The next fortnight sees Chelsea’s run in begin in earnest with three crucial matches, the first of which being a trip to Newcastle in the FA Cup fifth round. Jose Mourinho’s men will want to head to Barcelona and Cardiff next week still on target for an unprecedented quadruple and to do so will need to beat a Newcastle team desperate for silverware.
Already knocked out of the Carling Cup at St James’ Park by Chelsea, Newcastle, and in particular Graeme Souness and Alan Shearer, have their sights set upon the FA and UEFA Cup competitions. For Souness the competitions represent the chance to add credibility to a miserable first season in charge in the North East. For Shearer however, they mean the last chance to win silverware with his hometown club before he retires to the SKY television studio this summer.
Despite twice reaching the final of the FA Cup in the nineties, the last time the Magpies troubled the engravers was in the same competition in 1955. Their present situation is far from admirable with Shearer’s retirement looming, a disharmonious squad and calls of ‘sack the board’ from supporters all contributing to an unsteady air at St James’ Park. A fifth round tie with the Chelsea juggernaut would not have been high on the Geordie wish list.
Mourinho has a team on a roll and playing for each other like few in recent memory. Recent injury troubles threatened to jolt the side’s momentum, though a return to the hard fought displays that characterised the early part of their season has seen Chelsea remain a daunting opponent for any side. Last week’s victory at Goodison Park epitomised the class of the team currently nine points clear at the top of the Premiership. Faced with a cabbage patch of a pitch and a physical opposition – albeit of only ten men after eight minutes – Chelsea rolled their sleeves up and played Everton off the park. Similar grind will be required to progress this Sunday.
Injuries and a congested fixture list may see Mourinho roll the dice with his selection this weekend. The Portuguese may not admit it to the media but the FA Cup is without doubt behind the Champion’s League and Premiership in his estimation. With Barcelona looming on Wednesday and the League Cup Final against Liverpool a week away, Chelsea will be without some of their regular starters this weekend. John Terry for one will miss out with a suspiciously well-timed one-game ban whilst Arjen Robben and Didier Drogba both miss out through injury. Frank Lampard is due a rest and as such Jiri Jarosik, who impressed when he came on against Everton, may start in the middle. Eidur Gudjohnsen’s recent workload looks set to rise still further if, as expected, he leads the line once more.
Newcastle are not without their absentees either and will not have appreciated a fiercely contested UEFA Cup tie with Heerenveen on Thursday evening. Former Chelsea player Celestine Babayaro’s knee means that he is doubtful, whilst Jean-Alain Boumsong, Kieron Dyer and Nicky Butt all face fitness tests if they are to figure at all. Perhaps least surprising is the absence of Lee Bowyer through suspension and he will be joined in the stands by Amdy Faye, who is also banned for this one.
In the Carling Cup tie earlier in the season, Chelsea’s weakened side needed the impetus added by Lampard and Robben as late substitutes to finally triumph 2-0 after extra time. A bitterly cold North East will likely witness a similarly close contest with chances few and far between. Chelsea will once again need Gudjohnsen to deliver the goods away from Stamford Bridge before relying on their solid defence to see them through.