With just four points separating the pair, Sunday’s upcoming encounter between Manchester City and Chelsea holds huge importance to these two teams as they continue their hunt of league leaders Manchester United.
While a first-place finish may appear out of the question at this point, it remains vital that the two English giants keep the faith and don’t allow their heads to drop in what is always a critical point of any Premier League campaign.
This particular six-pointer will offer up just about as much star-studded talent as any fixture one will witness as two of England’s biggest spenders prepare for battle this weekend.
In this meeting of the money bags, it’s important we consider just which talismans are likely to butt heads and, more importantly, whether it’s Roberto Mancini’s or Rafa Benitez’s men that come off better.
One of the surprising success stories given his relatively meager transfer fee when compared with the rest of the Manchester City squad is that of Pablo Zabaleta, now a fan favourite and sometimes captain for the Citizens.
The 28-year-old is now one of the club’s most consistent performers but will face a real test when coming up against Eden Hazard, one of Chelsea’s newest poster boys and a supreme talent on his day too.
Although capable of lining up on the right, Hazard has begun to take up residence on the Blues’ left wing of late and is most likely to face off against Zabaleta this weekend.
With two assists and a goal in his last two outings under Rafa Benitez, it’s clear that Hazard has the potential to devastate sides on his day, and he will need to be at his best to overcome his marker at the Etihad Stadium.
Although defence will certainly be a priority in Zabaleta’s repertoire this weekend, the Argentine will also look to assert his usual influence going forward, meaning Hazard will need to put in an active shift helping Ashley Cole at the back.
As ever, Yaya Toure will be a big man to watch on Sunday and more than just in the sense of physical stature.
The Ivorian, now long returned from the Africa Cup of Nations, will be hoping to have the same impact on this match as he did in the Community Shield victory earlier this season in which he netted City’s first goal and led his side to a 3-2 victory.
Despite his ongoing contract saga, Frank Lampard continues to have his say on Chelsea matters and could be deployed alongside David Luiz in the hope of containing Manchester City’s creative assets.
At his peak, Toure has easily been one of the Premier League’s most influential players in recent seasons and could do battle against a veteran who’s been doing his part for the English top flight for at least the past decade.
Although not a defensive midfielder by nature, Lampard has proven himself capable as a deep-lying playmaker and, in his later years, has regressed into a role where breaking up play before initiating some of his own has become a frequent responsibility.
Two of the best midfielders in the English top flight are preparing to clash this weekend, and the winner of this particular duel could decide who wins the fixture overall.
With John Terry a big uncertainty for Sunday’s trip to the Etihad Stadium, it’s likely that Branislav Ivanovic will continue to fill in at centre-back for the Blues while Cesar Azpilicueta takes up residence at right-back.
Given their status as reigning Premier League champions, it’s only suitable that Manchester City boast one of the strongest attacks in England’s top tier, a force pushed on by Sergio Aguero.
In recent weeks, Aguero has settled for a slightly more subdued role than usual, playing behind Edin Dzeko but still having a massive influence on the Citizens’ scoring exploits.
With Mario Balotelli now at AC Milan, more of a responsibility falls upon Sergio Aguero to step up as one of City’s leading men and, with either Carlos Tevez or Dzeko as an attacking partner, the Argentine forward will seek to increase the lead his side have on Chelsea.
Ivanovic has been a defensive staple under Rafa Benitez and has missed a very small portion of the campaign thus far, featuring for a full 90 minutes in each of the Blues’ last 20 Premier League matches.
The Serbian might not face much in terms of an aerial threat from Aguero but will need to use the speed at his disposal to keep up with the pint-sized poacher if he’s to succeed, as he is one of Chelsea’s most experienced defensive stalwarts.
As Vincent Kompany continues to struggle with a calf injury picked up in January, it’s possible that Matija Nastasic could come into the Manchester City lineup after a fortnight of non-inclusion.
Since moving from Fiorentina over the summer, the youngster has been an impressive addition for the Premier League champions and Roberto Mancini may place faith in the 19-year-old to do well against the Blues.
What’s also up for debate, however, is not just whether Nastasic will start the fixture, but just whom he will be facing should he enter the fray.
Fernando Torres’ involvement within the Chelsea squad has varied since Demba Ba’s arrival at the club in January, putting the Spaniard to the test with increased competition for a starting place.
That being said, Torres has started four of the Blues’ last four matches across all competitions, missing both of the side’s meetings with FA Cup minnows Brentford.
The former Liverpool star is having his best season yet in Chelsea colours and could even be starting to rid himself of the “flop” title that’s become synonymous with his name since moving to Stamford Bridge in 2011.
Torres can’t ask for more of an opportunity to succeed against Manchester City than in a game where Kompany might not be around to restrain him, and it’ll be a test of Nastasic’s mettle to see whether the starlet has the capacity to deal with Torres’ experience.
Although the Englishman is far from a certainty to feature against the Blues having suffered a knock earlier in mid-February, the need for a midfield anchor might force Roberto Mancini’s hand in playing Gareth Barry.
Javi Garcia was forced off during the FA Cup meeting with Leeds United and isn’t likely to feature against the Blues, meaning a huge duty could rest with Barry in containing Chelsea’s midfield weapons.
The main one of those weapons and one of the league’s most impressive players this season is Juan Mata, the driving force behind Chelsea’s campaign thus far.
With 17 goals and 23 assists to his name across all competitions already this season, it’s clear that Mata is a vital component in Rafa Benitez’s machine, and the West London outfit risk defeat unless the Spaniard is allowed to perform to specification.
Having originally called the wing his place of residence, Mata has gradually grown into a more central role behind the Chelsea front line.
There, the 24-year-old looks likely to clash with Barry, and it’s there that Chelsea’s source of supply in attack may well be decided.
You can follow me on Twitter @TomSunderland_.