Chelsea must lay a bogey if they are to move above Manchester City in the Premier League by defeating them at Stamford Bridge this afternoon, and one of their key protagonists will be a player who cost £9m but took nine months to be allowed a game.
Branislav Ivanovic arrived in January 2008 from the Moscow club Lokomotiv, prompting immediate gossip that he was one of those signings Roman Abramovich was keener on than the manager at the time, Avram Grant. Grant used a lack of fitness because of the Russian close season as an excuse for playing the big defender in only an occasional reserve match and it was not until the following September, under Luiz Felipe Scolari, that he surfaced in the first team.
Every transfer window brought new speculation about a move, whether permanent or temporary, before a single match confirmed him as a new hero: playing at right-back at Anfield in the Champions' League quarter-final of 2009, Ivanovic single-handedly eclipsed Fernando Torres's early goal for Liverpool by heading two from corners.
By last season, he was starting more games than any defender other than John Terry and being chosen by his peers at full-back in the PFA team of the year. In the current campaign, with Ricardo Carvalho off to Madrid and Alex injured, he has again been a consistent performer, this time in the centre alongside Terry, of whom he says: "He's a great captain. For Chelsea he is great, a great leader on the pitch, he shows he's a great leader. It's a pleasure to play with John because you can just do your job and know there is always someone behind you to cover you, putting his head where [other] people put their legs."
Terry has just as much reason to be grateful to the powerful Serb, whose value is no longer questioned – he has been rewarded with a contract extending to 2016.
He could move to right-back again today to accommodate David Luiz against a City team who produced a stunning performance at the Bridge last February, coming from 1-0 down to win 4-2, inflicting Chelsea's first home defeat for 15 months and what could have been fatal damage to their championship aspirations.
A year on, those aspirations appear hopeless, despite having played two games fewer than Manchester United and one fewer than Arsenal. But he says "This is a most important game against City because it can make our season different and can change the whole situation. We are still in the fight for the title and can make up ground on United and Arsenal."
As he points out, City have won the past three meetings between the clubs, succeeding by 2-1 and 1-0 in the most recent games at Eastlands. There will always be an added dimension to those games while they are seen as the respective fiefdoms of the two richest men in the Premier League's fields of gold.
Ivanovic was speaking about City but must admit the same applies to Chelsea when he said: "You can buy the players but not the points, you have to deserve it on the pitch. For sure you have to be a team. Football is a collective sport. I hope we are back in the right way now."
To that end Abramovich changed tack in spending not so much a small fortune as a large one on Torres and David Luiz. That pair, Ivanovic says, have "refreshed the squad" and what he sees of Torres in training as well as in matches encourages him to think goals will come: "He just needs goals, because every striker needs goals for their confidence. For everyone, not just Fernando Torres, it is difficult to be new in the team. You need time. This is the only problem."
The Spaniard himself is predictably bullish, even though he knows that 25 minutes as a substitute in the dull draw against Copenhagen was a useful opportunity to have broken his duck. "It's coming soon," he said of the first goal. "Sunday! There is no pressure. As long as the team is winning, things are going to be easier and that's what matters."
City arrive in London – without the immature Mario Balotelli – on the back of a tame exit from European competition, which has damaged their chances of a trophy this season but will at least allow some breathing space in a programme that had seen them play nine games more than Chelsea so far.
"Maybe a reduced schedule will help us," their manager Roberto Mancini said. "If we have a couple of weeks off we can get players back from injury and prepare very well for the [FA Cup] semi-final."
Chelsea v Manchester City is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm
Champions' League draw
Real Madrid v Tottenham Hotspur
Real's record against English teams is poor, which may give Spurs some heart, as well as having the second leg at home on another possible glory, glory night and their potential for always pinching an away goal.
Barcelona v Shakhtar Donetsk
Eastern Europe's only remaining contenders pulled out the opposition that nobody wanted. But they have still won seven of their eight games, losing only to Arsenal at the Emirates.
Internazionale v Schalke
Coming from 3-1 down on aggregate to Bayern Munich shows how fiercely Inter will fight to defend their title, Leonardo having revived them after Rafa Benitez's short reign. But Raul's Schalke will be no pushover.
Chelsea v Manchester United
A semi-final against Inter or Schalke offers huge incentive, scarcely needed in any case. How long until Sir Alex demands a fair – sorry, strong – referee after losing to a Chelsea penalty and now paying the penalty.
Odds (William Hill): 11-10 Barcelona; 7-2 Real; 7-1 Chelsea, Manchester Utd; 8-1 Inter; 20-1 Tottenham; 33-1 Shakhtar; 50-1 Schalke.
Steve TongueReuse content