's playmaker" by former coach Frank de Boer.
At right-back, Kyle Walker remains fast, which helps cover for his occasional positional lapses, but it's the other flank where Tottenham have a slight selection dilemma. Normally, Benoit Assou-Ekotto would be nailed on first choice, but entertaining Guardian interviews aside, he's had an average season riddled with lapses in concentration and some awful decision-making. Although I think he'll remain in the side for the Chelsea clash, there is the possibility that Kyle Naughton starts. He's very right-footed and so doesn't cross any near as much or as well or Assou-Ekotto - so obvious is this, in fact, that the Cameroonian said in January "I'm not worried [about losing my place] because obviously I can do stuff with my left foot that he can't do" - but instead plays short, safe passes into the central midfielders.
The other option is that Steven Caulker plays centrally with Jan Vertonghen moving to the left side of defence, but this seems unlikely.
If this match is played out at a high tempo, transitions will be key - just as Chelsea threaten in the channels with their exciting creators, they must be aware of where Bale positions himself. No matter what selection Villas-Boas opts for, the midfield will feature at least one quick, accurate long passer who will be capable of finding Bale in space. His game has decreasingly become less about crossing, and more about shooting.