According to this report by The Mirror -- I know -- Jose Mourinho plans to "sacrifice" the FA Cup to further the club's chances in other competitions. Chelsea are certainly the most-successful side of recent decades in the competition, and the decision to cast it aside in favour of other pursuits may rub some Chelsea supporters the wrong way, especially since it looks one of our better chances for silverware this season. Personally, I think it makes a certain amount of sense. Here's why.
The most-obvious benefit would be to rest the top players who appeared to hit a wall against West Bromwich Albion after playing several consecutive matches without a break. With the club well-placed for a title challenge this season, giving top players rest at the cost of a chance at the FA Cup will help in many ways in the months to come. Not only will it help ensure Chelsea have the freshest top players in April and May, but it will keep the less-favoured players match-fit in the frame in case of injury or loss of form. Crashing out of the cup at this stage also buys the club another rest period when the next round is played.
With tonight's postponement of City's match against Sunderland, adding even more congestion to their fixture list, in the form of an extra FA Cup tie, will leave City that little bit more tired and thus more-likely to slip up at the end of the season. But that presumes Manchester City will come in, all guns blazing, and take revenge on Chelsea for doing the Premier League double on them. I don't think it's anything like that clear-cut.
You see, City play Barcelona just days after the big match against Chelsea. There's every chance they too elect to rest some of their top players for that more-important match. Even if they don't, though, there's no guarantee Chelsea have to lose the match. [No matter what your rich Internet bookmaker friends in Hong Kong tell you.] Chelsea have a deep squad. Our "Second XI" isn't exactly a bunch of slouches either.
If we take a look at the players the Mirror are suggesting will play, a certain tactical picture begins to emerge. Obviously, it's the Mirror, so it's 63% sure to be rubbish. However, if it holds true this weekend, and the likes of Cole, Schürrle, Salah, Torres, Lampard, and Mikel all play, I think we'll be in for an interesting match. With Gary Cahill injured and John Terry likely given extra time to recover from his own injury, I think the team could resemble something like the following.
Now, that's certainly not the first line-up you'd probably choose to face a team like City, but I think it could prove yet another Mourinho masterstroke. If City came at Chelsea with the full force of their might, it's very likely that Chelsea will be pushed back deep in their own half. Now, the back line probably isn't the best for that kind of resistance, but as the 2011-12 Champions League run proves, you can beat teams even with Jose Bosingwa at centre-back.
But I digress. If we assume that those defenders could be capable of pulling off an all-hands-to-the-pumps kind of mission, we start to look forward. With two actual full-backs, two lightning-fast wingers, Ramires, and even Fernando Torres, you can see a team designed to stay compact to win the ball back, then break at top speed to maximum effect. Obviously, there are no guarantees in football, and this plan, should it be implemented, could fail spectacularly.
Even if it does fail, and Chelsea can't score the goals to take the match, having such a quick squad on the break should put plenty of miles into the legs of City. Miles they can't exactly afford right now, considering the importance of the fixtures they've got ahead and their sheer number. If City run themselves out chasing Chelsea rabbits now, without any opportunity for a solid rest on the horizon, it could affect their season in the long-term.
Of course, everything I said is still just speculation, but I think there's plenty of sense in it if it comes to pass. Really, Chelsea lose nothing long-term by going out of the FA Cup -- and maybe even gain a little -- while simultaneously resting their top players, keeping their Second XI match-fit, and tiring City's players at a critical period of the season. If Chelsea can manage to sneak a win, though, all three of those things will still be true. City's fixture list is still pretty congested, and the players will be just as rested. The only differences are that Chelsea will have more fixtures, but will be in with a good chance at a second League and Cup double.
As I said, I don't know if the reports are true, but, to me anyway, it shows the club have moved towards medium-to-long-term thinking. Attritional football may not be the best-received strategy, but it has the ring of yet another perfect Mourinho call, and one which will be forgotten come May.