KNOCKOUT STAGES OR BUST FOR BLUES
AC Milan, Manchester City, Ajax, FC Metalist Kharkiv. Just some of the names we could be joining in the UEFA Cup if the mother of all slip-ups occurs at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night. After a shaky Champions League group stage so far, it all goes down to the final matchday, and CFR Cluj are the visitors and potential droppers of multiple banana skins. If we beat the Romanian’s, we are definitely through to the knockout stages of Europe’s elite competition. If we lose or draw, it could be Bordeaux and Roma who progress, and Chelsea who fail to qualify for the first time in the Blues’ Champions League history. Mathematics could see us finish top of Group A though and with Cluj left fighting for pride and pride alone, the only way is up for Luis Felipe Scolari’s troops. Inter Milan, Barcelona, Juventus, Real Madrid. That’s more like it, that’s who we want to play come the turn of the year!
But of course, we need to get out of the group first. It looked straightforward on paper back in September; Roma are a fading force, a one-man band; Bordeaux are French and not Lyon, they won’t do well; Cluj? Who the hell are Cluj?
We crushed Bordeaux at home 4-0, but then went to Romania and only mustered a 0-0 draw with Cluj. We came back to the Bridge and edged past Roma 1-0, with John Terry scoring a late-ish goal, but were then absolutely battered in the return fixture, losing 1-3 in Italy. Sketchy home form in the Premier League coupled with our most recent European game, a 1-1 draw in Bordeaux, has increased the pressure on the Blues, and with our final game against Cluj on Tuesday night now taking on the image of a play-off – win and we go through. Lose, and it could be curtains for the Champions League – now is the time to show what we are made of.
That task was made harder however, following the sending-off of Frank Lampard against Bordeaux a couple of weeks ago. The inspirational midfielder and BBC London Player of the Year misses the home tie against Cluj after picking up two bookings in his last European outing. Injuries also persist at SW6, with Franco di Santo, Juliano Belletti, Ricardo Carvalho, Joe Cole and Michael Essien all expected to miss out. The much maligned Florent Malouda picked up a suspicious injury prior to the win over Bolton at the weekend, and missed out on the matchday squad altogether. If he has ‘recovered’ from his ‘knock’ he could rejoin the 18 on Tuesday night. Didier Drogba is available for selection as his recent ban – which has now been spent anyway – was only for domestic competition.
However, it may not matter who is on the pitch if the Cluj manager Maurizio Trombetta has done his homework and watched the DVD’s of our recent home games. If he plugs the midfield and doesn’t set his side out to play any football whatsoever (he could speak to Joe Kinnear if he’s having any trouble doing that), then there is a good chance that the Romanian’s could get something out of the match.
Of course, if Scolari has thought up a ‘plan B’ (and not one where John Terry is chucked up front…although he is our joint top-scorer in the Champions League!) or if we show our strength straight from the off, then we should get the points come the final whistle. That’s the best case scenario anyway. The worst? We draw or lose, Bordeaux beat Roma and both sides go through at our expense, Scolari goes back to Brazil like he has promised to if we don’t qualify, and Malouda recovers from his fake injury to take his place in the starting XI from now until the end of time!
But we’re all optimists here aren’t we? We see the bright light at the end of the tunnel which says ‘Champions League Knockout Stages’ and ignore the dull hum of the UEFA Cup. We’ve been second-rate so far, and apart from the thrashing of Bordeaux, we haven’t been anywhere near our best. Is this what we have been waiting for? To be backed into the corner and put under pressure? This is it boys, a must-win game. Over to you…
Prediction: Maybe the UEFA Cup won’t be that bad…I mean, obviously a Chelsea win to send us through! It’s time for Drogba to prove his worth, and he’ll score in a 2-0 win.