Chelsea and Newcastle have taken unexpected paths on the road leading up to their crucial battle at Stamford Bridge today. The Blues, possessing one of the most talented rosters in Europe, stumbled early and often under the guidance of Andre Villas-Boas. Since his sacking in early March, Chelsea has risen from the proverbial dead with Roberto Di Matteo as manager to improbably reach the Champions League Final, FA Cup Final, and to within a point of the last Champions League place in Europe.
For the Magpies, the journey has been much different. With a squad of players that combined cost about the same as what Liverpool paid for Andy Carroll, manager Alan Pardew and Newcastle executives have put together a very good side. Underestimated to start the year, the team has been hovering around the Champions League places since September, a testament to just how good they have been.
The winner of this matchup gains the upper hand in a race for fourth position that still very much includes Tottenham. Here is a look at what to expect today.
Matchups to watch:
Hatem Ben Arfa vs Jose Bosingwa/Ashley Cole
The creativity of Newcastle’s recent positive run of form has been provided by Hatem Ben Arfa. Much maligned by Pardew to start the season after his return from that horrible leg break, Ben Arfa’s change in attitude has seen him consistently chosen in the starting 11. Since his move to a right wing position in Newcastle’s new 4-3-3 formation, his attacking skills have been fully on display, including a few brilliant goals. His ability to create space and make crosses will be a big factor in this match. Ashley Cole has been in fantastic form lately as well, and may create a difficult time for Ben Arfa with his fantastic pace. However, given the freedom that Ben Arfa has been given to drift in recent weeks, a change to the left wing would likely see him paired with the defensively frail Jose Bosingwa. With out-of-form Demba Ba struggling to get anything going on the left, we will see if Pardew allows Ben Arfa the choice to attack Bosingwa rather than Cole.
Ashley Cole and Ramires vs. Davide Santon and Danny Simpson
The wing matchups on the other end of the field will be equally as important. Whether or not Newcastle just had an off day against Wigan on Saturday is up for debate, but the pace of Shaun Maloney and Victor Moses on the flanks was too much for the Magpies backline, especially Simpson and Santon. In the first match between Chelsea and Newcastle in December, a 3-0 victory for the Blues, much of Chelsea’s best work was done with penetrating runs down the outside to open up space for crosses into Didier Drogba. Cole is known for his ability to get forward down the left, but the unsung hero of Chelsea’s season so far has been Ramires. His incredible work rate and pace on the right creates huge problems for the left side of opposing defenses. If Cole and Ramires are allowed the freedom to operate in wide areas, it could be another long day for the Newcastle fullbacks.
Branislav Ivanovic’s return from suspension will help to stabilize a Chelsea back four that has been ravaged by the injuries to David Luiz and Gary Cahill. This should give John Terry the help he needs to try to slow down Papiss Demba Cisse, who has 11 goals in 11 appearances for Newcastle since signing from SC Freiburg. At forward for Chelsea, Di Matteo has two in-form players to choose from. Didier Drogba has been a force in recent weeks, showing that he still can be a dominant presence at age 34. But Fernando Torres has finally started to round into form as well, scoring four goals in the last two games, including his first hat trick in two and a half years. It is a nice problem to have when multiple forwards are finding the back of the net. It will be interesting to see who Di Matteo deploys with the FA Cup Final against Liverpool on Saturday.
Chelsea has finally hit their stride, and the team riding the high of their Champions League triumph over Barcelona and the 6-1 London derby thrashing of QPR on Sunday. Newcastle will be a difficult test, but with their surprising 4-0 defeat at the hands of Wigan on Saturday, you have to wonder what the mindset of Alan Pardew’s men will be. With the game at Stamford Bridge, I look for Chelsea to continue their quest for fourth with a 3-1 victory.