Smile; you're at Mr. Smiley's!
Game Date/Time: Tuesday, March 6th, 19:45 GMT / 2:45pm EST
Venue: St. Andrew's, Birmingham
TV: ITV 1 (UK), FOX Soccer Plus (USA)
Well, here we go. We have got to pick ourselves back up, dust ourselves off, and get on with the business of playing the games. AVB is now history, RDM is the new TLAIC (three-letter-acronym-in-charge). Also gone are fitness coach Jose Rocha and head opposition scout Dani Sousa...representing two key areas of match preparation.
Their replacements will have had only 24 hours or so to work with the squad, who (unlike the coaching staff) remain completely unchanged. We can only hope that their attitudes and commitment to the cause have improved a bit from all this shaking up. Our form certainly could use a bit of squad unity.
With only 1 win from the last 7, Chelsea are in desperate need of something positive. Terrible results, including three straight defeats away from Stamford Bridge, back room squabbles, and training ground controversies/incidents have decimated squad morale. There are no quick fixes, no magic easy button. One by one, the players will have to get their heads on straight and begin the long road back to competency.
No better time to start than now, away to Championship-side Birmingham City, with a place in the FA Cup Quarter Finals (our last, best hope of anything successful out of this season) at stake.
It will certainly be interesting to see who Roberto Di Matteo will choose to send out there. Some of the tabloids will have you believe that he's even less respected than AVB (I'll wait while you laugh at that for a minute...), even though RDM is a minor legend at Chelsea, having played a key role in the exciting teams of the late '90s (a triple leg fracture at the turn of the century ended his career early, unfortunately). Those with strong ties to the club (read: JT, Lamps, etc...i.e. the "Old Guard") would be wise to show respect.
That being said, Di Matteo, with essentially nothing to lose and everything to gain, might just roll the dice a bit. Romelu Lukaku could well use some first team minutes (and none of our other forwards strike me as a compelling option at this hot minute)...Ryan Bertrand as well. The latter has a good chance actually, considering the knock that Ashley Cole picked up over the weekend and Jose Bosingwa's continued absence through a hamstring injury.
With many of the most exciting names in the youth setup having just completed a full 90 minutes for the Reserves, I wouldn't get too crazy with the lineup options...but it would certainly be nice to see something a just a little bit different. I'm guessing Oriol Romeu & John Obi Mikel will sit this one out (we need goals, after all). Fernando Torres & Raul Meireles hopefully play no part, either (again, we need goals, after all). Could Salomon Kalou get a start?
As far as the opponents...they will be just as strong and organized as before. They will look to expose our mental weaknesses, frustrate and deny space. While their "away goal" does not count for anything special (so a 0-0 draw would result in extra time & a penalty shootout just the same), they will probably not be in any hurry to score. The first match was much more about our inability to score than Birmingham's ability to threaten, although the returns of Nikola Zigic and Marlon King could increase the potency of their attack.
On any other day, in any other season, Chelsea walk this match (well, actually, they smash them in the first leg at home)...but you know...please dear baby jesus, let us at least make the next round of the FA Cup!
Chelsea (default 4-3-3): Cech - Ivan, Cahill, Sideshow, Bertrand - Ramires, Essien, Lampard - Kalou, Lukaku, Mata