Chelsea vs. Sparta Prague: Selecting Rafa Benitez's Blues XI
Chelsea face Sparta Prague at Stamford Bridge on Thursday as they look to progress in the Europa League.
The Blues have a slender 1-0 lead from the first leg courtesy of Oscar's late strike in the Czech Republic, and given their home advantage, Rafa Benitez's side are expected to seal qualification to the Last 16.
Chelsea has a tricky away trip to Manchester City to contend with less than 72 hours after turning out against the Czechs, so the Spaniard will be dealt a selection headache.
Does he field his best XI in pursuit of the Europa League? Or does he take a risk, resting key players in the hope of earning a much-needed victory in the Premier League over City at the Etihad Stadium?
Indeed, the fixture list shows no sign of letting up for Chelsea, and with this in mind, Bleacher Report attempts to guess Bentiez's team selection for Thursday.
Goalkeeper: Petr Cech
Regardless of the number of games a team has, if the No. 1 goalkeeper is fit, he should always be playing. The role of a goalkeeper is physically demanding, sure, but their recovery is certainly different to that of their teammates, with the physical demands fewer. And at this level, it shouldn't even be a factor.
Beyond Petr Cech, the Blues do not appear to have any real contenders ready to step up and play under pressure anyhow. Ross Turnbull proved during his time at Middlesbrough that he is a good goalkeeper with bags of potential, but the considerable shadow cast by Cech at Stamford Bridge has hindered his development.
Turnbull has proved unreliable at times this term, appearing to suffer from a lack of competitive games in his four seasons at Stamford Bridge. As for Hilario, he's not the deputy he once was.
With the tie against Sparta Prague finely balanced at 1-0, there's no need to unsettle the team by giving Cech a rest on Thursday. By selecting him against Brentford, the Spaniard also demonstrated he doesn't have faith in his replacements.
Back Four: Azpilicueta, Bertrand, Cahill and David Luiz
He missed the FA Cup outing with Brentford on Sunday, so it seems only natural that Cesar Azpilicueta will receive a recall to the Chelsea lineup on Thursday.
The Spanish right-back featured in Prague for the first leg, enjoying a comfortable evening, and has proved himself a solid option in the absence of Branislav Ivanovic this term.
Meanwhile, on the opposite flank, Ryan Bertrand is another player who may not be first-team quality just yet, but is certainly capable of filling Ashley Cole's boots ahead of Sunday's trip to the Northwest.
In the middle, with John Terry's knee continuing to prove troublesome, it may be too much to ask the Blues captain to turn out three times in one week. Against Manchester City at the Etihad, his presence will be far more important, so expect to see a Gary Cahill-David Luiz partnership, with Terry and Ivanovic rested.
Midfielders: John Mikel Obi and Ramires
Rafa Benitez called upon Victor Moses on Sunday against Brentford following the Africa Cup of Nations, so expect John Mikel Obi to return to the fold on Thursday.
Indeed, the 25-year-old enjoyed a fine tournament in South Africa as Nigeria lifted the trophy, so Benitez will be hoping he can repeat that form in a Chelsea shirt with the final stages of the season approaching.
Ramires was another who would have felt the benefit of a rest against Brentford. The Brazilian hasn't enjoyed the best of seasons this year, but in recent weeks he has shown signs of returning to his best, scoring in the 4-0 defeat of Wigan Athletic.
With more players to select from following the return of Chelsea's African stars, expect Benitez to rotate a lot more in the coming weeks. That will mean Frank Lampard reacquainting himself with the subs' bench.
Attacking Midfielders: Marko Marin, Eden Hazard, Victor Moses
Without Juan Mata, Chelsea simply are not the same team going forward. That said, Rafa Benitez hasn't let that get in the way of his team selections since taking charge in November, resting his compatriot at various stages this term.
With Eden Hazard and Marko Marin missing out on Sunday's FA Cup tie with Brentford, expect Benitez to draft them in against Sparta Prague in place of Oscar and Mata.
It's not often the Blues start a game without Mata or Hazard in the starting lineup, and the Belgian showed on Sunday just how influential he can be with Chelsea scoring three times following his appearance from the bench.
Oscar's form of late has been such that Benitez will probably want to keep him fresh for the Manchester City outing as he has been so influential, returning to his form from earlier in the campaign.
The Three Amigos will return on Sunday, but at Stamford Bridge on Thursday expect a trio of Marin, Hazard and Moses to be charged with giving the Blues their creative edge.
Striker: Fernando Torres
Still coming in for a lot of unfair criticism from the media and some sections of the Chelsea crowd, Fernando Torres is the Blues' only recognised striker eligible for the Europa League.
With Demba Ba cup tied, the Spaniard has a full 90 minutes to look forward to on Thursday, and not looking over his shoulder at the subs bench may be of benefit to him.
Torres isn't just about scoring goals, and those fans who think that's his sole contribution to this Chelsea team perhaps need to look at the game from another perspective.
That said, he has an impressive 15 this season and with Sparta Prague trailing—therefore having to chase the game to rescue the tie—it could suit Torres somewhat.
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