Chelsea travel to Ewood Park on Sunday afternoon in a potential season-defining game. Outthought and outclassed by Inter Milan on Tuesday evening, the Blues require an instant return to winning ways to ensure they keep their noses ahead of both Manchester United and Arsenal in the title race. Arsenal have what looks like a comfortable home tie with West Ham, whilst Liverpool travel to Old Trafford, surely unable to repeat last season’s famous 4-1 victory there.
Our form is stodgy at best, with fairly comfortably league wins against Wolves and West Ham surrounded by a trio of defeats, two to Jose’s Inter and the home capitulation at the hands of Manchester City three weeks ago. Still, if we win both our next two fixtures, at Blackburn and Portsmouth, we go back to the top of the league irrespective of how United and Arsenal get on.
The Blues’ record at Blackburn has been pretty strong in recent years, winning 7 of our last 9 trips there and winning our last three without conceding. Last year a Nicolas Anelka brace in the pouring Lancashire rain saw us run out comfortable winners. We have of course already travelled to Ewood Park this campaign. It was the venue for our Carling Cup exit at the beginning of December (and seemingly the start of a wobble which still hasn’t really finished) when we lost on penalties following a dramatic 3-3 draw.
With the exception of long-term absentees Jose Bosingwa, Michael Essien and Ashley Cole, Chelsea’s squad should be at full strength. Petr Cech and Ricardo Carvalho are rumoured to be making a return to the line-up following injury, although the height of Alex would certainly come in handy to counter the barrage of high balls and well delivered set-pieces we will inevitably face. Rovers will be missing Paul Robinson, so often exceptional against us, whilst on-loan Franco di Santo is ineligible. Blackburn’s home form has been nothing short of exceptional this season, losing only twice, and winning four of their last five, but visits from the top three loom large.
The referee for the game will be the weary Steve Bennett (who has overseen two of our finest performances of the season, at Sunderland and at home to Birmingham). We will be wearing our away shirt for this fixture, which doesn’t bode well; we have lost every time we have worn it this season.
Remarkably, we’re only three points better off than we were at this stage last season. Thankfully, both Manchester United and Arsenal have had similarly mediocre spells during the campaign. We are three goals short of equaling the most we have ever scored in the Premier League era (72 in 04/05 and 05/06), but we have also conceded the most goals in the league since 2003/04, averaging almost one a game.
Our exit from the Champions League on Tuesday night was undoubtedly disappointing, but it could yet prove a blessing in disguise. With the prospect of only one more midweek of football this season (and that’s this coming Wednesday at Fratton Park) Chelsea have the prospect of remaining fresher than our rivals at the top of the table, with our minds focused solely on the league campaign and one FA Cup Semi Final. In a season of shocks and surprises, no fixture seems easy before kick-off any more, especially away from the Bridge. But a couple of wins in four days could swing the balance of power back in our favour, simultaneously giving us some momentum before games against Aston Villa and forthcoming trips to the three Premier League grounds we lost at last season, Old Trafford, White Hart Lane, and Anfield. Tuesday’s defeat proved the end of our challenge on the European front but a win on Sunday could just ignite our fight for England’s coveted title.