White Hart Lane. Sunday, 11:00 EST. Carlo Ancelotti. Harry Redknapp. Title aspirations. Bragging rights. Champions League knockout round preview?
The match between Premier League champions Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, the Harlem Globetrotters of English football in 2010, means so much to so many people for so many reasons.
Although Chelsea are four points ahead of Spurs after 16 matches this season and only two points behind current leaders Arsenal, it is at Stamford Bridge where the alarm bells have been ringing for the past month.
First came the news that veteran Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti and his wily cockney sidekick Ray Wilkins had been separated without prior consultation with the former. Then came a series of blunt performances lacking in confidence and direction. Result: two points from four league matches, a loss to Marseille in the Champions League and a lot more damning investigation into the reasons behind Wilkins's departure.
Over at White Hart Lane, things have been looking rosy in general for Harry Redknapp and his bouncing buccaneers. Confidence is high and results have been good—even if a case can be made for caution and a need for greater defensive resolve. After a draw and three wins, including a first at Arsenal for more than a decade, the team has climbed the table to fifth.
A win for Spurs would be their third against ''The Top Four'' already this season and proof that they challenge for the title finally. A win for Chelsea would alert the league to a wounded beast, which still possesses considerable fight and pedigree. But a loss would throw the title race wide open and add to the pressure on Ancelotti's burly frame.
Despite Spurs achieving success in the Carling Cup two years ago and victories in league encounters at White Hart Lane in recent years, Chelsea have dominated this matchup over the course of the last two decades to an extent that this particular corner of North London is often mockingly referred to as "Three Point Lane." In fact, they have only lost to Spurs away from home on three occasions in the last 18 years.
The Team News
Tottenham remain crippled by a shortage of centre backs, with English trio Michael Dawson, Ledley King and Johnathan Woodgate still not fully fit. In midfield, they will have to do without the reliable distribution and physicality of Tom Huddlestone and experience and offensive output of Rafael Van der Vaart—but Luka Modric, laid low by 'flu in midweek, should return to add guile and quality.
Chelsea will again miss Frank Lampard,who usually provides them with many goals and a competitive edge. Jose Bosingwa, Yossi Benayoun and Alex are not fit either. However, it will be a nearly full-strength side that makes the short trip across London on Sunday morning.
Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2):
Gomes; Hutton, Gallas, Bassong, Assou-Ekotto; Lennon, Modric, Palacios, Bale; Crouch, Defoe
SUBS FROM: Cudicini, Pletikosa, Corluka, Kaboul, Dawson, O'Hara, Sandro, Giovani, Bentley, Keane, Pavlyuhenko
Cech; Ivanovic, Ferreira, Terry, Cole; Essien, Mikel, Malouda; Kalou, Drogba, Anelka
SUBS FROM: Turnbull, Bruma, Van Aanholt, Ramires, Kakuta, McEachran, Sturridge
Wilson Palacios: the Honduran defensive shield will have his work cut out in the middle of the park and will need to not only rediscover his touch, but also take control of the physical battle in midfield from the off.
Jermain Defoe: with much of the attention of Chelsea's defenders diverted to Welsh wing sensation Gareth Bale, Defoe—just back from injury with two goals in midweek—should have some space to attack and convert any opportunities which come his way from Crouch knockdowns or Modric through balls.
Florent Malouda: The Frenchman has lost his spark recently but is still one of the leading scorers. If he can start brightly and on the front foot, he will put pressure on full-back Hutton - who is not particularly strong defensively—and stifle the attacking impetus of Aaron Lennon further up the home team's right flank.
Didier Drogba: last month, Johan Elmander and Kevin Davies battered and bullied Tottenham's makeshift defence and led Bolton Wanderers to an impressive 4-2 win. There is no forward more bullish and physical than Drogba and if he can rough up William Gallas in particular, he will create plenty of scoring opportunities for onrushing team-mates.
Spurs, struggling with injuries and possibly lethargic after a sapping Champions League trip to the far reaches of Holland, have struggled to impose themselves early on in home matches. They may not find it quite so easy against a backbone of Cech, Essien and Terry to kick Plan B or Plan C into action, so I am backing Chelsea to take the spoils tomorrow afternoon.
Tottenham Hotspur 1 (Defoe)
Chelsea 2 (Anelka, Terry)