Europa League: Previewing Chelsea vs. Steaua Bucharest
Julian Finney/Getty Images
Venue: Stamford Bridge
Kickoff: 8.05 p.m. GMT, 3.05 p.m. ET, 12.05 p.m. PT
If Rafa Benitez hasn't already realized it yet, the clash with Steaua Bucharest in the Europa League on Thursday will drive home the harsh reality of the Catch-22 situation he finds himself in at Chelsea.
With the Blues trailing 1-0 to Steaua after the first leg of their Last 16 encounter, failure to turn the deficit around will see them crash out of Europe. Given the impending FA Cup quarterfinal replay with Manchester United, it will mean the prospect of a fixture pile-up being less likely—a relief in itself—but will the fans be content to see the Blues miss out on another trophy this season?
"No", is the simple answer.
Benitez simply cannot win. Continued progression in the Europa League could damage the club's hopes of a top four finish to reach the 2013-14 Champions League, but failure to progress and the knives will be out.
He finds himself caught between two ideologies defined by the short and long term. And they both win out in the minds of Chelsea fans. They want trophies, but they also want to finish as the No. 1 club in London in the Premier League—they will not accept either or. It's a scenario that would make even Milo Minderbinder anxious.
But all this is hot air. In the cliched ramblings of many a football manager, Benitez is toeing the party line by taking "each game as it comes". And the next game is on Thursday when Steaua come to town looking to protect their slender goal advantage over the Blues.
If the form book is anything to go by, then Chelsea will find it a more difficult task than many are suggesting.
Steaua are very much a team in form. Sitting 12 points clear at the top of their domestic table, Laurentiu Reghecampf's side have won nine of their previous 10 league outings.
In that run, dating back to October, they have found the back of the net 30 times, surprisingly losing the odd game away to mid-table Brasov.
Nonetheless, it's an impressive run and despite a rather drab affair against the Blues last week, a more flamboyant approach from Benitez's men may get the fans on their feet, but it will create vulnerabilities for the Romanian's to exploit.
We've seen exactly that at Stamford Bridge this season and in years gone by with Chelsea chasing results only to be caught out by their opponents.
Indeed, don't bet against the Romanians' taking advantage, either. Steaua's away form in the Europa League this term is one not to be scoffed at, with them losing just once on the road, winning three and drawing twice.
The most impressive of those results came away to FC Copenhagen on Matchday 6 as they drew 1-1 to book their place in the Round of 32. Were they to have lost that game, Steaua could have missed out on qualification, but they held on to win the group ahead of Stuttgart and the Danes, who themselves failed to qualify.
Will Chelsea progress to the Europa League quarterfinal?
Facing Chelsea is an altogether different challenge, however. We can expect the Blues to pick up where they left off at Old Trafford on Sunday, where they ended the 90 minutes in control and should have beaten Manchester United.
Steaua may have won on home soil in the first leg last week, but despite their obvious threats, it will be difficult to look beyond the might of Chelsea come Thursday.
Prediction: Chelsea 2-0 Steaua Bucharest
Chelsea: Cech; Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Cole; Lampard, Mikel; Ramires, Mata, Hazard; Torres
Steaua: Tatarusanu; Rapa, Szukala, Chiriches, Latovlevici; Bourceanu, Pintilii; Popa, Chipciu, Tanase; Rusescu
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