In September, if you would have told Andre Villas-Boas that he would be playing Birmingham in the fifth round of the FA Cup, he would have shrugged it off as background noise, just another fixture in the heavy schedule of late winter.
But in reality, Chelsea’s fifth-round FA Cup tie at Stamford Bridge could boil down to be the biggest of Villas-Boas’ young career with the Blues.
Chelsea has been an abysmal team in recent weeks, winless in their last four league games and barely able to scrape out a win against QPR in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Strikers aren’t scoring, midfielders aren’t controlling the ball and defenders are giving away easy goals.
This has all led to Villas-Boas being on the hot seat. One of his only two life lines remaining is winning this tournament.
The other life line actually complicates this one.
Chelsea travel to Napoli immediately after hosting Birmingham. With only three days of rest, they will take on the tough Italian side in their first leg of the Champions League round of 16.
Villas-Boas’ managerial skills will have to be at their best as he balances the many variables that go into this weekend and beyond. He does not want to concede the FA cup as it is his most reasonable shot at silverware. But at the same time, embarrassment in Europe could be even more catastrophic.
Here is my predicting starting XI for the FA Cup game.
It has been a tough year for the 29-year-old keeper. He is having his worst statistical season of his e career. His 1.35 goal against per game is nearly half a goal worse than any other season. To no fault of his own, he has taken the hit as he watches forward after forward go in behind his back line for gimme goals.
If I were to be picky, I would say that he has not been quite up to the level that we as fans have been spoiled with in recent years.
We are so used to seeing Cech make miraculous saves on what seem like clear goals by getting big on break-aways. This has not been the case this season. He has yet to really make a save worthy of the highlight real.
This is again not a knock of his play at all; it is just the musings of a spoiled fan. He has been confident and about the only consistency Chelsea has had in their own half.
Many teams may find a fifth-round tie against a lower division side a rare chance to sit their starter. But this match means too much to Villas-Boas to take any chances.
Bosingwa has benefited more from Villas-Boas being appointed as manager than any other player. For some reason, there is a sick loyalty at play between the countrymen that allows for him to continue to get playing time despite being the cause of so many goals against.
However, as hard as it is to believe, all of Chelsea’s recent struggles cannot be pinned on the Portuguese full-back.
I would not go as far as to say that he has played beyond the call of his duties and dominated his side of the pitch the way Ashley Cole has on his, but he has been “acceptable.” Trust me, this is a big step for him.
Facing Birmingham should be an easier task than any recent competition, but it still will be a test to see if he really has changed as a player or is simply riding a wave of good form.
All Chelsea fans will breathe a collective sigh of relief once they see the captain’s armband around the jersey of No. 26 again.
The Blue’s last two games have been defensive embarrassments. They have given up five goals over the last 120 minutes of play, all of which Terry was not available for due to injury.
However, he is set to make his return against Birmingham on the weekend as his progress in recovery has been picking up.
Villas-Boas would be wise to establish him as the center of the defense once again as his maneuvering and constant tinkering has not been effective. The back line has been exposed all year as players are not playing their customary roles and the opposition is finding it easy to make space behind them.
Leadership has really been lacking, and Terry will restore that order.
Perhaps not a full 90 minutes as they have the Napoli game ahead, but a good run around should be in order.
Much to the bewilderment of fans, Villas-Boas’ only big winter purchase, Gary Cahill, has yet to have any kind of impact. In the five games Chelsea have played since he arrived, Cahill has only featured in one, when he was thrown to the wolves against United.
Many came away from that game thinking he had a decent performance overall for his first match, despite the poor result. But apparently Villas-Boas thinks differently. Even with Terry injured, he still did not play last weekend against Everton.
He must play this weekend in order for Villas-Boas to see how he and Terry do together in the Chelsea system ahead of the match against Napoli.
If the two perform well, the choice should be much more obvious as they head to Italy. If not, Villas-Boas already is aware of the hit-or-miss relationship Terry and Luiz have on the back line and will probably be forced to gamble with those two.
With Ashley Cole’s injury looking more and more serious by the day, it is about time that Villas-Boas looks to giving the youngster a shot.
