Chelsea aren't going to win the Premier League. If there was any doubt about that, it was erased when the team could only emerge from the Britannia Stadium with a solitary point, while Manchester United came back from 2-0 down to West Ham to secure all three.
But they might just win the Champions League. The path to the finals isn't too difficult - one of a vastly weakened Inter Milan or relative minnows Schalke 04 await in the semi-finals, and I'd like Chelsea's chances in the ninety minutes of a final at Wembley, even against the likes of Real Madrid or Barcelona. But first there's a question of navigating the quarter-final tie, and there's no question that the team we're facing is both familiar and lethal. Manchester United. 7:45 PM GMT Wendesday. Stamford Bridge.
More than any other team in the Premier League era, Manchester United fear Chelsea. Nobody else has played them harder, whether that be at Stamford Bridge (the site of the first leg) or Old Trafford. However, it's not as thought United never beat the Blues. They do, and they do so regularly. They're just not invincible against us. All of which makes for a fascinating contest - the two best teams in England over the past six years battling it out to earn a spot in the semi-finals and a probable berth at Wembley.
Both sides will probably have some major absentees. For Chelsea, there are only two available centre halves - Alex is still missing with a knee injury and compatriot David Luiz is cup-tied, while the presence of Rio Ferdinand in United's back line is a major doubt. Luiz, of course, was the inspiration behind Chelsea's come from behind win against United at Stamford Bridge last month, and he'll be keenly missed tomorrow.
The key to beating Manchester United right now is to capitalise on the weakness in the centre. Wayne Rooney's erratic form has led Sir Alex Ferguson to play a 4-4-2 to give the England man a strike partner (although in practice Rooney often drops deep to create a 4-2-3-1 that isn't), and that leaves the middle of the pitch extraordinarily weak by United's standards. If Chelsea's midfield can capitalise in the centre, the rest of the game will be much easier - although the return of Antonio Valencia gives United some real thrust in width as well.
If Chelsea don't manage to break down the centre of the pitch, they're going to be in real trouble unless they move back to a 4-3-3. Despite having nominally played a 4-4-2 over the last month or so, Carlo Ancelotti's side are lacking width thanks to the natural inclination of Ramires to cut inside and the woeful incompetence of the left midfielders (when Yuri Zhirkov was given a chance to unseat Florent Malouda, he didn't exactly shine).
With Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres both available and and their best in the centre, Ancelotti will be tempted to shoehorn them into a two-striker formation. That could be a mistake unless he's very careful to keep the wide players wide in order to pin back both Patrice Evra and Rafael de Silva - if they're not contained we'll get two on one overloads between United's wingers and Chelsea's fullbacks, and while Ashley Cole might be able to deal with that Jose Bosingwa almost certainly will not.
Another major issue is the important of a clean sheet for the Blues. United probably wouldn't mind a 2-1 loss at Stamford Bridge as long as they can secure an away goal, and if Chelsea push too high up the pitch they run a real risk of having their relatively ponderous (even more so with Luiz out) back line exposed to the pace of Javier Hernandez or Wayne Rooney. If United set out to frustrate their hosts and hit on the counter, Chelsea could have some major problems.
However, the game is still very winnable. Using Ramires in the middle to harass United's deep central midfielders is a must, and I'd think that pairing him with Michael Essien would probably give Chelsea more ability to control the game than Frank Lampard does - although far less ability to make something out of it once the initiative rests with us. Some thought might be given to Josh McEachran as a deep-lying playmaker, but ultimately he probably isn't ready for such a big stage just yet, leaving either John Mikel Obi or Michael Essien as your candidates for the defensive midfielder slot. I'd pick Mikel, but Carlo almost certainly won't.
The defensive line is picked for us thanks to injuries - Ashley Cole, John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic and Jose Bosingwa are a solid unit with some weaknesses, particularly on the right, where Ivanovic can be prone to mental gaffes and Bosingwa is often afflicted with deadly where-the-hell-are-you-Jose-Bosingwa syndrome. Petr Cech, probably Chelsea's player of the year, will start in goal.
The forwards are another question entirely, especially in a 4-3-3. Didier Drogba should probably get the start considering his good work against more or less everyone lately, but that might not mean dropping Torres to the bench. Even when the man's been playing as a centre forward in a pairing he's been acting like a support striker, and he's both quick enough and clever enough to play on the wing effectively. Yuri Zhirkov's directness would probably be useful on the other side of the pitch, and he's more prone than any other possibly left forward to help out in defence.
Preferred Starting XI (4-3-3): Cech; Cole, Terry, Ivanovic, Bosingwa; Mikel, Lampard, Ramires; Zhirkov, Drogba, Torres.
I'd still be very worried about the possibility of United sneaking an away goal, but I'm fairly confident that that squad can dominate the game and create plenty of chances. From there, luck takes over. These teams are really too close to have it any other way - let's just hope it's not too fickle and stays on our side this time.
Pick: 1-0 Chelsea.