Never mind Barcelona, first watch out for in-form Fulham
"Bring on Barça" is the headline in the newsletter Chelsea send out to their junior members, but for now the Catalan conquistadors can wait. Having salvaged a fortuitous 2-1 victory against Wigan Athletic on Saturday, Roberto Di Matteo's charges must now withstand an ebullient Fulham in tonight's west London derby.
The London borough of Hammersmith & Fulham is unique in having three Premier League clubs within its borders, and having taken six points from Queen's Park Rangers and drawn at Stamford Bridge, Fulham are the top dogs. In Clint Dempsey they also have the borough's most potent scorer, the Texan's 21 goals this season eclipsing anyone at QPR or Chelsea, where Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres have 16 between them.
Dempsey has yet to sign the new contract offered him by Fulham and, with his current one expiring in a year's time, speculation further intensified with the two goals he scored in their 3-0 win at Bolton on Saturday. His finishing, intelligence, strength, and ability to play in a variety of positions should make him a tempting recruit for several managers, including whoever takes over at Chelsea in the summer, though his age (29) and lack of profile may count against him.
In any other club the man making that decision would be Di Matteo as eight wins and a draw from his 10 games make a compelling argument for permanency. However, when it comes to Dempsey the interim head coach is looking no further than tonight. "We will try to put a tactic together to stop him," said Di Matteo, "but he is not the only good player at Fulham."
Former Chelsea winger Damien Duff is also in sparkling form and Di Matteo will hope he is able to recall Ashley Cole tonight. Frank Lampard (Chelsea's leading scorer with an impressive 14 goals in a stop-start season) may also return as Di Matteo attempts to juggle his resources before the twin semi-finals against Tottenham and Barcelona.
The one player he seems unable to rest is Juan Mata. The Spaniard is the only outfield player to have featured in all 10 matches under Di Matteo's stewardship, and has started and played in more matches for Chelsea this season than anyone except Petr Cech.
It is not hard to see why. The only time Chelsea moved the ball quickly enough to discomfort Wigan's defence was when Mata was on it.
His consistency is remarkable, given this is his first season in the high-octane world of English football and he has not had a summer off since 2008, having played for Spain in the Confederations Cup, World Cup, and European Under-21 Championship.
Most of his team-mates lacked sparkle and had the officiating been up to scratch Wigan would have finished the match out of the relegation zone for the first time in 2012. Their confidence on the ball augured well for the remaining six matches, even if the next two – Manchester United and Arsenal – look daunting. "They are opportunities to get out of where we are," said their manager Roberto Martinez, with the fearlessness his players will need in the season's remaining weeks.
Fulham v Chelsea
Fulham: Schwarzer, Kelly, Hughes, Hangeland, Riise, Duff, Diarra, Dempsey, Murphy, Dembele, Pogrebnyak
Chelsea: Cech, Cole, Cahill, Luiz, Ivanovic, Mikel, Lampard, Meireles, Malouda, Sturridge, Torres
Odds Home 12-5; Draw 9-4; Away 6-5.
Kick-off Today, 8pm (Sky) (Highlights BBC1 10.20pm)
Team news Fulham will be without forward Brian Ruiz, who suffered a suspected broken metatarsal at Bolton, but Pavel Pogrebnyak and veteran midfielder Danny Murphy could return after an ankle injury and illness, respectively. Chelsea were yesterday checking on the fitness of John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Ramires, all of whom missed Saturday's win over Wigan.
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