Back in 2010, Tottenham Hotspur's top-four hopes hinged on successive London derbies against Arsenal and Chelsea. Albeit in reverse order and slightly earlier, a similar situation is looking likely to apply again this season.
With fixtures against Southampton and Liverpool also to come, March for Tottenham is as tough a month as any Premier League club has had all year. Saturday's visit to Stamford Bridge is the first fascinating installment of a series that will mark Spurs' standing among their rivals heading into the campaign's climax. The North London derby take place on March 16 at White Hart Lane.
The recent setback at Norwich City has left Tim Sherwood's side further behind the teams currently occupying the Champions League places than they would have liked. Last week's 1-0 win over Cardiff City has kept them in touch from fifth place. But with games in hand for Manchester City—currently fourth—Spurs definitely need to take points off the teams above them if they are to catch up.
Losing to Man City in the FA Cup and drawing with West Bromwich Albion and Galatasaray, table-topping Chelsea have not been without their own hiccups of late. Yet, if they were ever in doubt, Jose Mourinho's team served a reminder of their capabilities in the comprehensive fashion they eventually beat Fulham last week.
Sherwood will have been cursing the unfortunate timing of an international friendlies on March 5. Preparing to face a team possessing such talent as Eden Hazard, the Blues' current in-form star—let alone a club they have not beaten on their turf in 24 years—without several of your own first-team players to work with is not ideal.
More positively, he will take heart from the way Spurs played against Chelsea back in September. It finished 1-1, but the will and quality of their performance (at least in the first half) that day showed they are capable of at least matching Mourinho's men.
Team news had not officially been confirmed by Tottenham at the time of writing, though their official website round-up of players on international duty did note any additional injury concerns.
Even considering for the convenience of his position, Hugo Lloris would be the first name on Sherwood's teamsheet right now. The goalkeeper has been in fine form, and Spurs will need him to keep that up.
The likely centre-back pairing of Michael Dawson and Jan Vertonghen will face a tougher test than they did against Cardiff. The focus and urgency of their work stood out for Spurs last week. How they fare against a Chelsea attack that has come under considerable scrutiny this season will make for interesting viewing.
Assuming Kyle Walker has not recovered from the groin injury that saw him withdraw from the England squad, Kyle Naughton should be in at right-back.
It would not be the first time a player unavailable for a friendly ends up playing for his club the next weekend. But after two good displays against Dnipro and Cardiff, Naughton at least will be hopeful that is not the case and he gets another start. Zeki Fryers could get a further opportunity at left-back with Danny Rose possibly missing out.
In midfield, Sandro is an almost certainty to come in for his first Premier League start since December after a calf injury. There is a good chance Sherwood will deploy him as the anchor of a five-man midfield designed to resist, contest and hopefully break Chelsea's dynamic, high-quality counterparts.
Paulinho has disappointed in recent weeks and could lose his place to Nabil Bentaleb—who made a winning debut for Algeria this week. Mousa Dembele would likely complete the central midfield trio.
Aaron Lennon had his best game in weeks against Cardiff and should be back in right midfield. If he has recovered from his back injury, Christian Eriksen could also return to join a group packing numbers but not without attacking quality.
Emmanuel Adebayor was among those praising Roberto Soldado after his match-winner against Cardiff:
Enticing as it may be to go with a two-man attack, the importance of this match might justify a slightly more cautious approach in the manager's mind. If a lone striker is what Sherwood goes with against Chelsea, the Spaniard is the one likely to be dropped in favour of his more physically imposing team-mate.
The loss to Man City in January highlighted the need for Spurs to get bodies quickly and intelligently around Adebayor in this role. They improved in this regard against Newcastle United. A similar intensity would not go amiss here.
Almost unbelievably, the 2013-14 season does not have much left to run. For Tottenham, it is as good as all or nothing in the coming weeks.
Predicted Tottenham line-up versus Chelsea: Lloris; Naughton, Dawson (c), Vertonghen, Fryers; Lennon, Dembele, Sandro, Bentaleb, Eriksen; Adebayor.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!