Chelsea already hold a two-point lead one game into their UEFA Champions League campaign, and now they face what's likely to be their most difficult match of the group stages - the journey to Spain to face Valencia. Their opponents were leading La Liga with a 100% record until the fourth week of the season, at which point they drew with Barcelona at home. That's a good result, of course, but their next game didn't go so well - they were beaten 1-0 by Sevilla and thus slipped to seventh.
It's interesting to hear how the level of competition in La Liga has improved this year. It hasn't - there've just been some really freakish results. Goal differential is a better predictor of future points than current points are, and first place Real Betis have a GD of +3. Barcelona and Real Madrid, despite dropping points, have a GD of +18 and +11 respectively. Through five games. Competitive!
Anyway. I read a book on prion diseases today, and one of the things that was mentioned was a Spanish medieval shepherd's union that controlled the merino flocks called the Mesta. Given that Valencia play in the world-famous Estadio Mestalla, this immediately stuck in my head as a possibly-interesting origin story for the stadium's name. Alas, it isn't - the Mesta operated in Castile, and Valencia is in Valencia. I'm assuming Mestalla comes from the same sort of roots, but there goes my attempt to be well-read. I should stick to football, I suppose.
Valencia aren't as good as Chelsea, especially not now that they've sold us Juan Mata, but they're not a bad team either, and the Blues will have to be very careful around them. Vice-captain Roberto Solgado is on an absolute tear and is going to cause the defence some problems - he's already gotten a goal past a Chelsea keeper this year, beating Thibaut Courtois with an absolutely brilliant header two weeks ago - and the prospect of an appearance by Sergio Canales off the bench is a fairly frightening prospect if the midfield doesn't take control of things.
In the centre Ever Banega runs the show, and he's stepped things up since Mata left for greener pastures. Banega repeatedly pushed Javier Pastore out of the Argentina squad during this summer's Copa America, and while I think that was a pretty bad mistake on Argentina's part, he's still a highly regarded central midfielder who's still young and getting better.
Defensively, Valencia are unspectacular. They've already conceded five goals in three home matches so far in their domestic campaign (two of them were to Barcelona, admittedly) and the combination of Victor Ruiz and Adil Rami isn't going to win them any plaudits. However, it's not bad either, and if Valencia can win the tactical battle their back line should be able to see off the Chelsea threat.
And tactics is where things will get interesting. It's difficult not to be impressed by Unai Emery, who managed to outwit Pep Guardiola less than a fortnight ago by taking advantage of Dani Alves' positional weakness at right back,. and Andre Villas-Boas is in for a real fight on his hands. Chelsea currently have several exploitable weaknesses, and it will not be possible to mitigate all of them at once.
Defensively, Jose Bosingwa and Ashley Cole haven't been setting the world on fire. There's nothing Chelsea can do about Cole (especially with Ryan Bertrand not even eligible for Champions League play), but Bosingwa can and probably should be replaced by right back Branislav Ivanovic to solidify that side. This will also benefit the centre back pair by opening a spot up for David Luiz, who should be more capable with dealing with a high line than Ivanovic, and provides other benefits going forwards as well.
The rest of the team is a bit of a mess. Reacting to Valencia's threats means you want Ramires tracking Banega and Mikel or Oriol Romeu as holding midfielder to deal with the potential Canales threat. Going by players who've been rested, Florent Malouda and Frank Lampard should probably get starts, lest they go into strops. Juan Mata is definitely going to play, and on the right I'd be tempted to pick Daniel Sturridge and just instruct him to cause as much chaos as possible and not worry about linkup play. Fernando Torres is a no-brainer at striker now, but if he hadn't been sent off against Swansea and facing a long suspension, I'd have preferred seeing Didier Drogba here.
The major selection dilemma, at least for me, is the central midfield. We have several problems to solve. The biggest one is to win the game, of course, but the centre needs to be balanced enough to supply the attack while robust enough to hold off Valencia's midfield. That combination is a little bit difficult to manage, especially when you have big names like Lampard and Malouda involved.
Personally, I think that Malouda should start on the left wing, Mata should play in the hole, and Lampard and Ramires should form a double pivot. Malouda's ability to link up with Cole and Mata is probably going to generate a lot of chances for Torres while causing some issues for the right fullback, and having a strong connection to Torres is vital if you're going to play Sturridge on the left. That all leaves two more midfield slots, and I think Chelsea would be best served going to a 4-2-3-1 and letting Lampard sit back and spray passes wide.
One of the striking things about the way Valencia play is their lack of width, especially off the ball. They are incredibly compact when they go into their defensive shape, both vertically and laterally, and while that means they're hard to get through, it should also be possible to outflank them. Teams get away with this because crossfield balls travel relatively slowly and it's easy to adjust to them mid-flight, but if Chelsea can hit them with a diagonal on the transition (Sturridge will be a useful target here) they can probably expect good things.
I'm not sure what's going on in Villas-Boas' mind - undoubtedly there are many things I've missed that he's noticed. I'm not going to try to project a lineup here, but I am going to give my ideal one:
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Petr Cech; Ashley Cole, John Terry, David Luiz, Branislav Ivanovic; Frank Lampard, Ramires; Florent Malouda, Juan Mata, Daniel Sturridge; Fernando Torres.
I have no idea what AVB will concoct for this one, but it should be a fascinating match. I don't expect Chelsea to win it - a draw is more than enough for our purposes, and that's what I'm expecting: I've got us down for 1-1 here. Join us on Wednesday at 7:45 PM GMT (2:45 PM EST) for the game thread.