Chelsea hoping to emerge unscathed from fixture pile-up

Posted by Phil Lythell

Scott Heavey/Getty ImagesRafa Benitez will be forced to juggle around his squad in the upcoming weeks.

The international break has given Chelsea fans and players alike a breather from a relentless campaign that has seen fixtures flying at them from all angles.

Ironically enough, though, the period has come at a time when the training staff might well have been happier if the domestic season had continued regardless, given the decent run of form that the team had been enjoying prior to their half-term holiday. Yet while momentum might have been temporarily checked, any kind of respite must be savoured when looking at Chelsea's immediate future. Having wrested back third place in the Premier League from Tottenham and the club's advancement in two cup competitions on the line, the Blues now face a crucial juncture in their season with four games in the space of eight days.

- Benitez: Busy schedule is a positive

Saturday's trip to a resurgent Southampton is quickly followed by the titanic FA Cup quarterfinal replay with Manchester Untied on Monday before Rubin Kazan visit Stamford Bridge three days later for a first leg clash of another last eight tie, this one in the Europa League. The melee of matches concludes with the visit of Sunderland the following Sunday.

With three of those matches at home and the one away clash being against a decent but eminently beatable Southampton side, there is a good chance that Chelsea could have tightened their grip on automatic qualification for the Champions League with two routine victories alongside putting a foot in two semifinals. However, Stamford Bridge has not always been a fortress this season and an untimely dip in performance could leave the Blues clawing at Tottenham’s coat tails while waving goodbye to their last chances of silverware. How the team emerge from this logjam will have huge bearing on the outcome of their season.

Normally an international break is a time for wholesale departures from Cobham and for fretting over the fitness of the returning players. On this occasion, however, it has been pleasantly low-key for most of the squad. With John Terry having retired from international football, the club captain has had a whole two weeks to rest up before this hectic eight day period while Demba Ba, Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel featured just once in their respective World Cup qualifiers. Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard were also utilised for just one of England's matches with Lampard becoming the nation's highest scoring midfielder when netting his 28th international goal against San Marino.

Oscar and David Luiz both featured twice for Brazil but in friendlies that hardly stretched the sinews while Juan Mata played just a matter of minutes for Spain with Cesar Azpilicueta an unused substitute against both Finland and France. Probably the most burdened was Eden Hazard who started each of Belgium's matches yet he maintained his recent devastatingly high standards by scoring in both.

All in all, it has been a surprisingly restful period for the players with only Gary Cahill and Ramires carrying knocks and it will now be up to Rafael Benitez to marshal his resources in the most effective manner. The clogged calendar that Chelsea have had to deal with has left little time to implement new tactics on the training ground, though more often than not it has been the manager's team selections and substitutions that have drawn groans from the crowd. This forthcoming eight day period will provide an even sterner test of Benitez's skills as he will be forced to chop and change personnel without significantly altering the level of performance.

With such a short recovery period between each match, it is inconceivable that the manager would select his strongest eleven each time with Petr Cech likely to be the only ever-present. Ryan Bertrand will likely play at least once at left back to help ease the strain on Ashley Cole's troublesome ankle while the cup-tied Ba will have to sit out the Rubin Kazan match.

Otherwise, it is a case of balancing talent with pragmatism and generating four different sides all equally capable of winning that particular day's contest. Should Benitez choose to put all his eggs in one basket -- say, in hoping to progress in the FA Cup -- that would risk leaving either a tired or significantly weakened lineup to play the immediately preceding or proceeding fixture. It would suggest that some matches were being prioritised over others, and with Benitez desperate to bolster his reputation in the eyes of prospective club chairmen, it is highly unlikely that he would risk sacrificing any single one of those games. A potential cup double together with a third place finish in the league would enhance his credentials to the outside world even if it failed to lift the permanent atmosphere of distrust that surrounds him at Stamford Bridge.

Following this quartet of games, a six-pointer against Tottenham lies in wait a week later. If all goes well, a win that day could well put a nail in Spurs' hopes of a guaranteed spot in next season's Champions League group stages. If it goes badly, Chelsea could be left in a demoralising scrap for fourth place.

Fingers crossed that it's the former.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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