Saturday begins a run of fixtures for Chelsea that will see them play four times in just eight days, first travelling to the south coast to face Southampton before returning to Stamford Bridge on Monday for the FA Cup replay against Manchester United. While definitely a grueling run of games, the side should be imbued by the fact that it means that they’re still in the hunt for two trophies, and five of the squad who were not picked for the last round of Internationals got a little bit of a rest.
They’re going to need it with fixture pile-up like that, and with a resilient Saints side that is looking to build on their four-point lead over Wigan for the final relegation spot. The Saints under Mauricio Pochettino have been much the same as they were under Nigel Adkins, and it showed in their recent victories over Manchester City and Liverpool that they are capable of turning over any side on any day. However, lacklustre performances against Newcastle, QPR, and Norwich see them just ahead of Aston Villa and fighting to stay out of the relegation fight.
On the other side, Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez has squared his sights on eclipsing Manchester City for second place and attempting to avoid the fourth-place battle. To do so, his side must get three points from their trip to the south in order to put pressure on Roberto Mancini’s men, who are just four points clear.
Four games in eight days – Did I read that right?
As much as coming from two goals down to force a replay against United in the FA Cup may have galvanised this squad, it’s also made for some very interesting fixture lists for the near future. With UEFA’s rules about staging matches on days when Champions League matches are scheduled and Chelsea’s continued participation in the Europa League, it’s led to this schedule being formulated and possibly later in April should we beat United and the league schedules have to be re-arranged.
This is where the manager earns his money and where a small squad could be taxed to the brink of exhaustion. It’ll be interesting to see how Benitez divides his squad for the run of fixtures, because it’s not really plausible to expect those that play tomorrow will be fit and ready to play on Monday at lunch time. How he splits the team into two squads will be vital, especially given that if he plays a second team against Southampton, it could be danger time.
Southampton have two slight injury doubts, but they could be big ones.
Both Adam Lallana and Jos Hooiveld have been listed as doubts for the match, and if Southampton have neither of them, it will affect the way they play. Lallana is their captain and a creative presence in the side that complements Gaston Ramirez on the other flank. When he doesn’t play, it means that Ramirez is the sole truly dangerous creative player for whoever plays up front, and it usually means that Jay Rodriguez, a striker, comes in to play on the left hand side.
Hooiveld’s a miss for a different reason. The one area that Southampton have been lacking in all season is their ability to defend consistently. They can get forward and score goals, but their problem this season has been stopping them from going in. It’s why despite having scored 42 goals this season, they still find themselves just four points clear of relegation.
Hooiveld is one of their two starting center backs, and they will be key in trying to pick up the deep runs through the middle of the Chelsea attack. Depending on who Benitez plays, they will have to be disciplined enough to keep shape, and the absence of Hooiveld may make them more vulnerable than usual.
Another injury doubt that I’d love to see play is Luke Shaw.
I haven’t gotten to see much of Southampton this season, but I would like to get a long look at Shaw against top-level competition. At just 17, he’s still young and will certainly develop, but he’s already established himself as a left back with serious potential. The kicker, for me, is that he plays well, but I think he could sometimes read the game a bit better. However, that will come with time and experience, and it’s most interesting because the Blues do need to look at someone to be the long-term successor to Ashley Cole.
Talk about the forthcoming fixture in our Matchday forum.