Chelsea will be traveling to the sun-soaked Mediterranean oasis of Valencia this Wednesday to take on the local club in both teams' second match of the 2011/12 Champions League. Chelsea, who currently top Group E face, arguably their toughest competition of the knockout stage in Els taronja as the host will be desperate to not fall further behind in the table.
Valencia has often been what you could consider the “best of the rest” in a league that is dominated by two teams. Their third-place finish last season was worth noting, given the fact that they have been a farm system for bigger clubs. Homegrown starlets like David Silva, David Villa, and now Juan Mata have all left for the big boys in search of glory, despite that Valencia have pulled together year in and year out and been one of the best sides in Spain.
Their season got underway with an ideal start. Three straight wins and a well-earned tie to Barcelona showed that with Mata gone they could still compete. But a loss over the weekend to Sevilla and a tie against lowly Genk in the Champions League make them winless in their last three.
Travelling to the seaside paradise is never an easy task. Just ask Barca who have managed only one win at the Mestrella in their last four visits. Even more difficult for a bunch of pale Londoners who will see the sun for the first time in weeks. A high of 82 Fahrenheit is 10 degrees warmer than anything they have seen in the last two months.
Despite all that, Chelsea boast an undefeated record against Valencia, with two wins and two draws in this competition. Oddly enough, both wins were in Spain.
Here is my prediction for who will line up on the pitch on Wednesday.
Never any doubt about this. As long as he is healthy, which has been a concern in recent years, Cech will be the starter for the blues.
His comments over the week helped describe the feeling Chelsea had about this competition.
“Every season, the ambition is to win the competition. People always use the word 'obsession' in a negative way, which I'm amazed by,” Cech told the Telegraph. “We are not obsessed in the way that, if we don't win it, we'll just go and shoot ourselves. That's not the case. We are obsessed with the Champions League because this is a great competition to win. In a positive way, we try to search for the victory. I think it's very good to have this 'obsession' because, if you're not hungry to win, you shouldn't play.''
This kind of attitude has made him into not only one of the best keepers in England, but in the entire world. The seven goals he has let in thus far is nothing to brag about, but you can rest assure that he gives it his all every time he is out there. The Chelsea defense over the past several years owes a great amount of gratitude to him.
To much of the chagrin of fans and maybe some teammates, Bosingwa has been the favorite right back of Villas-Boas. Going into this season, everyone knew that the position needed some reinforcement and perhaps a new starter. Branislav Ivanovic played well above expectations in the role last season, but with more emphasis put on getting forward in the attack, he no longer would work out there.
Bosingwa has done excellent getting forward. He has registered a goal, as well as a few assists. He is quick, cunning and accurate with the ball. But his defense is something that is left to begging.
His speed helps him recover when he gets caught up field, but when he does get back, it often seems like he is merely a cone. Chelsea was lucky not to concede early against Swansea as winger Nathan Dyer beat him on multiple occasions. Bosingwa would also be to blame for the goal given up against the team from Wales. His ducking away from a set piece in the air was more embrassing for his manhood than anything.
Despite fans' feelings about the Portuguese defender, he will continue to figure regularly in Villas-Boas’ plans. But a few more slip-ups and he may find himself being used more for FA Cup games than big-time clashes.
With five games in two weeks, the schedule can start to wear on the older players. An away game on Sunday to Bolton may not seem like a trying match on paper, but the reckless and rough-tackling Wanderers can take its toll on a team. They will want to have John Terry fresh for that encounter that is more meaningful at this moment.
Alex has struggled to find playing time once Ivanovic returned from injury. He has featured a handful of times, but mostly in a substitute's role to close out a game. The addition of David Luiz back to the squad has made playing time only harder to come by.
With that said, Alex is a perfectly reliable back up and will fill in nicely against the Valencia style of play. His size and speed will be more important in clearing out balls and helping to mark Roberto Saldado. Saldado’s five goals in the season have come many different ways, but he is a poacher in the truest sense of the word. A big body on him will help slow him down.
The formation Valencia generally chooses to go with calls for only one striker in the middle. With that probably not changing on Wednesday, Luiz may get the call given the fact that his aggressive attacking style will be less a liability.
The jury is still out on how fans, and Villas-Boas for that matter, feel Luiz should be used. Some say his mentality puts a spark into the team and adds a threat unlike any other. Others believe that his tackles are the only thing more reckless than his runs forward. Either way he is always a talking point following a Chelsea game.
However, playing in Spain against a Spanish-style defense lends itself a little more leniency to his antics. Valencia play a much more zonal game than most English teams. This should allow for Luiz to carry the ball up with relative ease and (hopefully) pass it off before he gives it away for a counter.
Plus if there was ever a game where he could really be allowed to go up like he loves to do, this could be it.
Cole has had a surprisingly rough start to the 2011 season. No major malfeasance to report on, just the fact that he has not looked as reliable as he had in past years. Perhaps at the age of 30, his veteran status is finally catching up to him.
