West Ham United at home. The last time we played this fixture was a seminal moment in recent Chelsea history: Legendary striker and blood-stained hero Fernando Torres scored his first goal for the club, battling through
a big puddle the elements to blast past Rob Green with 84 minutes on the clock. Stamford Bridge sang his name as he slid towards the corner flag in celebration. Heady days indeed.
Things went less well the last time we faced this team, of course. Chelsea were denied their first win under Rafa Benitez despite a superb first-half performance when Sam Allardyce's crew came roaring back to give us a 3-1 pasting that also served as a nice demonstration of the frailties of the Blues' midfield (specifically, we are weak against Mohamed Diames). With Liverpool beating Tottenham Hotspur earlier in the week, the third place battle is open again, and it's therefore imperative to make sure we don't get a repeat of the debacle at Upton Park this time.
Fortunately, the Hammers' form has fallen off dramatically since December, and they're skulking around in the bottom half of the table these days. Until a 1-0 win at Stoke City two weeks ago, West Ham had been on a five-game losing streak away from home, and they've been well off their early pace for some time. They're certainly not opposition Chelsea can expect to simply walk over, but that's true of pretty much everyone these days.
Given that Benitez deployed his strongest possible starting eleven in the 3-1 Europa League win against Steaua Bucharest, it's not entirely clear whether Chelsea will field a full-strength team against West Ham. It'd be a surprise to see the trio of Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar behind Demba Ba, and we should probably expect Frank Lampard to make a return to the pivot.
It's difficult to predict how Chelsea will end up looking, but at least the visitors are fairly predictable. They'll cede possession, defend in numbers and look to hit us on set pieces. They'll almost certainly win the battle in the air as well as most aerial secondary balls and the Blues should do their best to keep the ball on the ground and deny them the wings.
Although we're used to the idea of Sam Allardyce sides being very organised defensively, West Ham have had trouble dealing with intelligent passing sides so far this year. The midfield trio will be key, and Chelsea's attack will hinge on the double pivot being able to supply them with the ball.
Chelsea injuries and suspensions
Out: Oriol Romeu (knee)
West Ham United injuries and suspensions
Out: Kevin Nolan (toe), Mark Noble (arm). In doubt: Joe Cole (hamstring), George McCartney (knee).
Aside from the long-term absence of Romeu, Chelsea are in pretty good shape. West Ham, however, will be missing knockdown-monster Kevin Nolan and the absence of Mark Noble will hurt as well. No luck on us avoiding Diame, however.
Date/Time: Sunday, March 17th. 4:00 p.m. GMT, 12:00 p.m. EDT, 9:30 p.m. IST.
Venue: Stamford Bridge, London.
TV schedule: Fox Soccer Channel (USA), ESPN (India).
Who thinks they can guess lineups and final scores?