After anotherstunning Benítez performance against the mighty Sparta Prague, Chelsea will head to the home of the reigning Premier League Champions on Sunday for a clash of titanic proportions.
Being slightly more serious, when has a match between the 2nd/3rd placed teams in the Premier League meant so little? It is testament to the competitiveness of this season that barring a catastrophic injury crisis United have all but wrapped up the title by February.
City look a shadow of the side who won the league last season. Or do they? It is so easy to forget that they needed an injury time Agüero goal to actually claim the title on goal difference. They actually spent a large portion of the title run-in looking to throw it all away. It was an absolute miracle that they scraped through eventually.
Whereas United have improved significantly simply by buying the league’s best striker, City remain on a similar level. It just goes to show you what an elite striker can do in this league given the incompetent standard of defending we are seeing each week. City are probably as good as they were last season, it is just that United are better.
This leads me on to my favourite topic of choice in recent weeks: the phenomenally gifted managerial talent of Rafa Benítez. Whether it was entirely tongue-in-cheek it is hard to understand, but the media were definitely suggesting that Benítez’s substitutions changed recent results. The cheek in question earlier certainly isn’t the kind that your auntie pinches, more the kind that Richard Keys would probably pinch if his runner was above average.
I am a tactics geek – this is something I particularly like chatting about and one of my favourite twitter topics to pass time while I work an extremely lengthy notice period at work. The tactical relevance of bringing on two of your best players, regardless of the situation, should not be hailed as a masterstroke.
Let us start with the Oscar goal in Prague: we were woeful out there and plodded along to a point that suggested we were actively trying to make sure we didn’t continue in the competition. Oscar is brought on by Benítez and a moment later scores a winner.
Tactical genius? He makes a like-for-like substitution replacing an inferior player with arguably Brazil’s most in form and talented attacking midfielder. So by adding quality (kwaaalatee if you want the Benítez pronunciation) to the side we score a goal. Shock horror! Who would have thought of that?
Eden Hazard similarly bails Benítez out of impending extra-time. Another tactical masterstroke? No. Instead of perhaps trying something different, I for one would have advocated hooking Ramires and placing Oscar deeper in midfield, he replicates the same move as in Prague. A like-for-like change replacing Oscar with Hazard.
Anyone who has seen Hazard play recently will note he has been exceptional since a slight dip over the winter period. Hazard ultimately scores an absolute wonder goal after scooping the ball past a defender and rifling home a strike that puts him in double figures for his first season in England. Not bad for being in a chaotic side. Absolutely nothing to do with Benítez.
Bringing on a better player is not the sign of a tactical genius. Being willing to try different things and the ability to spot and apply them is the hallmark of someone tactically astute. Chelsea often struggle to put someone in their double-pivot that can consistently dictate the tempo of play. Oscar has all the classic attributes of someone who could become the best deep-lying playmaker in world football. He has the vision, the ability to win the ball but what sets him apart is his ability to dribble through the middle of the pitch with consummate ease.
He poses a different threat all together in this respect. You know Andrea Pirlo is going to ping the ball around like Michelangelo using a paintbrush on a canvas. When Pirlo is on the ball you can therefore either press him fanatically or try and minimise the space for his passing avenues. If Oscar plays there you run the risk of pressing him, being mugged and then chasing back frantically as he exploits the middle of the pitch. It becomes a game of chess.
The City game will not require tactical ingenuity from Benítez though, but he must select the right players. Ba should move up top to replace the hopeless Torres (it’s not even funny anymore, it feels a bit like bullying) and Hazard should start with Mata, Oscar or Moses. Personally I would like to see David Luiz alongside Mikel in the midfield, but I expect Lampard/Luiz/Mikel to probably start.
Cahill needs to become a more proactive defender but will likely feature. He is often so good at making a block or tackle, but frequently gets caught out by movement and it was there to be seen against Sparta. César Azpilicueta should continue at right back while Ivanović seeks to rediscover form after a drop off in his consistent standards. Terry looked off the pace against Prague, but his sharpness should hopefully come back.
On the subject of centre-backs there are reports that Chelsea’s Kenneth Omeruo could well be on his way back to the squad in the summer. He has seen an astronomic rise from playing first team football with ADO Den Haag and starred in Nigeria’s recent Africa Cup of Nations victory. He is the pacey, intelligent style of defender that Chelsea have lacked since the departures of Gallas and Carvalho and at 19 is one for the future.
To end on a positive, naturally not around anything Benítez is doing for (or should that be doing to) the club, I will mention the Chelsea academy.
Much maligned for our lack of ability to bring through anyone of note to the first team, the immense amount of investment from Roman seems to now be paying dividends. Widely covered in Europe, though barely mentioned in the UK, Chelsea’s U19s went to Barcelona and outplayed them on their own pitch. A first half performance of quality, creativity and class took all by surprise and Chelsea went in leading after a superbly crafted goal.
It was only a typical Chelsea red card which shifted the momentum back with the home team. Yes, even at this level Barcelona get their customary red card when they need it. Chelsea’s U19s showed the kind of resolve shown in the Nou Camp last season and kept Barcelona at arm’s length before wrapping things up in injury time to make things 0-2. The future looks quite blue if the club finally put some trust in their youngsters.
Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeTweeds