Less than two weeks after their blockbuster Premier League duel, Manchester City and Chelsea meet again in the FA Cup on Saturday, with injuries again promising to play a significant factor. Chelsea produced one of the performances of the season in becoming the first team to get a victory at the Etihad in the league this campaign, but their hopes of a repeat back in Manchester will be dealt a significant blow if captain John Terry fails to recover from a double muscle injury.
Had Terry been fit then there is a strong argument that they would now hold a four point lead at the Premier League summit. Against West Brom on Tuesday, Chelsea were far from their best but appeared to be on their way to a trademark Jose-Mourinho victory. Instead, without the influence of Terry, the defense appeared increasingly rattled in the closing stages before conceding a late goal to a close-range header.
Terry, especially at the age of 33, is far from a faultless defender. His lack of pace and creakiness on the turn can be a real weakness, particularly given it encourages him to drop behind the rest of his defenders. But under Mourinho’s deep defensive shape, Terry’s weaknesses are largely shielded and his physical strengths in the box and organizational qualities can come to the fore.
At the Hawthorns, though, Chelsea became too negative. There was little reason to fear a West Brom side that had been struggling woefully of late and looking devoid of any cutting edge. Mourinho’s philosophy of holding on to what they had combined with the team dropping deeper than even he would have liked proved costly. The results are likely to be even more troubling should a Chelsea defense missing Terry, and possibly Gary Cahill after he picked up an injury against West Brom, invite similar pressure against City at the Etihad.
Still, their opponents have plenty of their own concerns. The absence of Fernandinho was most keenly felt when the sides last met, as time and again Chelsea simply stormed through the heart of the Manchester City side. It would be wrong, though, to lump the blame for that failing on Fernandinho’s replacement Martin Demichelis.
While clearly an easy target with a lack of pace that makes Terry look positively sprightly, the onus was on the experienced Yaya Toure next to him to adjust to the fact that he no longer had the Brazilian’s engine alongside him. Instead Toure piled forward at every opportunity seemingly in total disregard for the needs of the team. It epitomized the difference between the two teams on the day. While Chelsea’s lineup were in perfect symbiosis throughout the match, defending and counter-attacking in unison, City played very much as 11 individuals.
Chelsea, with Terry or not, will relish exposing that through the pace and ability of Eden Hazard and Willian once more on Saturday. Fernandinho will again be absent, with this time James Milner, or if he returns from injury Javi Garcia lining up alongside Toure, with Demichelis required to cover for the injured Matija Nastasic at the back. Whoever it is, though, Toure will have to give a much more responsible performance alongside them.
Of course, City’s openness can’t be put down simply to individuals, rather it is also a result of Manuel Pellegrini’s attacking intent and insistence on fielding two strikers. It is a strategy works against the majority of opposition City come up against, with Toure and Fernandinho able to dominate three players. However, against the top sides, and especially with one of that pair missing, his positivity becomes naivety.
City altered their tactics to just one man up front against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season and were highly unfortunate to come away with a 2-1 defeat. Since then Chelsea's midfield has been boosted considerably by the presence of Nemanja Matic. The January signing now provides a crucial cog in front of the back four, able to breakup opposition attacks and start them for his own side. Unlike City, who failed to acquire a center-back or defensive midfielder, Chelsea have strongly addressed once of their key needs.
With Sergio Aguero out, the decision to go with two target-man type strikers in Alvaro Negredo and Edin Dzeko against Chelsea last time out was particularly bold. Pellegrini’s biggest selection dilemma this time around will be whether to do likewise or to opt for the more versatile Stevan Jovetic or even, if injuries allow, shore up the midfield. His history this season suggests it won’t be the latter, although Jovetic is still searching for form and fitness after injury and was part of a City team that were held to a goalless draw against Norwich City last time out.
Ultimately, with injuries likely to prevent both teams from playing quite how they would like and with the encounter potentially lacking the intensity of the Premier League clash, a draw could be on the cards.
Prediction: Manchester City 1-1 Chelsea