Chelsea FC square off against Blackburn Rovers at Stamford Bridge tomorrow following the morale boosting 7-0 rout of Ipswich in the FA Cup. When Chelsea last played Blackburn, they were still flying high, but their performance at Ewood Park signalled the beginning of the end of the good times - the Blues went 1-0 down within a few minutes and were exceptionally fortunate to escape with all three points. Yuri Zhirkov's brilliant cross to Branislav Ivanovic currently stands as the high-water mark of the season, and it was all downhill from there. That was October 30th, and after the match Chelsea were comfortably in first place.
So now here we are, in 5th on January 14th, several thousand points behind leaders Manchester United. The demolition of Ipswich last weekend was Chelsea's first convincing win in several months, so there's more confidence coming into the game than there would have been if this had been immediately after the Wolverhampton debacle (which I still haven't watched). While the Blues have had a turbulent couple of months since we last encountered Rovers, their time hasn't exactly been smooth sailing either - manager Sam Allardyce has been sacked, their results have been erratic, and club owners Venkys have raised eyebrows by acting like an MLS team and going after washed up superstars David Beckham and Ronaldinho.
So, yeah, strange times. What hasn't really changed is the basic nature of the team. Caretaker manager Steve Kean does not appear to have made too many major changes, meaning that the team we saw in October is more or less the same team we'll get tomorrow at the Bridge, with the major exception of rumoured Chelsea target Phil Jones, who suffered a bad knee injury in December and will miss the rest of the season. Expect annoying long-balls and overly physical play, and lots and lots of crosses. Update: Now they've acquired Roque Santa Cruz on loan, so that's interesting.
Chelsea, on the other hand, have changed their shape (from 4-1-2-3 to something more akin to a 4-2-3-1), and lost several players due to injury. They also may choose to include more youth players in recognition of the team's increased fluency during the Ipswich game, which featured very youn talent at left back, striker, and central midfield. It's an open question as to who'll start amongst the strikers, but I'm hoping to see Daniel Sturridge play as a reward for his superb week, perhaps at Didier Drogba's expense.
John Obi Mikel is absent meaning that we'll presumably see a double pivot of Ramires and Michael Essien shielding the defence with Frank Lampard ahead of them. I think this is slightly less effective than the 1-2 when Mikel's playing well, but here's what I wrote about the Nigerian destroyer after the previous Blackburn fixture:
Normally the figure of John Obi Mikel is key is settling down the side, a rock in the back and a steady distributor going forward. During Blackburn's spell of trampling merrily through the Chelsea ranks, the young Nigerian international decided that being metaphorically a rock simply wasn't good enough and decided that we would assume other aspects of the fabled material - i.e. not moving or, indeed, playing football.
Compared to our last outing against Rovers, then, the middle of the pitch should be far more secure. I think Ramires is coming on leaps and bounds, and his improvements should allow Michael Essien to join Lampard in the attack, hopefully balancing out our problems on the right side. It's not out of the question that we see youngster Josh McEachran at some point, but considering the physicality of Blackburn's midfield and the fact that he weighs as much as a newborn hummingbird, starting the 17 year old doesn't seem like the best plan.
Chelsea will be looking to play it through the middle; Blackburn will be attempting to bypass it. The defence will need to be alert for booming punts and we should expect that there'll be a real aerial scrap in front of Petr Cech's goal. If John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic can control the box and our midfield can navigate the varied threats arrayed against them, there's no reason that the Blues can't win this one comfortably.
3-0 Chelsea all the way.