What has been a largely disappointing season for both Chelsea and Manchester City could yet end in FA Cup glory at Wembley on May 11. But first both sides have to get through a heavyweight clash in Sunday’s semifinal before taking their place as favorites against Wigan back at one of the world’s most renowned arenas.
Chelsea’s season has been incredibly tumultuous, yet they could still finish with three significant prizes.
An early exit from both the Champions League and then the Premier League title race was not in the plan after a big summer of spending, while interim manager Rafael Benitez has faced almost constant hostility since replacing Roberto di Matteo last November.
But the Spaniard has maintained Chelsea’s fight for the Champions League places and, on Thursday, he guided the Blues into the last four of the Europa League. No side has played more matches in Europe this season and Benitez certainly deserves credit for largely successfully rotating what is an unbalanced squad.
If the former Liverpool boss leads Chelsea to the Europa League, FA Cup and a place in the Champions League even the most skeptical Blues fan will surely have to view his time in charge as a successful one.
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While Benitez’s exit at the end of the season has long since been known, the fate of Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini remains in some doubt.
Having led City to their first league title in 44 years last season, Mancini’s reign looked set to be a lasting one, but a second-straight exit from the group stage for the Champions League and a limp challenge to retain the championship has seen his managerial acumen called into question.
Mancini has consistently pointed the finger of blame at those previously in charge of recruitment at the club for not signing the players he felt were needed last summer. But, while there is plenty of truth in that accusation, City’s impressive 2-1 defeat of Manchester United on Monday demonstrated that there is still no justification for them being 12 points behind their rivals in the Premier League standings.
That performance, though, should give City plenty of confidence heading to Wembley. Sergio Aguero came off the bench at Old Trafford to score a stunning late winner and the Argentinean is now likely to have sufficient fitness to start against Chelsea.
The fact that Aguero’s strike was only his 10th in the league this season goes someway to explaining City’s struggles in front of goal, but, on his day, there are few better strikers in the world than the former Atletico Madrid man.
Chelsea also have a recent victory over Manchester United to call upon having knocked them out in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. If both sides repeat their respective performances against the Premier League leaders on Sunday then it should be a closely fought contest.
The crucial battle could well be in the middle of the pitch. It is the area of the squad where Benitez has been tested most with Chelsea’s fixture pileup. with his options limited.
In the second leg of their Europa League quarterfinal against Rubin Kazan on Thursday, youngster Nathan Ake started in the middle. With Frank Lampard also being deployed in that game, the veteran is unlikely to be used from the start just three days later, meaning a likely partnership between John Mikel Obi and Ramires.
The pair will have huge responsibility going up against Yaya Toure, who memorably was a one-man powerhouse in leading City past Manchester United in the semifinals of the FA Cup two seasons ago.
If Toure plays near that level again then City could take charge of the game and with the ability of Aguero up front, Mancini could well be leading his side to a second FA Cup final in three years.
Prediction: Chelsea 1-2 Manchester City