David Luiz makes his starting debut as Chelsea travel to Craven Cottage to square off against Fulham on Monday in what many are describing as a must-win situation. To be honest, it's not actually any more must-win than the rest of our games this year (except for the home matches against Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, which are much more important), but a convincing win here would provide some relief to the Blues' rather anxious fanbase, still embarrassed over last weekend's 1-0 home defeat to Liverpool. It would also lift the team back into fourth place, a position claimed by Tottenham after Nico Kranjcar's wonderful volley gave Spurs three points against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.
It shouldn't be too hard for Chelsea to earn the three points, despite Fulham being a pretty good side at home. Unlike Liverpool, they're unlikely to deploy a three-man back line, and even if they did Chelsea should have the beating of them in the centre anyway. Last time Fulham squared off against the Blues, they lost 1-0 at Stamford Bridge (it would have been by more but for some atrocious finishing from Salomon Kalou), and they answered Chelsea's 4-3-3 with a 4-4-1-1, which I'd expect to be used against us again tomorrow. Gael Kakuta is a notable absence for the Cottagers - he won't be permitted to play against his parent side, which will help mitigate the danger posed by Fulham's left-sided attack.
Chelsea will almost certainly take to the field in a 4-4-2 diamond, and I think we can say with some confidence what the defence and attack will look like. The back line should consist of Ashley Cole, John Terry, Luiz, and Branislav Ivanovic and the forwards will be Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres. However, I think the midfield is a little more up in the air - Nicolas Anelka was far from impressive last week against Lucas, and Carlo Ancelotti will have to add some right-sided width to his midfield in order to counter-balance Ivanovic's more defensive mentality at right back. I also suspect that Florent Malouda will be found in the starting XI once more.
Here's my best guess as to how the team shakes out, then:
Chelsea (4<4>2): Petr Cech; Ashley Cole, John Terry, David Luiz, Branislav Ivanovic; Michael Essien, Florent Malouda, Ramires, Frank Lampard; Fernando Torres, Didier Drogba.
I'm not even going to try to project Fulham's team, but the major threat will obviously be coming down the flanks. It's likely that Chelsea will outnumber the home side in the midfield (even if Clint Dempsey plays a roaming role, it'll be three vs. four), which means that there'll be a corresponding weakness elsewhere. With the diamond shape, that's almost always on the wings. Cole and Ivanovic must take pains not to get caught out of position, which probably means both Torres and Drogba will have to do more wide attacking work than either would like.
Chelsea have had a couple of weeks to experiment with a system that includes both Drogba and our new 50M toy, so we'll probably see a more assured performance from them this week. Combine that with the fact that Fulham will probably not field a direct counter to the diamond, and we have a recipe for a pretty major bounce-back at Craven Cottage. Expect Chelsea to dominate possession and use their individual qualities - despite Fulham having some rather good central midfielders, they don't come close to Chelsea's quality here - to force some play through the centre, and if we're lucky we'll get an early good and be able to hit them on the break with Torres' pace.
Pick: 3-1 Chelsea