Chelsea won't be facing the likes of Barcelona until after the group stages have been successfully navigated.
Time: 7:45 PM BST (11:45 AM PST), Wednesday September 15th
Location: Pod Dubnom Stadium, Zilinia, Slovakia.
Preamble: The last unconquered competition begins again. The last time Chelsea have had any success in a European tournament was most than twelve years ago when Dennis Wise and Gianfranco Zola brought the Cup-Winner's Cup home. The Champions League represents the highest level of play available to the Blues, which is why we're playing a team that nobody's ever heard of rather than AC Milan or Real Madrid.
These are the group stages of the Champions League, the ugly red-headed stepchild of the exciting parts of the tournament. First seeds like Chelsea are more or less a lock to emerge from their groups, which makes the whole 'European drama' business seem a little bit silly. Indeed, only twice in the past five years has a top-ranked team failed to make it out of group play, and although both victims were English it's hardly worth worrying about. Instead, right now, we're the main attraction. So relax and enjoy - let's not worry too much about getting results just yet.
Opposition: I know very little about Zilina. While we've played them before, it was more than five years ago and there are few survivors on either team. They're regulars at the top of the Slovakian Superliga but this is the first time they've reached the group stages of the Champions League, and they had to knock out a couple of half-decent sides to get here, most notably Sparta Prague in the third round (Zilina beat their much-favoured Czech counterparts 3-0 on aggregate). They're undefeated at home so far this year, but one has to imagine Chelsea are likely to put a stop to that. Nothing I've seen or head indicates that Zilina are a real threat to the Blues, and while I can see things going wrong and points being dropped it's hardly what I'd expect.
Sorry I can't give y'all are a real scouting report, but it's kind of tricky when you've barely even heard of a team...
Chelsea: There'll be a few names missing from the starting XI. Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, and Didier Drogba are all out, through injury, relaxation, and suspension respectively. John Terry is fit to play, and will captain the side. In fact, Carlo Ancelotti has released the starting lineups well in advance - Chelsea will field the following 4-3-3.
Figure 1: Chelsea's starting XI vs. MSK Zilina, per the official site.
It's nice to see Yossi Benayoun, Daniel Sturridge, and Yuri Zhirkov all get starts. While the shape is clearly weaker than the preferred XI, all three are more than adequate players for this level of competition, and being without Didier Drogba may even be of some benefit to Nicolas Anelka, who will be acting almost as a lone striker. I'm not sold on Benayoun as a shuttling central midfielder, but we'll see how it goes. Zhirkov looked a little rusty when I watched Russia lose at home to Slovakia (oooh, intrigue!), but he needs playing time and should provide some good width going forwards.
I don't have any good stats for this one, so my totally made up prediction is... 1-0 Blues, with an edgy first half and an early goal in the second.
Either way, it should be fun to see Chelsea play in such a small stadium. Hope to see everyone tomorrow for the game thread!