Chelsea head into their 50th game of a marathon season against Steau Bucharest on Thursday with manager Rafael Benitez emphasizing that his focus is on the first-leg of the Europa League last-16 tie, rather than a glamorous FA Cup quarterfinal with Manchester United on Sunday.
The Blues have played more matches this season than any other European side, but Benitez has said that he will be fielding a strong lineup in the National Arena in Bucharest.
“I think it's clear that we will try to progress in every competition, and that the next game is always the most important game,” Benitez said, according to Chelsea’s official website. “Now, we are here to play in the Europa League and we will try to win, then on Sunday we will be at Old Trafford.
“Obviously, as a manager you have to think about both, but the priority at the moment is this one. So we will put a very competitive team on the pitch and we are sure that we can do a good job. Afterwards, we will think about United, but the main thing for us is to progress in this competition at the moment.”
Benitez has, though, decided to leave Ramires and Victor Moses in London, while Fernando Torres will start up front with Demba Ba cup-tied.
Despite Benitez’s infamous comments urging Chelsea’s fans to concentrate on getting behind the team last week, the side secured a narrow 1-0 victory over West Brom on Saturday. It was a similarly tight result that saw Chelsea into this stage of the Europa League when Eden Hazard struck late at Stamford Bridge to take them past Sparta Prague.
Steaua scored an impressive upset over Ajax in the last round as they progressed after the drama of penalties. It is the first time that the 1986 European Cup winners are back in the last 16 of a continental competition since 2006 when they reached the UEFA Cup semifinals.
It has been a strong season for Steaua, who are poised to claim their first league title in seven years as they currently sit 12 points clear. The success has meant an unusually long stay in the Steaua hot seat for current incumbent Laurentiu Reghecampf. A spell of nine months represents a success under notorious Steaua owner Gigi Becali—a man who makes Roman Abramovich appear patience personified.
Steaua Bucharest (probable)
D: Rapa, Chirches, Gardos, Latovlevici
M: Tatu, Prepelita, Tanase
F: Popa, Rusescu, Chipciu
D: Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Cahill, Bertrand
M: Mikel, Luiz
Marin, Oscar, Hazard
Prediction: Steaua’s defensive record at home has been mightily impressive overall this season—conceding just four goals in the league and in just one game in the Europa League. However, the one match in which they did concede was a 5-1 mauling at the hands of Stuttgart.
Chelsea have not been in the type of form that suggests they can produce a similar result in Bucharest. At the other end of the pitch the visitors will have to watch for Steaua striker Raul Rusescu, who has scored 18 goals in the league and a further three in the Europa League.
In what promises to be a rousing atmosphere for the visit of the European champions, Chelsea are likely to be happy to come away with a score draw.
Steaua Bucharest 1-1 Chelsea
Where to watch: The first leg of the Europa League last-16 tie will kick-off from the National Arena at 1 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by the Fox Soccer Channel, with a live stream available on Fox Soccer 2Go.