Chelsea to get back to business against Stoke

Posted by Phil Lythell

The imminent exit of Juan Mata to Manchester United has certainly raised the temperature among Chelsea fans. Intense disappointment bordering on disaffection has consumed some who are disbelieving that their idol will soon be decked out in the colours of the Red Devils. Hackles have been raised both by those frustrated at the club's decision and a minority that are aggrieved that the Spaniard chose to leave for a major rival rather than continue to fight for his place in the team.

Meanwhile, others have been more understanding of the financial imperative of receiving a record transfer fee for a player that has struggled to muscle into Jose Mourinho's plans. But one thing that unites them all is the sadness that a player of such grace and talent who has given so much to the club will no longer be seen in Chelsea blue.

After a week of fluctuating emotions, Mourinho, the club and the supporters will be glad to return to the bread and butter of a football match, and the FA Cup fourth round tie against Stoke offers them the chance to get back down to business. The manager will also be grateful for the calibre of opposition as it will allow him to focus the minds of his players, whereas a contest against a team from a lower division might prey on any complacency or distraction caused by the recent flurry of transfer activity at the club.

Stoke have often been criticised for their prosaic approach, yet it is a method that has served them well despite the sniping. One of football's most gratifying aspects is the fact that there are myriad of tactics and no definitive way of playing the game regardless of what the fundamentalists at Arsenal and Barcelona might think. Mark Hughes has attempted to introduce a greater aesthetic to their play, though it is hard to successfully change the identity of a team with any degree of haste. Results have not always been as good as they would have wished this season, meaning that their new manager has been forced to draw upon their old virtues of power and physicality. It is an understandable stance from Hughes as their endurance in the Premier League is a testament to that philosophy and any brickbats thrown their way have largely come from those who have been on the receiving end of a bruising defeat.

Chelsea themselves are all too aware of the threat that the Potters pose having suffered at their hands only last month. The 3-2 reverse was a shock to the system after the Blues had bossed the opening exchanges, though it was a reminder that a failure to take advantage of a position of dominance can come back to haunt you, especially if that is added to a porous defence. Since then, however, the Blues have tightened up defensively with five clean sheets in their last seven matches and even their strikers have started to find the back of the net.

Such is Mourinho's addiction to silverware that he is sure to select a strong starting eleven for Sunday's match, albeit with a few opportunities granted to some squad members. Like Mata, Michael Essien will not feature after the club agreed to a fee with AC Milan for his transfer, but new signing Nemanja Matic can be expected to start for the first time since his return to Stamford Bridge. That should see David Luiz back in his favoured position in the centre of defence in front of Mark Schwarzer in goal. Up front, Demba Ba is gunning for a start as the lone striker with hat-trick hero against Man United Samuel Eto'o likely to be rested ahead of a forthcoming Premier League double against West Ham and Manchester City, and especially with Fernando Torres ruled out of action for the next few weeks. Andre Schurrle and Frank Lampard will also be in contention for a start in what will be an imposing if much-changed line-up.

As for Stoke, it will be interesting to see where their priorities lie. The Potters had a taste of Wembley when they reached the final of the FA Cup three years ago and they will be keen to relive that experience. However, that ambition needs to be balanced against a precarious league position that sees them sit just four points off the drop zone in 14th place in a congested bottom half of the table. With a six-pointer away at Sunderland next up on Wednesday, Hughes could be forgiven for saving his more important individuals for the clash at the Stadium of Light.

Should that be the case, there will be little excuse for Chelsea if they fail to book their passage through to the fifth round. The team is on form and confidence is high, even more so after the breeze past United in their last fixture. Stoke need to be respected, but the Blues should have too much for their Premier League counterparts.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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