LONDON, January 30 – Scarred in different ways by their recent cup exploits, Chelsea and Manchester City face off at Stamford Bridge on Saturday for a pivotal match in the Premier League title race.
Both teams were dumped out of the FA Cup by lower-league opposition last weekend, but while Chelsea responded by beating Liverpool in the League Cup semi-finals on Tuesday, victory came at a price.
Diego Costa seems certain to miss City’s visit after being charged for stamping on Liverpool’s Emre Can, while Cesc Fabregas and Filipe Luis are both doubts for the game after picking up injuries.
Jose Mourinho’s side can expect little sympathy from City, the defending champions, who will fall eight points off the pace if they lose.
But the Chelsea manager is already looking to turn the situation to his advantage, battening down the hatches and creating the kind of siege mentality that is his favoured modus operandi.
As well as Costa’s charge, Mourinho was himself fined by the Football Association for alleging that there was a media-led “campaign” against his side following a spate of diving allegations.
The Portuguese hit out at the media again after Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Liverpool and responded to news of the disciplinary action facing Costa by cancelling his scheduled press conference on Friday.
The side-show has helped to bury talk of last weekend’s humiliating home defeat by third-tier Bradford City, who came from 2-0 down to win 4-2 in the FA Cup fourth round.
The extra-time win over Liverpool has left its mark on Mourinho’s squad, but he believes the league leaders will not be encumbered by fatigue when they take to the pitch against City.
“The players are tired, but when you win, fatigue doesn’t mean the same as when you lose,” he said.
“We have a big game on Saturday, but I think the feeling of winning, being at Wembley, compensates a little bit the fans after the gift we gave them last weekend.”
– Lampard return –
A run of eight wins in nine games left City dead-level with Chelsea on New Year’s Day, but a draw at Everton and a 2-0 home defeat by Arsenal have seen Manuel Pellegrini’s team fall five points off the pace.
Coupled with last weekend’s 2-0 defeat by second-tier Middlesbrough, they have now gone three games without a win in all competitions.
“We must turn our minds to the Premier League,” said Pellegrini. “We have a difficult game against Chelsea. I hope we can recover during the week and get back to normal.”
Ivory Coast’s qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals means City remain without Yaya Toure and new signing Wilfried Bony, but Sergio Aguero has proven his fitness following a knee injury by coming through 90 minutes against Arsenal and Middlesbrough.
Former Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard, who scored an 85th-minute equaliser for City when the teams last met in September, could be making his final appearance at Stamford Bridge.
The sight of Chelsea’s all-time record goal-scorer in a City shirt will jar with the London club’s supporters, particularly as he had previously pledged that he would never play for a rival club.
But the 36-year-old was applauded by the visiting fans after refusing to celebrate his goal in the reverse fixture and Chelsea Supporters’ Trust chair Tim Rolls has told Britain’s Press Association: “I don’t think anybody is going to boo him.”
The stage is set for an attritional battle, with Mourinho likely to select three central midfielders in a bid to overwhelm City pair Fernando and Fernandinho much as Arsenal did at the Etihad Stadium.
With Fabregas nursing a tight hamstring, John Mikel Obi and Ramires could both be brought into the team to play alongside Nemanja Matic, which would probably see Oscar drop out.
Cesar Azpilicueta will come in for Luis if the Brazilian left-back cannot overcome a calf problem, while Didier Drogba is in line to replace Costa up front.