After a busy international break featuring Blues, boos and back problems, a tricky trip to the Tees Valley is next up for Chelsea, as they head to Middlesbrough for an early Saturday afternoon kick-off.
With the intercontinental action coming hot on the heels of a flamboyant 2-0 win over Aston Villa, it will be interesting to see if Luis Felipe Scolari’s side can build on that win despite being curtailed by national commitments. Three wins from three games north of the Watford gap so far this season for the Blues is promising, and with Middlesbrough as inconsistent as ever, getting back into the swing of things should be a realistic prospect.
After consigning sorry Spurs to the first defeat of many on the opening day of the season, Boro have only taken six more points from their last seven games, with wins against Wigan and Stoke coming courtesy of last-gasp winners from Jeremie Aliadiere and Tuncay Sanli respectively. However, they were unlucky not to beat Liverpool in their second game of the season, with late goals again the defining aspect of the match as an Emmanuel Pogatetz own goal with five minutes to go was followed up by a Steven Gerrard screamer with barely five seconds left to play.
Gareth Southgate will be without a few first-team players this weekend, with Julio Arca and Turkish striker Tuncay both out. Also with them on the sidelines is Robert Huth, the former Chelsea centre-back, who is set to see a specialist about an ankle ligament injury and will definitely be out for a short while. Fellow defender Pogatetz is suspended following a red card against Manchester United in the League Cup recently. Boro only had four players involved in mid-week action, although both Stewart Downing and David Wheater were only spectators for England’s game against Belarus in Minsk. Pogatetz played for Austria in a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Serbia while French youngster Didier Digard also suffered a loss as his under-21 side were beaten by their German counterparts.
In a way, the international break came at a good time for Chelsea. Counting the cost of a number of injuries, it should have provided a respite for Scolari’s thinning squad. However, with high-profile injury victims John Terry and Ashley Cole joining those on the wounded list early last week and José Bosingwa and Petr Cech missing games for Portugal and Czech Republic, Chelsea’s medical team will find themselves even busier than usual in the build up to the Boro game.
Michael Ballack may also be a doubt with a calf problem, while there are question marks hanging over Nicolas Anelka, Joe Cole, Alex, and Deco, while Didier Drogba, Ricardo Carvalho and Michael Essien are definitely out.
If Scolari can field a fit XI, he will be looking to emulate last October’s victory at the Riverside. After some shaky performances in recent years against Boro including a 0-3 rout, Chelsea were said to have a new bogey team. But just eight minutes into last season’s game, a Drogba goal settled the nerves, pre-empting a thunderous Alex free-kick in the second half and setting up a 2-0 win.
With Chelsea playing with vigour and flair, Boro could just be another opponent bulldozed out of the way. However, on their day they are a match for any team, as Manchester United will testify. A poor start to the season disguises the quality they can call upon, but we too have a few trump cards in our pack. It’s been a while but now we’re back, injuries or no injuries, and with the Villa win still fresh in our minds, Boro could suffer from our walking wounded this Saturday.
Prediction: I’m going for another 2-0 win, and seeing as late goals are a key feature of Boro’s games this season, we’ll bag the clincher late on.
Chelsea play Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium on Saturday 18th October 2008, with kick-off at 12:45.