Chelsea have returned from Japan following their Club World Cup final loss against Corinthians and are immediately going back into the grind with a League Cup match against Leeds United at Elland Road. While on the face of it, a trip to a Championship team in the least impactful competition we have left isn't a huge deal, the fact that this is an old rivalry game plus the utter lack of traditional powerhouses remaining in the tournament makes this one rather interesting.
Most newer Blues supporters won't be familiar with the animosity between these clubs because Leeds haven't been in the Premier League for some time. Back when I was younger, we played them regularly, and those matches were absolutely brutal. The fans don't like each other much either -- there's a history there going back to the 70s, when both clubs were up-and-comers.
My guess is that things are toned down a bit now that Leeds are in such relatively poor shape, but it still won't be a particularly friendly encounter, and that means trouble if Chelsea want to advance. Nothing is guaranteed in knockout football, as Arsenal found out when they were thoroughly outclassed by League 2 Bradford City last week, and looking at the remaining draw I'd hazard that this is the most difficult match left in this competition.
If Chelsea are serious about competing on all fronts, they'll have to field a very strong team at Elland Road. Not only do they need to be the better side, they'll need to control the game. That's rendered more difficult by a slew of injuries and suspensions, especially in midfield. Out of our central midfielders, Oriol Romeu is out for the rest of the season with a cruciate tear, John Obi Mikel is serving a ban for his unsavoury remarks regarding Mark Clattenburg, and Ramires has been suspended for yellow card accumulation.
We can't even use David Luiz in the double pivot, because Gary Cahill picked up a late red card against Corinthians and John Terry's not going to be able to play. That leaves David Luiz partnering Branislav Ivanovic in the centre of defence and not much in the way of midfielders -- the most likely combination is Frank Lampard and Oscar, which looks worryingly lightweight to me. There's good news at centre forward, however. Daniel Sturridge sounds like he's on his way out, but for now he's fit again and able to challenge Fernando Torres up top.
Leeds are having some selection issues of their own. It's unclear who'll start in goal between Jamie Ashdown and Patrick Kenny thanks to an injury to the former, centre back Alan Tate (on loan from Swansea City) is cup-tied and captain Lee Peltier has been described as 'touch and go' by Neil Warnock.
Chelsea will have to be extremely wary of the threat posed by the hosts' attacking players, particularly Luciano Becchio, who's already up to 13 league goals this season. But with the potential for two newcomers in the Leeds defence, there should be goals for the front line, even if Rafael Benitez doesn't go with a 'full strength' attacking midfield.
It's important that the Blues not be complacent here, and hopefully defeat against Corinthians will have acted as a nice little kick up the squad's collective backside (although considering that said defeat came after being knocked out of the Champions League, I'm not convinced about it). Fielding a decent team and playing reasonably well will see Chelsea through. Fail to do so, and we'll be exiting another tournament too early. Simple, right?
Date/Time: Wednesday, December 19th (7:45 pm GMT, 2:45 pm EST). Thursday, December 20th (1:15 am IST).
Venue: Elland Road, Leeds.
TV information: Sky Sports 1 (UK), beIN SPORT (USA), TEN Action (India).