Watch out, Rafa. Steve's coming for you! - Matthew Lewis
West Brom are in town, and y'all know what that means...
Like the young male protagonist in every American sitcom at one point or another, I have two dates to the big school dance. As a not-so-secret football bigamist, having my two clubs meet is always an awkward occasion. Even worse, the "other woman" has the tendency to leave the first without a manager. As someone who watches West Brom every week, I've been drafted in to cover the preview.
We all know what happens when Chelsea run into the harbingers of managerial doom, and newly-minted bogey team West Bromwich Albion. We lose a manager. The last two times, we, as fans, haven't really been seeking the departure of the man in charge. Andre Villas-Boas and Roberto di Matteo, while not enjoying the full support they had at the beginning of their tenures, were still well-liked. This time, however, we have Rafa Benitez. Most, if not all, are hoping against hope the Albion curse strikes again.
While it would have been, perhaps, a fool's hope before, the Spaniard's extraordinary explosion after the Boro match has left him hanging by the most precarious of threads. He called out the fans and the board, and, if reports are to be believed, has been made fun of by the players for it. He's not in a good position for a manager; one foot out the door, barely hanging on in the race for a Champions League berth, and facing a rejuvenated West Brom side. Most dangerous, though, is the reception he's sure to get from the home fans at Stamford Bridge. If you thought it was bad before, you ain't seen nothin' yet. I doubt many minutes, apart from the 16th, will see the Chelsea fans singing about anything else.
All that adds up to a recipe for disaster. Chelsea really need to win as many of their remaining games as they can to try to secure a Champions League place for next season, and a loss would put the team firmly on the back foot. Even if it snapped Benitez' final, delicate thread, and he were replaced, there's no guarantee that we could gain the ground back later, due to our more difficult run-in relative to our main rivals Tottenham and Arsenal. There is one thing that could save us in this match, though.
Romelu Lukaku. The young Belgian has been at the heart of the success for West Bromwich Albion for most of the season. As a loanee from Chelsea, he's not allowed, by rule, to play against his parent club. Normally, this would see Shane Long drafted in as replacement, but the Irishman is an injury doubt. Long and Lukaku have combined for 21 of West Brom's 41 goals this season, so missing both would be a serious blow for the Midlands side. Should Long not be fit to face Chelsea, the striker role would most likely fall to Peter Odemwingie, who was last seen in West London trying to engineer a move to Queens Park Rangers on Deadline Day.
Though they may well be light up front, West Brom have got their first-choice midfield pair of Claudio Yacob and Youssouf Mulumbu back an action following injury and the Africa Cup of Nations, respectively. Since their return, West Brom have arrested their slide in the league with wins over Liverpool and Sunderland, and again look the solid side which saw them in fourth early in the season. Also joining Lukaku, Long, and long-term absentees Zoltan Gera and George Thorne is on-loan defender Goran Popov, who was recently sent off for spitting. Because of these missing players, Baggies manager Steve Clarke will bring with him young forward Romaine Sawyers, and 16-year-old midfielder Isaiah "Izzy" Brown. Neither may actually be in the squad, but they will be travelling with the team.
As Stephen told you earlier, Chelsea's only doubt is the somewhat-unpopular Yossi Benayoun and long-term absentee Oriol Romeu. After resting most of the first XI against Middlesbrough, Chelsea should name a very-strong side, if not their strongest. While the thought of Chelsea's strongest side facing a West Brom with striker problems is a comforting one, it must be remembered that our strongest team hasn't been performing well as a team lately, and that Stamford Bridge will probably be an absolute cauldron of hate against Rafa.
In all likelihood, the atmosphere will affect the players somewhat, and I wouldn't be surprised to see us struggle to break down a sturdy Albion defence. Still, though, I would expect Chelsea to be able to prevent West Brom from winning at the Bridge for the first time since 1978, and from registering three consecutive wins in the league for the first time since 1957. It'll be close, though. If you're not a fan of painfully-tense football, maybe this one won't be for you.
Where: Stamford Bridge, London
When: Saturday, 2 March 2013, 15:00 GMT [10:00 EST, 20:30 IST]
Live TV: US: Fox Soccer Channel, Fox Deportes,
India: Star Sports
Predicted Score: Chelsea 2 - 1 West Bromwich Albion
Predicted West Bromwich Albion Lineup: (4-2-3-1) Ben Foster; Steven Reid, Gareth McAuley, Jonas Olsson, Liam Ridgewell; Claudio Yacob, Youssouf Mulumbu; Graham Dorrans, James Morrison, Chris Brunt; Peter Odemwingie.