Mou’s champagne mood set to continue vs. West Ham

Posted by Mark Worrall

Bryn Lennon/Getty ImagesJose Mourinho has been all smiles of late in light of Chelsea's winning streak.

Chelsea make a welcome return to Premier League action Wednesday night with a London derby against West Ham United at Stamford Bridge. Since Christmas, the Blues have won seven straight games in all competitions, scoring 14 goals and conceding just twice. Currently third in the PL behind Manchester City and leaders Arsenal, and through to the fifth round of the FA Cup, Jose Mourinho's charges are in fine shape -- a marked contrast to the hapless Hammers whose season has lurched from drama to despair.

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In the corresponding period, West Ham manager Sam Allardyce has masterminded a solitary victory in eight matches -- and that came over the PL's basement side Cardiff City. The Irons' miserable record reads P 8, W 1, D1, L6 -- with eight goals scored and a truly shocking 25 conceded. It's an appalling sequence of results and one that will unnerve supporters of the east London club making the journey across the capital to cheer on their side, perhaps more in hope than expectation.

For the recent FA Cup tie with Stoke City, Mourinho rested a number of key players. Petr Cech, Cesar Azpilicueta, John Terry, Ramires and Willian were all benched, while Frank Lampard and Branislav Ivanovic, both returning from injury, were restored to the starting line-up. Against West Ham, Cech, Azpilicueta, Terry and Willian can all expect recalls with Azpilicueta likely to feature at left-back at the expense of Ashley Cole and Ivanovic moving over to the right side of defence.

Mourinho's key selection decisions appear to concern whom to partner at centre-back with captain Terry, and completing the defensive midfield jigsaw puzzle made more complicated by the recent arrival of Nemanja Matic, who was outstanding on his full debut against Stoke on Sunday. Gary Cahill is the dependable option for the central defence slot leaving Luiz, Matic, Ramires, John Obi Mikel and Lampard vying for the two places in Chelsea’s midfield engine room.

If the Blues' opponents were anyone other than West Ham, Lampard, following his exertions in cup victory over the Potters, would expect to be rested. However, playing against the club where he started his career brings out the best in the Stamford Bridge outfit's all-time record goal-scorer. Super Frank thrives on the incessant volleys of abuse he receives from Hammers fans still bitter at his departure from the Boleyn, and he typically responds by rippling the Irons' net at every given opportunity. Notwithstanding this fact, Mourinho may elect to keep veteran Lampard on the bench for the first hour against the Hammers, thereby narrowing his defensive midfield options with Ramires the most likely to be recalled to partner one of Luiz, Mikel or Matic.

Further forward, Mourinho confirmed today that new signing Mohamed Saleh won't make his debut against West Ham, while also giving an indication that Demba Ba could be in line for a rare start up front. Eden Hazard, Willian and Oscar in particular will be tasked with creating as well as completing the Blues' goal-scoring opportunities against the visitors' porous defence. Many Chelsea supporters lamenting the departure of Juan Mata to Manchester United ended their mourning in the 27th minute of the FA Cup victory over Stoke when the Brazilian playmaker won the game for the Blues with a sublime free-kick that underlined his world-class credentials and reminded those watching of his genius capabilities.

The case of Mata is unfortunate; a square peg for the round holes that Mourinho is fashioning at Stamford Bridge -- and now, with his transfer to Old Trafford complete, life goes on. Chelsea are playing well, and having celebrated his 51st birthday on Sunday, Mourinho shared champagne with the media gathered at the Bridge for Tuesday's press conference. "We have to drink champagne because we are improving a lot," he mused. "Hopefully we can drink champagne again in the future."

Victory over West Ham will not be significant enough to break out the bubbly again, but it will represent another step forward for the Blues manager as he bids to maintain Chelsea's title challenge. "We have to keep our good form and let things happen naturally," Mourinho philosophised. "The best way to do that is to be competing for things. Evolution comes when you have serious competition."

With both Arsenal and Manchester City respectively facing tricky away fixtures at Southampton and revitalised Spurs, defeating West Ham could see Chelsea top the league should results elsewhere go in their favour. Whatever happens, Mourinho's theory of evolution will be put to the test as soon as next Monday when the Blues travel to the Etihad to face Manuel Pellegrini's free-scoring Citizens -- right now in the Premier League, the competition doesn't get any more serious than that.

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