On Tuesday evening Chelsea will kick-off their tenth Champions League campaign, and ninth in successive seasons. The Blues’ history in this competition is filled with frustration and disappointment (and also a lot of fantastic nights which should not be forgotten), but not often at this early stage. Other than a bit of a scare under Luiz Felipe Scolari, the group stages have never really thrown up many surprises and generally advancement to the Round of 16 has been secured with one or two games to spare. Having said that, this year’s draw could have been a lot kinder to Andre Villas-Boas’ men: Belgian champions Genk should be disposable, but Valencia were third only to Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain last season, and Tuesday’s opposition Leverkusen are currently top the German Bundesliga with five games gone.
Team selection for this match will be interesting. Villas-Boas has two decisions to make: one very straightforward, and the other devilishly tricky. He has indicated that, with Chelsea just about averaging a fixture every three days until the next international break in early October, there will be a lot of rotation in the coming weeks, so his first decision is whether to play his strongest side against Leverkusen. With the upcoming fixture at Old Trafford to think about, it may be tempting to say that he should rest a few important players. However, this fixture is also extremely important and his multi-million pound players really should be able to handle two games in a week. First decision made: start with strongest starting XI. The real conundrum for AVB, though, is deciding upon his strongest starting line-up. If the Blues have a fully-fit squad for the match, as might be the case, it is very difficult to predict even half of the side. Petr Cech, John Terry and Ashley Cole are certainties, whilst Ramires and Daniel Sturridge should be included, but other than those five, there really are some difficult decisions for AVB to make. To name a few: he must drop either Ivanovic, Luiz and Bosingwa (that’s forgetting about Alex altogether); he’s got to decide whether or not to play with an anchoring midfield player; and then up-front he has to pick between six top-class players vying for three attacking places. ‘Good problems to have’, many would say, but I don’t envy him.
One player who will be desperate to be named on the opposition side’s team sheet is Michael Ballack. Despite impressing in his side’s 4-1 victory over Augsburg on Friday, Leverkusen manager Robin Dutt has refused to confirm whether the former-blue will start on Tuesday. Whether playing or not Ballack can probably expect a warm reception from the club where he spent five seasons, making over 100 appearances and winning five major honours before being released in the summer of 2010. If selected, though, all friendliness will end at the first whistle. The only other time – to my memory – the former German captain has played at the Bridge as an opposition player was in 2005 when his Bayern Munich side lost 4-2 despite Ballack winning and converting an injury-time penalty. Ballack, a Champions League runner-up with both Chelsea and Leverkusen, is a fierce competitor and will do everything in his power to lead his side on in the competition.
Let’s face it; we’ll most likely stroll (or maybe have to walk powerfully) through the group stages and second round before coming across a detestable and possibly superior side in the quarter or semi-finals. We’ll play well, have a bit of bad luck in some form or another, Drogba will be sent off, and that will be it for another year. That’s my brain talking. Deep down, though, every supporter of nearly every club in the Champions League is dreaming of victory and refuses to act the realist. You never know, it could be our year. Therein lies the excitement of a new challenge for Europe’s most sought-after trophy.