When you're last real hope of a trophy is the Champions League and you're Chelsea, it's a pretty good indication that you're in for a season without silverware. We're probably not going to win the competition this year (or any year), but failing to advance past the Round of 16 for the second year in a row would be a bit of an embarrassment, especially as Chelsea got the most favourable draw possible in facing FC Copenhagen. That isn't to say, of course, that progress to the quarter-finals will be easy. There are no easy matches left in the competition. But considering last year we won our group only to run into Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan in the first knockout round, we should count our blessings.
FC Copenhagen are an interesting side. I previewed them briefly after the draw in December, but let's go into a little more depth now. The Danish side broadly fits into a 4-4-1-1, with the central midfielders dropping deep to defend en masse or pushing forward to support the strikers. After the jump is a look at their most frequently used Champions League lineup:
GK: #21 Johan Wiland
LB: #17 Oscar Wendt
LCB: #15 Mikael Antonsson
RCB: #25 Mathias Zanka Jorgensen
RB: #2 Zdenek Pospech
LM: #20 Martin Vingaard
LCM: #6 Domingues De Souza Claudemir
RCM: #8 William Kvist
RM: #30 Christian Bolanos
SK: #10 Jesper Gronkjaer
CF: #14 N'Doye Dame
This side managed a 1-1 home draw with Barcelona and beat Panithanikos away fairly handily, and is adaptable for different situations. Against teams which can control possession at a high level, Copenhagen will drop into a defensive shell reminiscent of Fulham under Roy Hodgson, sitting tight with two banks of four and looking for Gronkjaer to feed Dame for quick counter-attacks. Against sides where they match up better in the midfield, they can push both Claudemir and Kvist forward to contest that zone.
We should probably expect the former arrangement against Chelsea, who have one of the finest central midfield corps around despite a rather depressing series of performances. No matter which of the 4-4-2 diamond and 4-1-2-3 Carlo Ancelotti deploys, Chelsea are going to have the vast majority of possession in the first two thirds of the pitch. in the final third, it might become problematic.
According to several tweets yesterday, we should expect to see a '4-4-2' with Fernando Torres and Nicolas Anelka, with Didier Drogba starting on the bench. Keeping Drogba in reserve makes total sense considering the striker played 120 minutes of football on Saturday, as did Ramires, Ashley Cole, Florent Malouda, and Frank Lampard. John Obi Mikel, Michael Essien, Yuri Zhirkov, and Nicolas Anelka all played partial matches and should be fully fit, while Jose Bosingwa has returned from injury to solidify right back. Unfortunately David Luiz is cup tied in the Champions League, having already played in the competition with Benfica, so our defensive line isn't exactly spoiled for choice.
What makes a little less sense is Chelsea running a 4-4-2 diamond without both Drogba and Torres, especially considering that Anelka is perfectly capable as a wide forward. I'm going to make one of my guesses again and say that we're going to get the good old 4-3-3 tomorrow. There are a number of positions that are still up in the air, however - let's first get all the players down who we can be pretty sure of starting: Petr Cech, Terry, Ivanovic, Bosingwa, Mikel, Essien, Anelka, and Torres are all good candidates for the team tomorrow, for various reasons. This leaves left back, a central midfield spot, and left forward all open.
Left back: The choice here is between Ashley Cole, who played 120 minutes of football against Everton and looked fatigued and slow before missing a penalty, and Yuri Zhirkov, who played something like eight minutes and didn't participate in the shootout. Cole's been complaining all season of various aches and pains, and Carlo Ancelotti may see fit to rest him here. If he does, it won't be Ryan Bertrand to take his place, as Carlo is actually allergic to people under 23 years of age.
Midfield: Our options are Ramires, Zhirkov, Josh McEachran, and Lampard, two of whom played the full match this weekend. I'd be shocked if McEachran was deployed in the knockout stages of the Champions League without even a league start under his belt, and the Yuri Zhirkov midfield experiment has produced some interesting results. Although Lampard has had some injury problems this year, I don't think his game-to-game fitness is actually too bad, and Ramires should be young enough to play a full two hours of football every day.
Left Forward: I think we've got a choice between Malouda, Kalou/Anelka*, and Zhirkov, who can literally play any position with 'left' in it. Malouda's been poor, injured, and played 120 minutes, so I'd rule him out. Zhirkov would be an interesting choice, as he provides the ability to threaten in wide areas Malouda's supposed to but hasn't.
*Anelka would play left, Kalou on the right.
So, with all of that in mind, here's my semi-educated guess for the lineups tomorrow:
Copenhagen (4-4-1-1): Wiland; Wendt, Antonsson, Jorgensen, Pospech; Vingaard, Claudemir, Kvist, Bolanos; Gronkjaer; Dame.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Zhirkov, Terry, Ivanovic, Bosingwa; Mikel, Lampard, Essien; Anelka, Torres, Kalou.
Now, bear in mind that I'm always wrong about this, so we'll probably end up seeing Josh McEachran, trequartista or something insanely awesome instead. Anyway, Copenhagen will defend deeply, we'll find it difficult to generate scoring chances without Sideshow Jesus' ridiculously good long passes, and everyone will bemoan our lack of creativity**. Half of this paragraph may have been written just to give me the chance to write that footnote.
**Which gives me the perfect opportunity to question just what 'creativity' means in a footballing sense, anyway. Putting a through ball through a massed defence is simply a matter of vision, superior technique, and having competent teammates. A really creative player would tie helium balloons to his shorts and fly around the stadium, or have his defender taken out via sniper, or something. Nobody ever says, 'I could play Torres in with the pass everyone expects, or I could announce my retirement right now, on the pitch, and take up tapdancing with the penguins in Antarctica***.' Footballers are creative like I'm James Joyce.
***Penguins tapdance in my world, ok?
I've basically already told you what to expect from the first leg. Copenhagen will defend like devils and Chelsea will find it very difficult to get through. Barcelona didn't have a great day at Parken, but Barcelona have demolished a good many teams great day or no, so these guys clearly know what they're doing. They are going to try to play up the winter break as though it's some sort of disadvantage, but they're going to be completely fresh and Chelsea are most definitely not. Getting an away goal at Parken will be tough, and in Dame N'Doye Copenhagen have a striker capable of producing moments on magic.
Granted, we've got two of those of our own. We'll see how things go tomorrow, but expect a very, very tight game.
Pick: 0-0 Draw