Eden Hazard saved Chelsea blushes against Sparta Prague in the previous rounds, but where will the game versus Steaua Bucharest be won and lost?
Chelsea got back on track in the league with a 1-0 defeat of West Bromwich Albion Saturday, but it's in the cups where their only real chance of silverware remains this term.
The Blues face Manchester United in the quarterfinal of the FA Cup at Old Trafford on Sunday, and before their trip north, they must negotiate a tough Europa League tie with Steaua Bucharest in Romania just three days earlier on Thursday (Mar. 7).
Indeed, the Romanians defeated Ajax in the Round of 32 to seal their place in the Last 16, so Rafa Benitez and his players will know the Romanians are not to be taken lightly.
Who is Steaua's star man, what threat will they give Chelsea and where will Thursday's game be won and lost? Bleacher Report takes a look at the key battles in this enticing European cup tie.
One of just three mainstays in the Europa League for Steaua Bucharest this term—goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu and Alexandru Chipciu are the others—Vlad Chiriches is a key man at the back for the Romanians.
At 23, he is one of his country’s brightest talents and demonstrated in the Round of 32 just how effective he can be. Not only did he keep Ajax quiet in front of goal, he also scored a stunning goal that made it 2-0 on the night, leveling the tie on aggregate.
As we know, Steaua went on to win the fixture on penalties and while he may still be tender in years, there’s no doubting the impact Chiriches made that night and what he continues to.
We know the threat Fernando Torres brings, but the Spaniard has a battle on his hands come Thursday. If he isn’t up for the challenge, it could prove a frustrating night for the Chelsea fans who have made the trip east to Romania.
Cahill, pictured in the thick of the action against Sparta Prague.
Make no mistake, Gary Cahill is now a key player at Stamford Bridge. The former Aston Villa and Bolton Wanderers man has earned his place among the elite at Chelsea, with his exceptional performances this season.
In the absence of John Terry, courtesy of his lengthy knee injury, Cahill has been a rock at the back.
That’s not to say he hasn’t suffered from the odd silly moment that befalls every defender over the course of a season, and Raul Rusescu will be ready to pounce should Cahill put a foot wrong on Thursday.
Steaua’s main danger in front of goal, the 24-year-old is firing on all cylinders this year. With 18 goals in 21 league matches, he has a further three in the Europa League, with his goals coming at important moments for his team.
He helped Steaua qualify from the group stages with a priceless strike in the 1-1 draw against Copenhagen on Matchday 6 and also helped snatched a point in the 2-2 draw away to Stuttgart.
Chelsea have been warned.
Significantly for Steaua, Alexandru Bourceanu is all set for a return from a one-game suspension to marshal the midfield on Thursday—and they will need him, too.
The 27-year-old Romanian missed the second-leg clash with Ajax in the Round of 32 as Steaua clawed back a two-goal deficit to win through and he will be relishing the test of facing European champions Chelsea.
In the Brazilian, Oscar, however, he will come to blows with an opponent capable of making him wish he was still suspended, and if the Chelsea starlet is on form, it could prove a long night.
Oscar has saved many of his best performances for Europe this term, outscoring his teammates in the Champions League and also finding the back of the net against Sparta Prague in Chelsea’s first Europa League outing.
Expect Rafa Benitez to call on him once more in Romania and expect Oscar to deliver on the growing level of expectation that surrounds him.
Bourceanu will need to draw on all his experience to silence Oscar’s Samba beat.
He may feature as a left winger in Steaua Bucharest’s formation, but the reality is Cristian Tanase will pop up to cause damage wherever possible all over the pitch.
He can play on either flank or through the middle, and it’s here where John Mikel Obi will need to remain vigilant on Thursday.
Alongside teammate Andrei Prepelita, who plays more centrally, Tanase will interchange and endeavor to lose his marker, be that Branislav Ivanovic or Cesar Azpilicueta.
With such movement, it will be easy for Mikel to lose sight of the danger before him, so the Chelsea midfielder can ill afford to lose focus.
The 27-year-old creates plenty of opportunities for his teammates, but Liverpool fans can only tell too well of his goal threat after his strike at Anfield in September 2010 (also featured on the YouTube clip above).
Sure, these stars of the Steaua midfield are not the Premier League attackers Chelsea face every week, but they have caused problems for any team they have faced this term, and the Blues can expect more of the same.
With their famed partisan crowd willing them onto success, the likes of Tanase will only rise to the occasion, and that will be a dangerous prospect indeed.