Chelsea head to Sunderland as fate decrees Drogba reunion

Posted by Phil Lythell

Stu Forster/Getty ImagesJose Mourinho's Chelsea will face club legend Didier Drogba in the Champions League round of 16.

For a couple of days at least, Chelsea can turn their attention away from the craziness of this season's Premier League as they prepare to face Sunderland in the quarterfinals of the Capital One Cup.

The Blues' recent outings have become very hard to predict with all results seemingly possible. The roller coaster of a defeat at Stoke was followed by an unnecessarily nervous victory over Crystal Palace that illustrated that while Chelsea might not be the ruthless footballing machine of yore, their matches are still utterly captivating -- at least for the neutral. Elsewhere, the wheels of fortune continued to spin this past weekend and saw two clubs dispense with their managers' services, leaders Arsenal receiving a thorough spanking, and even the incredible sight of David Moyes' Manchester United side actually winning a game.

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But for eight clubs, the insanity of England's top division can momentarily be put to one side with the League Cup providing a cheery escape safe in the knowledge that nobody will lose his job in the event of defeat. The pressure is off -- to a certain extent -- and the competition is all the better for it.

That is not to say that Chelsea will take their trip to the northeast lightly. Jose Mourinho has won this trophy twice already, with the first of those in 2005 that has been credited with laying the foundation stone for the winning mentality that subsequently enveloped the club and led it to three Premier League titles, a Champions League title and a deluge of FA Cups. Recent comments from Mourinho in which he has sought to dampen expectations among fans and pundits by insisting that Chelsea are not favourites to win the biggest titles either in England or in Europe this season suggest that he feels his best chance of attaining silverware will be via domestic cup competitions. Add to his assertion that it would be "unacceptable" to end the season without a trophy, and you can be certain that the Portuguese will be gunning for victory.

But despite the competition's place in Mourinho's affections, there is absolutely no chance that he will select many -- if any -- of his regular starters. With the Premier League summit meeting with Arsenal looming on Dec. 23, the likes of Eden Hazard, Petr Cech, Oscar, Ramires and John Terry are all likely to be left on the bench, possibly even in London. As shiny as the League Cup might be, a place in the quarterfinal pales in insignificance when judged against a potential victory over their north London rivals and the possibility of being top of the league at Christmas.

Equally, Sunderland have far bigger fish to fry themselves, as they sit rooted to the bottom of the table, five points from safety. As exhilarating as a run to the final would be for the club and its supporters, survival in the Premier League is paramount, and they will no doubt have taken heed of Birmingham City's topsy-turvy 2010-11 campaign that saw them victorious at Wembley against Arsenal but end up relegated to the Championship. Manager Gus Poyet's remit is to maintain their top-level status, and there is little chance that he will do anything that might compromise that objective.

With the players on show more likely to be drawn from squad players and the youth ranks, the match might not command much attention, though one of the great strengths of this competition has been its ability to level the playing field while showcasing the talents of forgotten or lesser-known players, all of whom will be desperate to impress their manager. Goals usually flow, and if this game even vaguely resembles the league meeting between the two sides a fortnight ago, then spectators will be in for a treat. Still, in a match between Chelsea's glittering reserves and their more humble counterparts from Sunderland, there should be only one winner. Let's hope fate agrees.

Speaking of fate, there was a beautiful inevitability in the draw for the first knockout round in the Champions League, as Chelsea were pitted against Didier Drogba's Galatasaray. There is arguably no bigger figure in the history of Chelsea Football Club -- except perhaps 24-stone William "Fatty" Foulkes, who was the club's goalkeeper in their inaugural season of 1905-06, but you know what I mean -- and his return to Stamford Bridge will see an outpouring of emotion from the crowd as they give their thanks to a man who delivered football's biggest prize in the most dramatic of circumstances. For those who were not in Munich -- and even for those of us who were -- it will be an opportunity to acclaim a man who is a shining example to everyone both on and off the pitch. If Mourinho's homecoming was heartfelt, Drogba's will be off the scale.

As for the opposition themselves, Chelsea have good memories of facing the Turkish side having thumped them 5-0 on their own patch in the Londoners' first season in the Champions League in 1999-2000. Having been given the traditionally hostile "Welcome To Hell" reception that was afforded to all teams visiting the old Ali Sami Yen Stadium, Chelsea swatted aside their hosts and received magnanimous applause from the home fans in return. A repeat of that result is unlikely, although Chelsea will fancy their chances of progressing to the last eight as long as they can quell the threat of a certain Ivorian legend.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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