How cliche that Transylvania is the setting for today’s Champions League encounter between Cluj and Chelsea, given of course that it’s Oct. 1 and we’re about to be bludgeoned for the next 31 days with the images and sounds of Halloween. Just check out the nearest Target or Wal-Mart if you don’t believe me.
The ironic thing is that Chelsea likely has that uneasy queasy feeling in the pit of its collective stomach heading into its Group A match–and it’s got nothing to do with being a few kilometers from Vlad the Impaler’s shack. No, it’s more likely due to the fact that underdog Cluj, fifth in the Romanian table, likely isn’t sweating this match. Cluj are the darlings of this tournament having conquerered Roma on Matchday One, winning 2-1 at the Stadio Olimpico.
Coming home against the 2007-08 Champions League runners-up should be a breeze.
Well, on any other day, maybe not. Today? Maybe so.
Chelsea is minus four key performers coming into this match, namely Deco, Ricardo Carvalho, Joe Cole and of course Michael Essien– all hamstrung with injuries; Essien for the season. That’s a lot of expensive meat on the bench for the Blues so far from home. Expect Didier Drogba back in the Chelsea starting eleven today and his running partner up front will be Salomon Kalou. Jon Obi Mikel will get the call in midfield likely alongside Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard.
Surely Chelsea has enough to stave off the upset; unless of course it falls victim to the same complacency that did in Arsenal against Hull over the weekend. To its credit, Arsenal rebounded in a huge way yesterday, slamming F.C. Porto in London, 4-0.
Manager Luiz Filipe Scolari is saying the right things about his opponent, but understands that semantics don’t suit up on the pitch.
“We will treat [Cluj] with total respect. Any team that can win 2-1 at Roma will be dangerous in this competition,” he said.
And speaking of saying all the right things, Cluj striker Yousef Kone says Chelsea is four times stronger than Roma right now, making the home team’s job–well–four times more difficult.
“Chelsea are a football machine. In the end it’s 11 against 11 and the pressure will be on Chelsea, not on us. If they beat us, it would be normal. If we beat them, it would be something fantastic,” he said.
So will we see something fantastic? It will be a dramatic, hostile setting for Chelsea against a confident team playing in front of a crowd that is dreaming of an upset. This is Scolari’s first test of his managerial mettle at Chelsea–yes even more so than the game against United. He has to move the chess pieces tactically and confidently and the players must execute. Otherwise, Cluj will be in command of the group and Chelsea and Roma will be hammering on each other for second place in the group.
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