Chelsea are back! The Blues take on Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium at 3:00 PM GMT (that's 7:00 AM PST for us west coast dwellers) and will attempt to take their momentum from a very strong March into April. Chelsea have three wins on the trot - two against top five competition - and coasted into the Champions League quarter finals. Just about the only thing that went wrong last month was the fact that Fernando Torres still hasn't managed his first goal as a Chelsea player. Everything else has been more or less perfect.
Stoke have also had a good month - the Potters are headed to Wembley for an FA Cup semi-final clash against Bolton Wanderers after beating West Ham in the quarter-finals, and their most recent result was a 4-0 spanking of Newcastle United at home. Tony Pullis' side lie in tenth place, although they're significantly close to the drop zone than they are to Tottenham in fifth.
The last time these two sides met was the third game of the season. Chelsea won 2-0 and should have scored more goals, but they also managed to lose Frank Lampard in the process, and would have to do without their iconic midfielder until the end of December, a loss which led to some major growing pains midway through the season. Since that game, both teams have been remade.
Chelsea have added Fernando Torres and Premier League Player of the Month David Luiz, both of whom have made major impacts in the way the team plays. Stoke too are changed, though not necessarily for the better. Eidur Gudjohnsson? Out. Tuncay? Out. John Carew? In. Gone are the flair players with which Pullis seemed to trying to change the culture of the team - now it's back to Stoke-y basics, which will make for unpleasant viewing. They also have a few minor health problems, with Carew, Thomas Sorensen, and Abdoulaye Faye all questionable with various injuries.
For Chelsea the keys are intelligent wide defence and winning aerial challenges. This rules out the 4-4-2 diamond and means that Branislav Ivanovic should start at right back with our now first-choice pairing of John Terry and David Luiz in the middle. With a flat 4-4-2 there's not much room for John Obi Mikel in the midfield, which is a huge shame considering his abilities in the air - he's virtually an extra centre back for those long balls at the top that Chelsea like to try out.
On the left we'll see either Yuri Zhirkov or Florent Malouda, and we're pretty likely to see whoever starts swapped for the other midway through anyway. Ramires is making the wide right position his own, and both Lampard and Michael Essien should be fully rested following the international break. Up top is more interesting. Carlo Ancelotti went for Salomon Kalou and Fernando Torres to start with against Manchester City but although they worked hard the duo failed to create as many chances as the manager would have liked. Will Torres be rested for the Champions League?
My horribly uneducated guess is no. I think we'll get a Nicolas Anelka (no international games!) and Fernando Torres pairing, and that should be enough to cut through Stoke without a problem. I'd imagine Didier Drogba does come in fairly early to spell Torres, though - Ancelotti does have a midweek Champions League game to think about. Here's my stab at a Chelsea lineup:
Chelsea (4-4-2): Petr Cech; Ashley Cole, John Terry, David Luiz, Branislav Ivanovic; Florent Malouda; Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Ramires; Fernando Torres, Nicolas Anelka.
If I had my druthers, it would be a 4-3-3 with a midfield of Mikel, Ramires, and Essien, but the chances of that happening are minimal - although we might see it towards the end of the match if Chelsea can push out to an early lead. Anyway, as long as Carlo doesn't field a diamond against Pullis' wide players, everything should be hunky-dory.
Stoke have shown the ability to turn into a loose 4-5-1 so far this year, so I'd be slightly worried about being outnumbered in the midfield. However, should Ramires provide support coming inside the Blues are unlikely to have too much of a problem keeping possession, and they'll have the players on the pitch to switch to 4-3-3 whenever they feel like it.
This Chelsea team is pretty well set up to deal the Potters, and although we're travelling to Stoke it probably won't be too difficult to notch a win. Pick: 3-1 Chelsea.