In Rafa we trust. These are words that choke in the throat, that almost cramp the fingers as they are typed. As Fantasy managers, it’s a sentence that seems unnatural and illogical and yet, on the edge of another Gameweek deadline, there are thousands praying at the altar of Rafa, clinging to the hope that his teamsheet twiddling will fall kindly.
Today’s three o’clock trip to the Britannia is not a fixture that would normally find us backing Chelsea’s playmakers, or even a new centre-forward bristling with confidence. The midweek meeting with Southampton has lured our attention with promise of follow-up returns, bolstering whatever can be grappled from Tony Pulis pugilists today.
The problem, of course, is that anticipating those lucky enough to feast on two bites of the Gameweek cherry is nigh-on impossible. Having seen Demba Ba score twice against Southampton in the FA Cup and witnessed an impressive ten minute cameo in the midweek Capital One Cup slump to Swansea, we can be reasonably happy that he has a good chance of seeing action across both matches. The situation with Juan Mata is perhaps less certain.
Controversially rested for the clash with QPR last time out, that was the first time in five Gameweeks that Mata had failed to return a goal or assist for Rafa’s side. The decision to rest such an influential player, along with Eden Hazard, was surely at the root of the shock defeat and we can perhaps take some comfort from this; hoping that Rafa will perhaps be wary of taking chances over the approaching double-header.
Chelsea’s schedule is punishing. Four matches in the space of eleven days provides Rafa all he needs to justify rotation. With Arsenal following just four days after the home clash with Southampton, will Benitez really be able to resist preserving Mata and Hazard for the Gunners visit?
In normal circumstances it perhaps seems unlikely. The absence of Mikel and Victor Moses do, at least, narrow his options in midfield areas. Ramires may have to be utilised in the defensive midfield position in one of the next four, keeping him from being an option as part of the three attacking midfielders behind the lone striker. Without Moses, Benitez is forced turn to Ramires and Marko Marin, then. Realistically, it seems that his ability to rotate all of Hazard, Mata and Oscar in this spell is restricted – without a change of formation or the risk of disappointing the Stamford Bridge throngs further.
That’s the other key factor. Can Benitez really gamble on fielding a weakened side for the second league home match running, having seen a starting XI without Mata struggle to break down a stubborn QPR?
With Wednesday’s setback to Swansea following the derby defeat to Harry Redknapp’s side, it would mean that Rafa would be risking three consecutive home reversals. That would surely tighten the vice-like pressure around the Spaniard: he may want to rest his playmaker against Southampton but, against a side who have shown defensive solidity and plenty of fight of late – see the 1-1 with Arsenal and the 3-3 away at Stoke – it would be a gamble taken at a time when Benitez has diminishing support amongst the Stamford Bridge faithful.
As always, then, we can find logic and comforting arguments to support our choices. As we’ve seen in the past, however, the Premier League’s real decision makers play by their own rules; they take risks just as we do and, in Rafa’s case, we’re dealing with perhaps one of the most renowned tinkerers in modern football. A manager who has shown in the past he’s willing to gamble with the favour of his supporters in order to maintain his theories with player rest and fatigue.
The morning’s papers can’t be expected to have more insight than us but, perhaps, offer a guide to selection we can follow for today’s visit to Stoke.
The Telegraph hands a first league start to Demba Ba, with Mata safely tucked in behind the Senegalese striker, backed by Hazard and Ramires either side. Frank Lampard is restored and David Luiz is, once again, used to reinforce the engine room. That’s a lineup I’m in agreement with and one also backed by the Independent and the Times.
We see something slightly different in this morning’s Sun, with Ramires alongside Lampard, Oscar included and no place for David Luiz. I’d say that was most unlikely given the opposition. The Guardian also go for something similar, this time with Lampard omitted. Again, I’d beg to differ here – Lampard’s experience will surely be called upon for the toughest of battles, plus his record at the Britannia has been decent in the past.
Elsewhere this morning, we’ve some concern over two notable left-backs that have question marks over their starts, although Everton’s Leighton Baines is present in every one of our predicted lineups this morning.
Reading’s Ian Harte, as we mentioned in last night’s Scout Picks, is a bigger risk. With Nicky Shorey now recovered from his virus and having played 90 minutes for the reserves in the week, he will threaten Harte’s start against West Brom. Shorey’s former club, it could be that Brian McDermott recalls Shorey. Glancing through this morning’s papers, the Times, the Independent, The Mail and the Telegraph are all backing Harte in their lineups, with only the Guardian and the Sun opting for a Shorey recall. Make of that what you will.
Such issues seem trifling next to the likely problems served up by Benitez. Although it seems likely that we’ll be appeased by today’s team-sheet at Stoke, we will be left guessing and fretting as to how many strings the Chelsea puppeteer will cut for the visit of Southampton. There’s no question that the Gameweek can turn on his decisions over the next few days – those backing Chelsea’s assets to the full can only hope that Benitez shelves his urges.