The last time Chelsea and Manchester City met, in a 0-0 draw in November, Blues interim manager Rafael Benitez was booed by his own fans as he took charge of the European champions for the first time. Four months on, Benitez may not receive the same reception from the away end at the Etihad, but fans would be forgiven for highlighting the gap between themselves and the top of the table.
As they meet on Sunday - live on ESPN UK at 1330 GMT - third-placed Chelsea sit 16 points off Manchester United and four behind City in second. With Tottenham and Arsenal closing in fast, a top-four place is by no means assured and, with what some will view as the ‘distraction’ of the Europa League to contend with, there is a feeling of anxiety at Stamford Bridge.
First and foremost, the position of the manager is providing no consolation of long-term security. It comes with the territory somewhat under Roman rule, but Benitez’s constant need to bat away questions over his future and that of his players (see Frank Lampard as chief subject here) is hindering progress - as evidenced by the 3-2 defeat to Newcastle and 2-2 draw with Reading earlier this month.
But if stability is the watchword for the chasing pack then City can’t claim to have a handle on it either. Roberto Mancini may have said recently that he has been ‘the best manager in England’ over the past 15 months, but City have looked far from the best team. A battling 2-2 draw with Liverpool and shock 3-1 defeat at Southampton have made it a horrible few weeks for the club, and they may well be forced to rely on the FA Cup for salvation again.
One thing that falls in their favour this weekend is their early exit from European competition. With Chelsea sapped of energy in progressing past Sparta Prague in the Europa League on Thursday, the Sunday lunchtime kick-off means that City have had a whole week of preparation time while the Blues get little over 48 hours.
At this stage of the season it is no surprise that attention turns to squad depth, but the two leading Premier League financial powerhouses should be well equipped to deal with fatigue. The real question that will be asked, once the final whistle is blown, is why they are not providing more of a challenge to United.
Manchester City player to watch: Joe Hart. Many pointed to the fact that Hart was ‘dropped’ for Costel Pantilimon for the FA Cup tie against Brentford as a sign that Mancini’s faith in the goalkeeper was waning - but forgot that Pantilimon had been used throughout the competition to give him first-team action. That said, Hart’s form has not been impressive of late and he erred badly in defeat to Southampton to suggest that something is not quite sitting right. On home turf, and against the Blues’ powerful strikeforce, he could use a confidence boosting performance.
Chelsea player to watch: Branislav Ivanovic. After a slow start to life at Chelsea, Ivanovic is now the key defender in their backline. Tough and uncompromising, his versatility to slot in at right-back or in the centre of defence has proved very useful amid Chelsea’s injury crises, but he has now made a home for himself in the middle to compensate for the loss of John Terry. The Serbian’s aerial prowess and excellent reading of the game have ensured that his side have only conceded 28 times, and it seems they are well set if Terry is not considered to be the man to lead the Blues forwards.
Key Battle: David Silva v Juan Mata: The former Valencia team-mates are very much alike in playing style and have become key men for their respective clubs since arriving from Spain. Silva impressed the most in his first season with City, but now it is Mata who is leading the battle of the playmakers as his silky skills have been the focal point of the Chelsea attack this season. With incredible vision and comfort on the ball, Spain’s pair seem like peas from the same pod, but Mata’s added potency in front of goal (he has 10 from 20 games in the league; Silva has just three) is what has set them apart this season.
Trivia: In Jose Mourinho’s first, title-winning, season of 2004-05, the Blues lost 1-0 at Manchester City with Nicolas Anelka scoring the only goal. It was their only defeat of the season.
Stats: The Premier League’s top two defences come together - City have conceded 24 goals all season, while the Blues have let in 28.
Odds: Man City (1.90), Chelsea (4.00) and the draw (3.60) are on offer with bet365 while a 2-2 draw comes in at 13.00.
Prediction: If City don’t win, one feels the title can truly be put to bed, but a draw seems the most likely option given their recent form.