Meanwhile, down at the other end of the table, Aston Villa’s recent burst of form sees them almost assured Premier League survival this term after having been relegation candidates for the duration of the season.
Their emphatic 6-1 victory over Sunderland followed by last weekend’s 2-1 win over Norwich sees the Villains 5 points clear of the drop zone with two games left to play.
Whilst the Blues hold the strongest hand of the London rivals chasing a top-four finish, Villa will feel much of the pressure has been relieved on them and, in front of their home crowd at Villa Park, they could upset the Blues’ top four plans this weekend.
Chelsea have played an astonishing amount of games this season between the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup, Champions League, Europa League, Community Shield, Club World Cup, and Super Cup and although they certainly have quality and depth in abundance in their squad, fatigue could play a part in Saturday’s fixture.
For weeks on end now Chelsea have played a big midweek fixture and then a big league game at the weekend without much rest, rehabilitation and preparation in time between.
Wednesday night’s clash with Spurs at Stamford Bridge saw Chelsea take an early lead via Oscar after 10 minutes but twice Tottenham fought back to equalize. Chelsea were 2-1 up with ten minutes left on the clock but Gylfi Sigurdsson’s strike on 80 minutes held the home side to a draw.
That last quarter of an hour saw Spurs attack in wave after wave and Chelsea’s tired legs surely played a part in their effective loss of two points.
Interim manager Rafael Benitez must beware of a similar circumstance unfolding at Villa Park on Saturday as Villa proved with their win over Norwich last weekend, they will persevere until the final whistle – Gabriel Agbonlahor’s 89th minute winner made survival a little trickier for Chris Hughton’s Canaries.
Chelsea undoubtedly have the quality in their ranks to beat Villa but the result wlll depend on Benitez’ rotation of key players – the Juan Mata, Ramires, Fernando Torres and David Luiz played 90 minutes on Wednesday and Oscar and Eden Hazard were taken off in the last 15 minutes.
It’s no co-incidence that Chelsea’s concession of possession in the latter stages of the game corresponded to the withdrawal of two of their most technical gifted players and, subsequently their concession of the equalizer.
Benitez cannot afford to rest Mata or Luiz as they are such core components of the Blues’ machine but I would expect Demba Ba to come in for Torres and Frank Lampard to come in to their midfield. The last 20 minutes on Saturday, however, could be pivotal in the Blues’ qualification for the Champions League.
Benitez cannot afford to have one eye on the Europa League final next Wednesday but there is a high likelihood that fixture will influence his selection this weekend and, if he’s not careful, Villa are capable of causing more than an upset – any less than all three points for the Blues would be a catastrophe.
image: © Ben Sutherland