Chelsea will play their FA Cup fifth-round tie against Middlesbrough knowing that a win will see them face Manchester United. Due to their congested fixture list, they are a round behind the rest of the teams, as they needed a replay to defeat Brentford in the fourth round.
Middlesbrough were relegated from the Premier League in 2009, ending an 11-year stint in the top flight of English football. They are currently seventh in the Championship, one point off the playoff spot, and they will have one eye on the promotion race heading into the business end of the season. Chelsea youngster Josh McEachran is on a season-long loan at the club whilst other notable Boro players include former Premier League stars Kieron Dyer, Jonathan Woodgate and Grant Leadbitter.
The FA Cup represents Chelsea’s best chance of silverware from a season that most fans just want to get over with, and the Blues will need to improve on a lifeless performance against Manchester City over the weekend if they want to progress.
Former manager Roberto Di Matteo knows all about Middlesbrough, as he scored his most famous goal for Chelsea against them in the 1997 FA Cup final, a 30-yard screamer after just 42 seconds of play. However, Rafa Benitez has struggled to inspire the team in the manner that allowed Di Matteo to add another FA Cup winners’ medal to his collection.
This will need to change fast, and the best way to do it is to try something new. The 4-2-3-1 which was so effective with Didier Drogba as the lone striker is no longer working, and whilst the Three Amigos have produced some beautiful football this season, they often find themselves crowded out of games through the middle.
A 4-1-4-1 would keep an attacking core with Juan Mata and Frank Lampard with support coming from the wings in the form of Victor Moses and Marko Marin. This is exactly the sort of game in which Benitez should use his wide men. Whilst Marin has been inconsistent, he has shown flashes of brilliance, and if he is not performing, Oscar and Eden Hazard would be available from the bench.
Another twist, and a slightly safer formation, would be to employ a 5-4-1.
The full-backs would need to push forward were Hazard and Oscar to start, but with Moses and Marin they would be able to hang back, allowing the holding midfielder to move forward.
These options are clear, and the versatility of the talent within the Chelsea squad makes it all possible. Whether it can work or not is down to Benitez and his desire to fix a formation which is clearly broken.
Whatever happens, Rafa needs to be flexible and do everything he can to win this tie on the night, as a replay or a defeat would surely end his tenure at Stamford Bridge even more prematurely than most people expect it to.