Nani made him look more foolish than anyone has in recent memory when they played United. The worst part of that was when Cole decided to take his frustration out on Javier Hernandez with a tackle that should have been a penalty and possibly a straight red.
Valencia is not an easy side, especially considering they enjoy playing to ball down the wings. Cole will be isolated out there on more than one occasion. Hopefully he can get back to his ways and own that side of the field.
Ryan Bertrand played well against Fulham, but he is still a long way off from being the reliable left back Chelsea need.
Mikel figured to fill a huge roll when Essien got hurt just days into training camp. The 24-year-old, who has played second fiddle to his fellow African ever since he came to Chelsea back in 2006, has always done so without complaint.
He started Saturday against Swansea and was integral in the win. Playing a majority of the game with only 10 men, he helped anchor the Blues midfield and was the strong defensive presence necessary to deflect any threatening counters.
Mikel’s abilities seem to only come under question against better opponents. Valencia is not the best team Chelsea will face this season, but they have proven they can put the ball in the back of the net. With their lone striker, the midfield is where they will play a majority of their game. Mikel would be well-placed to help break up any fluidity they may get with his strong tackles.
If there is anyone who can make it through this tough stretch of consistent games, it would be Ramires. His two goals on Saturday was finally some tangible evidence to support the claim that no one in a Chelsea uniform has been as reliable as the Brazilian.
He has shown that he can play in a defensive role or go up and support the attack. He is a true box-to-box midfielder and the one who has been the replacement for Essien.
So much has been made about Lamps supposed walking out on his team this past Saturday. The pictures The Mail released of the English midfielder leaving the dugout area and heading down the tunnel a few minutes before full time has everyone from the casual fan to the media moguls gossiping about how it may be the end of the Lampard era.
Villas-Boas quickly down played any suggestion that Lampard would no longer figure in his plans and Frank himself has made no comment. One thing is for sure though; we have not yet seen the last of the vice captain and his brilliance.
Lampard has seemed to find it hard to fit into the Villas-Boas system. The quick passing and fast-paced attack has the 33-year-old struggling to adapt his game. He has made a very successful career out of a calculated build-up and meticulous passes. But it no longer is the game plan at Stamford Bridge.
With that said he has been improving from game to game. He still creates opportunities for his teammates and is the one man you would want taking your penalties. The pictures on Saturday may have looked like a cause for concern, but the sooner everyone can move on from them, the quicker we can all get back to watching one of the best players in the club's history.
Mata returns back to his hometown for the first time since he joined the Chelsea a month ago. When the Champions League schedule was released, it must have been an interesting feeling for the Spaniard as he knew he would be facing his old friends.
Mata probably deserves a rest, given all that he has done for this team since he arrived, but it will be out of respect more than anything that he gets the start. The chance for him to play against his former team will not only be an advantage, but also allow him get the ovation he deserves from the fans.
The long standing rumors about Anelka’s departure away from the new Chelsea FC have been long forgotten. The player, whom many believed would be the one left out as the team moved toward a new style and philosophy, has reinvented himself (yet again) as a competent winger.
So perhaps he does not have the speed you would want in his game. He was probably the player Torres was talking about when he said the older players play “too slow,” but he did very well Saturday picking up the slack when Torres was sent off.
And this was not the first time he has impressed. He has been a consistent presence in the starting lineup fulfilling that right wing role, as he is better than Kalou and more reliable than Sturridge; the latter has been ruled out due to injury.
He may get the start by default, but it should not be looked at as such.
If there was any doubt whether he would play before, it has become all but certain now. Ironically enough it took an absolutely idiotic tackle to get him the start. With a three-game ban hanging over his head in the Premier League, there is no reason to think he would not start on that justification alone.
More to the point of the game though: he probably would have started anyway. The way Torres has always played lends itself more toward the Spanish style of defending. It has been three seasons since he has been back to Spain with an English club. The last time he did it was with Liverpool when they beat Real Madrid 1-0.
Torres has been improving every single game under Villas-Boas. Each time he plays he looks to get a step closer toward being back to the player him use to be. Unfortunately every step he moves forward, by the end of the game he seems to move two steps back. Hopefully he can play a clean 90 minutes against Valencia, get a goal or two and come away the hero that Chelsea have been looking for.
Ross Turnbull: Just a precaution.
Didier Drogba: The best insurance policy in the game. Hopefully won’t be necessary as he will be playing a lot in the coming weeks.
Josh McEachran: Finally the youngster has been getting the playing time he deserves.
Raul Meireles: A string of poor performances has him on the bench in a big game for the first time since he arrived.
John Terry: May come on to help close out the game. Also there just to be a leader.
Oriol Romeu: Played well against Fulham. It would be nice to give him time in a bigger game like this.
Florent Malouda: He has come under a lot of fire lately, but if Chelsea need a win, Torres isn’t getting it done and Drogba comes on, it may be better to have Malouda’s chemistry with the Ivorian on their instead.
These of course are just predictions. Had I known exactly who Villas-Boas plans to start, then I would be reporting to you rather than predicting.
Who do you think we will see starting on Wednesday night?