Following February’s defeat at home to Arsenal, many had written Chelsea off in the chase for the title and thought that only Man Utd could close the gap on the Gunners. However Claudio Ranieri’s men have quietly sneaked ahead of Alex Ferguson’s stuttering side by virtue of goal difference and now will aim to solidify that position when they travel to Bolton on Saturday. The title may have passed the Blues by in many peoples eyes, but that will not diminish their desire to go one better than Luca Vialli’s side of 98/99 that finished third and in doing so force United to settle for an unfamiliar third place.
The men from the Reebok Stadium pulled off a shock 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge in December that started Chelsea’s annual festive slippery patch. However the odds look stacked against them to pull off a double that few would have predicted at the start of the season.
Bolton boss Sam Allardyce saw his side find some unexpected form during the middle of the season that resulted in them winning at Stamford Bridge and Anfield in the Premiership and also reaching the Carling Cup final. However their performances have dwindled of late and they have slipped back to twelfth in the league table and were beaten relatively comfortably in the Cardiff final by Middlesborough.
The poor recent displays of their Captain and inspiration Jay Jay Okocha has evidently played a large part in this loss of form. The Nigerian has admitted that his exploits at the African Cup of Nations last month have taken the edge of his game and that he feels jaded. This is good news for visitors Chelsea since on his day; Okocha can cause any defence a number of problems.
Ranieri favoured a defensive 4-5-1 formation for Chelsea’s midweek match against Stuttgart, though Saturday should see the resumption of the normal 4-4-2 service. The Italian will hope that by fielding the aggressive pairing of Hernan Crespo and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, his side will find the form in front of goal that has seemingly been lacking for much of the season. Unfortunately he will not be able to call upon the services of Adrian Mutu or Eidur Gudjohnsen, who both sit out one game bans.
Damian Duff seemed to benefit from his start in the Champions League and will surely feature on Saturday. His presence visibly invigorates the Chelsea attack that without him seems stagnant. Frank Lampard and Claude Makelele may, as usual feature in the centre of midfield, leaving Ranieri with the usual choice of somewhat reluctant right midfielders.
Chelsea’s defence ought to consist of Mario Melchiot, Wayne Bridge, John Terry and William Gallas with Carlo Cudicini in goal as ever. The central pairing should remain unchanged despite a critic-silencing performance from Marcel Desailly in midweek that should in turn renew his hunger to regain his place in the side before the end of the season. Glen Johnson will miss out on the trip whilst he waits to discover the damage to his ankle sustained on Tuesday night.
Bolton may well approach the game with a lone striker operating ahead of a five-man midfield. Ivan Campo usually fills the gap between defence and midfield with Youri Djorkaeff and Kevin Nolan looking to press forward and supply the hard working Kevin Davies. Former Chelsea player Emerson Thome should marshal the defence alongside Bruno N’Gotty who scored with a header at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season. Finnish keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen has been an ever-present this season and will attempt to keep a clean sheet against Chelsea’s expensively assembled squad.