Out of favour or saved for City? Either way Torres to be on bench
Striker to be made to wait for first Chelsea goal with Ancelotti set to play Drogba in Copenhagen tie
Wednesday 16 March 2011
Rested or dropped, depending on how you look at it. Either way, Fernando Torres faces being left out of the Chelsea team to play FC Copenhagen in tonight's Champions League tie.
Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti clearly does not agree with the argument that the Spaniard could do with a run-out against the team the bookmakers rate at 1,000-1 against winning the Champions League. Without a goal in five games since his record-breaking £50m transfer from Liverpool in January, Torres carries the demeanour of a man who would be only too happy to break his duck.
There are plenty of managers in this situation who would not have to think twice about picking Torres against the Champions League outsiders. But Ancelotti yesterday confessed he is leaning towards leaving Torres on the sidelines tonight.
There are two ways of looking at the decision. The first is to suggest that Torres has been dropped, which you could argue would only be what he deserves after going 405 minutes without registering a goal.
The other is that Torres is being rested, ahead of Chelsea's more pressing engagement against Manchester City at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. In which case, Ancelotti is in fact giving Torres a back-handed compliment by leaving him out of tonight's team, a ringing endorsement that he needs him for the really important games such as Manchester City. For the likes of Copenhagen he can call on the reserves, such as Didier Drogba, who celebrated his 33rd birthday last week.
Anyway, in Europe this season it has been Nicolas Anelka who has been Chelsea's trump card with seven goals in six games, including both strikes in last month's first leg in the Danish capital. Ancelotti made it clear he would not pick Torres to face Copenhagen simply because he has yet to score and could do with some shooting practice.
"For us, it's not important. Obviously we want our strikers, everyone, to score. For the strikers it's important he scores, but in my opinion he's played well for the team and done what I asked him to do on the pitch," Ancelotti said. "The only problem is that he's a new player for us and has to know better our kind of play. He moves well and has a lot of chances. He's been unlucky sometimes, but I think he will score. I want to rotate in this game, but I haven't chosen the team for this game. We have all the players fit and want to use all the players to prepare for this game and for Manchester City. I don't think this game is more important compared to the game against City. Both are important games for our future, our season."
Chelsea went out at this stage last season, beaten in both legs by Jose Mourinho's Internazionale, so Ancelotti will be wary of under-estimating tonight's opponents. However, he also recognises that Manchester United's recent loss of form in the Premier League, coupled with Arsenal's fragile confidence in the wake of going out of three competitions in the space of two weeks, means Chelsea are not yet out of the title race.
Hence the desire to keep players, such as Torres, fresh for Sunday's encounter with City. Midfielder Michael Essien is also likely to start on the bench tonight, and in defence David Luiz is ineligible.
Since winning 2-0 in Copenhagen three weeks ago, Chelsea have gone on to beat both Manchester United and Blackpool in the Premier League to revive their season. Ancelotti said of the Copenhagen victory: "It gave us confidence, optimism, not just the result. We had a very good performance and were able to repeat that against United. So the turning point was the game in Copenhagen."
Chelsea's return to form coincides with virtually a fully fit squad, with Alex back in training, although tonight's game is too soon for him to make his comeback, and Yossi Benayoun not far behind. It seems the pieces are falling into place for Chelsea to make a concerted effort in the Champions League, the competition that has proved frustratingly elusive. They have reached the semi-finals or better in five of the past seven seasons, but have yet to win it.
Defender Branislav Ivanovic said motivation could not be higher this season. "In every game, every minute is important after the group stage. Now we're in maximum focus on this game. We cannot say goodbye to the title, but at the same time we cannot leave the Champions League on the side. For us, they're both important. We have all the players fit, a good squad, and we have to use all our power to try to fight until the last moment in all competitions."
There will be no complacency, insist Chelsea, but with the next breath the manager is talking about resting players. It is a dangerous game to play, but in Ancelotti, who has twice led Milan to Champions League glory, they have a manager with vast experience.
Chelsea, however, need to be wary. In opposition tonight is the next Norway coach and current Copenhagen manager Stale Solbakken who played at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day 1997 in one of his six appearances for Wimbledon. Now there was a club that knew something about defying the odds and slaying the odd giant.
Three key confrontations
Frank Lampard v William Kvist
The England midfielder has returned to form in recent matches, scoring four goals in his last four games, and will hope to continue his run. Kvist offers a combative presence for Lampard to overcome: the versatile Danish international is equally at home in defence or his preferred midfield. The 26-year-old was named player of the year in the Danish Superliga last season and Lampard can expect a closely fought contest in the battle of the playmakers.
John Obi Mikel v Jesper Gronkjaer
Gronkjaer's goal against Liverpool secured Chelsea's Champions League qualification in 2003, tempting a certain Roman Abramovich to buy the club, whilst tonight he will be doing his best to put them out. Hoping to improve on his first-leg display, the 33-year-old will occupy a free role tonight, using his experience and passing to link midfield with attack. Coming in for Michael Essien tonight, Mikel's performance will be crucial in keeping Gronkjaer quiet.
Didier Drogba v Mikael Antonsson
The Ivorian forward has much to prove for Chelsea – he has yet to score since Fernando Torres' arrival six weeks ago and has had to get used to not being an automatic pick for the first time in his Chelsea career. Antonsson has a narrow height advantage and international experience with Sweden, but the centre-back could struggle to contain his powerful opponent who will seek to use his strength and experience to press his case to Carlo Ancelotti to be first-choice.
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