Chelsea: Picking the Blues XI to Take on Rubin Kazan
After returning to third place in the Premier League at the weekend with a 2-1 victory over Sunderland, Chelsea are back on European duty this week as they face Rubin Kazan in the second leg of their Europa League quarterfinal in Moscow.
The Blues lead the tie 3-1 following their dominant display at Stamford Bridge last week, but can they repeat that feat at the Luzhniki Stadium?
The games are coming thick and fast for Chelsea right now, with an FA Cup semifinal to contend themselves with a little over 48 hours after their Russian excursion.
With that clash against Manchester City in mind, Rafa Benitez will be forced to rotate his squad once more as he juggles European and domestic commitments.
In one sense, this is a make-or-break week for Chelsea. If the Blues can successfully come through both cup matches, their season will have a mouthwatering finale with the prospect of two major cup finals on the horizon. End on the losing side, however, and they'll be faced with a first trophyless season since 2011, with nothing other than a top-four finish to play for.
So, will it be "da" or "nyet" for Chelsea on Thursday? Bleacher Report takes a look at their ideal lineup at the Luzhniki Stadium.
Goalkeeper: Petr Cech
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It is still stressful being a goalkeeper at the top level, but the general strains on Petr Cech's body after a 90-minute match will not be as extreme as those of his teammates.
I mean—given Chelsea's frantic schedule—while his teammates will all spend a period warming the substitutes bench over the next month or so, there is little reason to rotate the Czech stopper unless forced to.
Besides, looking at the Chelsea bench, the potential replacements—Ross Turnbull and Hilario—will not strike Rafa Benitez with too much confidence ahead of a major European cup quarterfinal.
The 2012-13 campaign has seen Cech return to his best, making some incredible saves. He had little to do in the first leg against Rubin Kazan at Stamford Bridge, but expect him to be a little busier this time out.
Defenders: Ivanovic, Luiz, Terry, Ferreira
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The addition of Cesar Azpilicueta has given Chelsea plenty of strength in depth this season, with the Spaniard impressing at right-back.
It's meant that Branislav Ivanovic has been given some much-needed rest in recent weeks, but with so much to play for over the coming days against Rubin Kazan and Manchester City, Rafa Benitez may be tempted to revert to the tried and tested formula of deploying the Serbian on the right of defence.
That will probably mean David Luiz and John Terry starting together in the centre—a combination that, up to Terry's injury against Liverpool in November, was looking promising for Chelsea.
If Terry starts, expect him to miss Sunday's outing with City at Wembley for the FA Cup semifinal, which would speak volumes as to his current standing at the club.
With Ashley Cole out injured, Ryan Bertrand will be disappointed to have been struck down by illness. With Cole missing, any team in world football would be weakened defensively, but in Bertrand, Chelsea have a defender with all the attributes and quality to become a first-team regular at Stamford Bridge—the youngster has impressed of late.
Bertrand has not traveling to Moscow, so Paulo Ferreira's experience will be useful over the inclusion of a youngster at such a vital stage.
Midfielders: John Mikel Obi and Frank Lampard
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It was at this stage last season that John Mikel Obi really came into his own at Chelsea. The reason? Playing alongside Frank Lampard.
With Roberto Di Matteo coming in as manager, the Italian restored Lampard to the starting lineup after a period on the sidelines under Andre Villas-Boas. It proved a masterstroke as, playing a deeper role, he lifted some of the pressure on Mikel and used his understanding of the game to help get the team moving forward in a way his teammate often struggles.
That formula continues to work well this term, although the amount of games the Blues have, it means we tend to see it less often when squad rotation is taken into account.
The pair dominated midfield against Rubin Kazan in the first leg—with Lampard sitting out the weekend's 2-1 victory over Sunderland, it's almost certain he'll be restored in Russia.
Attackers: Benayoun, Mata, Moses
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Regardless of Chelsea's FA Cup semifinal on Sunday, Juan Mata must start against Rubin Kazan.
There are some players a team cannot do without. For Barcelona it's Lionel Messi, for Manchester United it's Robin van Persie and for Chelsea it's their Spanish maestro.
The Blues' No.10 is essential to everything they do—without him, they often look a shade of the team they are and can be.
Rafa Benitez's side may have a two-goal cushion from the first leg, but at 3-1, Rubin Kazan's away goal at Stamford Bridge means this tie is far from over.
Chelsea should win, but they need to make sure of the result and the inclusion of Mata, even for the first 45 minutes, will be their statement of intent.
Victor Moses and Yossi Benayoun put in good performances in the first leg, with the former finding himself on the scoresheet—Benitez should stick with them alongside his talisman.
The trio caused Rubin enough problems to give their back line nightmares ahead of the clash at the Luzhniki Stadium and they should have enough for a repeat performance, allowing the likes of Oscar and Eden Hazard to remain fresh ahead of their Wembley outing at the weekend.
Striker: Fernando Torres
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It seems the Zorro mask has rejuvenated Fernando Torres of late, with the Spaniard looking sharp and dangerous once more.
He had to improvise to score his first goal against Rubin Kazan last week, sliding in between goalkeeper and defender to prod the ball home, but his second was full of quality.
That header, as Torres evaded his marker to power his effort beyond Sergei Ryzhikov, took Chelsea clear in this tie and rounded a fine display.
With the Russian's needing to play a more offensive game at the Luzhniki Stadium as they search for the two goals to take them through, it could very well suit Chelsea's striker, too.
He thrives on a high defensive line—if Rubin leave themselves open at the back, you can be sure Torres will pounce, as he did at Stamford Bridge.