Chelsea embark on two month journey that will shape destiny

Posted by Phil Lythell

Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty ImagesChelsea hope to parlay Branislav Ivanovic's Monday night winner against Man City into a successful February and March.

As encouraging and uplifting as the 1-0 win against Manchester City on Monday might have been, it merely marks the beginning of an eight-week journey that will decide Chelsea's Premier League destiny.

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It might not quite be the "squeaky bum time", as coined by Sir Alex Ferguson to describe the nervous final throes of competition, but it is certainly a period which will be crucial to deciding whether Jose Mourinho is correct in his assertion that his team are not yet ready to be crowned champions of England, or that the Special One's targets will arrive 12 months ahead of schedule.

Before the end of March, Chelsea will face a raft of opponents that all gave them cause for concern in their meetings earlier this season, and the fixture list will test the mettle of the Blues players and their ability to accelerate during this key stretch of the Premier League marathon. It will be all the more important as City now enter a gentler examination of six consecutive matches against teams battling against relegation. Arsenal and Liverpool having tough tests interspersed with lesser tasks, throughout.

The win at the Etihad Stadium was a magnificent statement of intent by Chelsea and was the perfect way to start this tricky period. However, it will be of no consequence if they fail to capitalise on it in the next few weeks. Just as in tennis where a break of serve is not secured until the next service game is held, or in football when the balance in a penalty shootout is not altered if the previously saved effort is not followed up with a successful kick, the victory against the title favourites will mean little if points are dropped against Newcastle on Saturday.

It should not be forgotten that it was the Magpies who brought Chelsea's first excellent run of the campaign to a shuddering halt at the beginning of November when they deservedly won 2-0 against a Blues side that looked like it was going through the motions rather than trying to win the game. Alan Pardew's strategy of soaking up first half pressure before going for the jugular after the break worked a treat, though whether that can be reprised is questionable. It is arguably a good time to play Newcastle with their main creator Yohan Cabaye having left for PSG, top scorer Loic Remy suspended and combative midfielder Cheick Tiote injured. Mourinho will also be reminding his troops of the last battle against them and hopefully there will be no such complacency a second time round.

Curiously, the next Premier League opponent is the same that followed the previous encounter with Newcastle: West Bromwich Albion. Chelsea were grateful for a generous penalty decision that saved them from a home defeat and will not want to repeat such brinksmanship at The Hawthorns. The Baggies haven't won since New Year's Day, though they have held both Everton and Liverpool to a draw in their last two home fixtures so professionalism will need to be in abundance if the Blues are to attain the right result.

Next up after that are Everton who were the first team to inflict defeat on Mourinho following his return to England. Roberto Martinez has made his team hard to beat this season and wresting the points off them will not be easy, though a depletion of striking resources through injury might hinder the potency. Chelsea were wasteful against them at Goodison Park, they cannot afford to be so again.

Then comes March and four London derbies that will test the resolve and determination of the Blues, irrespective of the league position of their opponents. Fulham and Crystal Palace might not appear to be the most menacing of sides, but playing Chelsea is always the biggest game in the Cottagers' season, while Tony Pulis has installed some real grit into the Eagles. The stature and magnitude of the two home games against Tottenham and Arsenal do not even need to be stated.

It is a stiff run of fixtures and it is hard to be entirely confident that Chelsea will emerge from that barrage unscathed. But if they do, or merely suffer some glancing blows while still remaining within touching distance of the league leaders, then they will have an excellent chance of reaching the summit at the end of the season.

The last six games of the campaign sees the trip to Anfield to face Liverpool as the only major obstacle with matches against Stoke (h), Swansea (a) Sunderland (h), Norwich (h) and Cardiff (a) all representing challenges that any genuine title contender must overcome if they are to be crowned champions. Of course, there is the potential for distraction provided by an extended run in the Champions League and FA Cup, though the manager's talent for marshalling resources should hopefully get the best out of a deep and -- at present -- healthy squad.

Mourinho might not be saying it publicly but he will undoubtedly be targeting the next eight weeks as being fundamental to this season's ambitions. But for now, he will be telling his players to focus solely on the next game and that Newcastle must be beaten.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell


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