The Blues are in the last four of the FA Cup and Champions League against Tottenham and Barcelona, but clashes with Wigan and Fulham give squad players the opportunity to impress
By Jamie Dunn
It is a platitude all too familiar in football.
No matter the gravity of some upcoming fixtures, each club is just taking every game as it comes; not looking too far ahead and not getting carried away.
Roberto Di Matteo is no different. Despite wrapping up progression to the Champions League semi-finals, where he will come up against Pep Guardiola and the near-indomitable Barcelona, the Chelsea boss is thinking only of Wigan on Saturday.
"Well, let me enjoy this, and then we play Wigan on Saturday first of all, so we have to focus on that," Di Matteo said after the 2-1 victory over Benfica on Wednesday night.
But, with arguably the best team in the world awaiting the Blues, just a few short days after an FA Cup semi-final with London rivals Tottenham at Wembley, the Italian must surely be looking at rotation options ahead of the Easter bank holiday clashes with Wigan and Fulham.
Of course Roberto Martinez's side, who have chalked up some crucial victories recently in their fight to stay in the Premier League, are not to be taken for granted. Nor are Fulham, who boast several dangerous attacking players, including the prolific Clint Dempsey and Pavel Pogrebnyak, who has quickly adapted to English football.
But Di Matteo must fancy he has a squad strong and deep enough to handle the rigours of competing in three competitions, and the two Premier League clashes - taking place within three days of each other - could prove to be final auditions for a number of fringe players, who want to be involved at Wembley and against the Catalans.
The majority of what has come to be known as the 'old guard' will be confident of keeping their places for both semi-finals. Petr Cech, for example, has gone uncontested by both Hilario and Ross Turnbull, neither of whom are likely to appear over the weekend, and, barring injury, will not dislodge the Czech Republic goalkeeper.
Ashley Cole, too, can count his place safe, with Ryan Bertrand the only other natural left-back in the squad.
|CAHILL OR LUIZ?
But an injury to John Terry, who was substituted against Benfica with breathing difficulties owing to two cracked ribs, is likely to see the club captain rested at the weekend, potentially handing opportunities to Gary Cahill and David Luiz to present their cases to partner the experienced centre-back, despite his declaration of willingness to play through the pain.
Luiz was initially viewed as something of a figure of fun, whose positional awareness was supposedly undermining previous manager Andre Villas-Boas' high defensive line, but the Brazilian has adapted and in both legs against former club Benfica, in which the Portuguese side enjoyed the lion's share of possession at times, the curly-haired defender excelled.
Though Cahill has started five games under Di Matteo, it is the January signing who arguably has the most to prove in the next two games. Terry's return to the side before his subsequent injury on Wednesday night saw the former Bolton man's contribution marginalised, as the Italian favoured a partnership of his captain alongside Luiz in both legs against Benfica, and against Aston Villa.
Branislav Ivanovic also now appears to be Chelsea's first-choice right-back, but can be brought into the centre should Terry be unavailable and Di Matteo is left unconvinced by one of Luiz and Cahill, which could mean Jose Bosingwa or even Paulo Ferreira are handed a start over the weekend.
In midfield, with talisman Frank Lampard a regular fixture in important games since the departure of Villas-Boas, and Ramires becoming increasingly difficult to remove from the starting XI, there is only one central role realistically up for grabs.
John Obi Mikel appears to be in possession of the holding midfield role, having started both games against Benfica, and lined up against Aston Villa and Manchester City.
In his 28 appearances this season, the Nigerian has not always convinced, but Michael Essien, if handed a start against Wigan or Fulham, would need to display a dramatic upturn in form in order to force his way into the side to face Barcelona, though he has previously excelled against Guardiola's men having scored a scintillating volley against them back in 2009.
While not a defensive midfield player by any stretch, Raul Meireles is another option for Di Matteo. His goal threat - as shown in the dying stages against Benfica with an emphatic finish - must keep him the back of his manager's mind at all times, but his inclusion would force Lampard or Ramires into more defensive duties. However, the Portuguese is sure to be given the chance to impress at least once this weekend.
So where does that leave Daniel Sturridge? The 12-goal striker is unlikely to be handed his favoured central berth, and with three central midfielders forcing Mata further upfield, the England international will have to prove his worth up against Salomon Kalou, who has been consistently involved and has scored twice since Di Matteo's arrival.
And what of Didier Drogba? The Ivorian has barely featured since starting the goalless draw against Chelsea on March 24, serving as an unused substitute against Benfica in the first leg of their tie before coming on in the 88th minute on Wednesday night, having been left out of the matchday squad for the meeting with Aston Villa due to a toe injury.
Fernando Torres has been preferred by Di Matteo since the Italian took over and his confidence in the Spaniard is starting to bear fruit, with the striker scoring three goals in his nine games in charge and laying on what proved to be an all-important away goal at Estadio da Luz for Kalou.
||Chelsea are 23/10 to win the FA Cup with PaddyPower
But Drogba could well return to the starting XI after his short absence and simply cannot be ruled out. The 34-year-old may have struggled to replicate the form which saw him end the 2009-10 season with 37 Chelsea goals after a bout of malaria, but the powerhouse is just one goal away from equalling his tally of 12 for last season and can still make a telling contribution. Di Matteo would be a fool to write Drogba off and is unlikely to do so.
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