Bertrand was rumored to play against United when Cole was out serving a suspension, but a late move put Bosingwa on that side and out of position. The result was back line that was all over the place, especially as things got more chaotic.
Bertrand is a left-back and should be given the chance to prove himself. Villas-Boas has stated that he trusts the youngster. This match is a great place to show it off.
The way the team is now, I am hesitant to say that Birmingham is an easy match, but it is definitely a winnable one. It would not be a huge risk to try Bertrand out. It could only benefit, especially knowing that Cole’s injury is going to keep him sidelined for at least the near future.
What happened to this kid?
The only bright spot on Villas-Boas’ short tenure in charge was when he showed the world that this teenager was in fact the real deal.
Romeu worked his way into the starting lineup a month into the season. His consistent play in the midfield was at times the only thing bearable to watch for the Blues.
But for some reason, he has found his playing time dwindle in the past few weeks, featuring as only a sub against United and not at all against Everton.
Perhaps Villas-Boas was resting him for this coming stretch in which he will have to be at the top of his game. I see a midfield with both him and Essien being too strong for most teams to break down.
The Ghanaian midfielder is by no means back to the level we expect of him, but he is progressing. Each game he plays, he looks a bit sharper and makes a few more good plays.
At this point, it is all about getting him on the field and playing the game. He has had plenty of time to rest from his injury and has structurally recovered. It is now about getting him back into the flow of the game.
Birmingham is an excellent chance for him to establish himself and make the box-to-box runs he is so fond of without much risk.
I know many fans will not like to see this name on any kind of roster for Chelsea. Malouda has been nothing short of awful this season playing uninspired and almost without regard.
However, Villas-Boas has shot himself in the foot by only having two players capable of playing the left side, one of which figures better in the middle.
When it comes down to it, Malouda can provide some decent services into the box and has in the past been a scoring threat. Those will always stick with him and there is always a chance that they could come out again at any time.
The only player who you really cannot blame for this skid is Mata. The Spanish international is really the only one who has created anything for Chelsea over the past few weeks and the reason they offensively stay in games.
This only makes it more baffling that Villas-Boas took him off against Everton when they needed goals.
For months now, fans have been clamoring for him to move to the middle where he actually has the chance to get the ball and be a playmaker. When he is on the wing, he gets isolated by good team defense and inevitably drifts toward the center anyway.
I think Villas-Boas has finally seen that this is the only logical move he could make with the midfielder. By starting him in the center, he will be able to prove for a full 90 minutes that that is where he belongs.
For better or worse, this is the man who will command the right side of the field for Chelsea.
The young English forward began to get notoriety at the Bridge as he starting scoring goals from everywhere. But a recent drought shows that run was attributed as much to teams not game-planning for him as much as his skills.
Sturridge has now gone seven games without a goal, and has had very few chances in them either.
Fans have consequently begun to turn on him,seeing that if he does not score goals, he does not do much else to help the team. Some even go as far as to see him as the possible reason for Torres’ ineffectiveness.
Sturridge is not exactly the best decision-maker or passer and has often left the Spaniard on his knees begging for the ball.
Birmingham will be an excellent team for him to get his scoring mojo back and hopefully ride it all the way through Champions League.
I know I recently wrote off Torres as his struggles through Dorgba’s absence were the final nail in the coffin. But looking at this game and logistical concerns over the next match, why not give him the chance?
The truth is, Chelsea should not need their very best players to beat a lower division side at home. They should be able to make do with a squad of recent call-ups and a starter or two.
Drogba will surely still be exhausted from a physically straining and emotionally wearing tournament. He deserves the rest and needs to be ready to play his best against Napoli. It will be most important for Chelsea to come away from Italy with goals, and Drogba gives them the best chance at that.
On paper, Birmingham is the easiest side Torres has played this season, beside Genk where he had two goals. It is another chance for him to show that he still has the potential to live up to his bill.
If you haven't picked up on it yet, I am predicting that Villas-Boas will go a bit outside of his comfort zone against Birmingham.
The historically stubborn boss made a big breakthrough this past weekend by taking the blame of the Everton loss on his shoulders, suggesting that perhaps his tactics were not up to par.
This is a prediction taking that into account. Hopefully he realizes that there are better ways to organize his team.
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