It's a busy week of tournament action for Chelsea. The Blues face Steaua Bucuresti in the first leg of their Europa League Round of 16 matchup today before a high-profile weekend trip to Old Trafford for an FA Cup clash with Manchester United.
The short turnaround between key matches puts a lot of pressure on manager Rafa Benitez, who must find a way to balance his squad over the next handful of days. He doesn't plan on sending a weakened lineup out against Steaua, according to the club's official site.
Obviously, as a manager you have to think about both, but the priority at the moment is this one. So we will put a very competitive team on the pitch and we are sure that we can do a good job. Afterwards, we will think about United, but the main thing for us is to progress in this competition at the moment.
If the Blues are going to make winning the Europa League a priority, they can't afford to overlook Steaua. The Romanian side fought back from a 2-0 deficit to eliminate Ajax in the previous round. Like Chelsea, Ajax began European competition in the Champions League.
Steaua are currently dominating Liga I, the top league in Romania. They are already way out in front, 12 points clear of second place, though 21 matches. The club has a plus-35 goal differential in those games thanks to a strong defensive effort with just 15 goals against.
The main thing Chelsea must be prepared for is Steaua's counterattack. They will likely sit back defensively to limit the Blues' chances, especially since the inconsistent Fernando Torres will likely draw the start up front.
Then, once the defensive wall is established, they will rely on breakout opportunities to put pressure on Chelsea. It's a much safer option for the Romanian club, and should help them remain competitive with the Premier League side.
The Blues can't afford to get overly aggressive. The second leg takes place at Stamford Bridge next week, and they should be totally comfortable heading into that match even.
It's up to Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar––or whichever combination of attacking midfielders Benitez decides to start––to control the pace. The focus should be on the quality, not quantity, of scoring chances today, which will help limit Steaua's chances to counterattack.
On paper, it's a match Chelsea should win, even on the road. But the surrounding circumstances, most notably the entire club probably having one eye on the Manchester United encounter, help level the playing field for Steaua.
That makes a draw the most likely outcome, an acceptable result for both sides heading into the rematch next week that will decide which club earns a quarterfinal berth.
Prediction: Steaua Bucuresti 1, Chelsea 1