Wednesday, 24 March 2010, Kick-off: 19:45 GMTThe gods of football irony are no doubt enjoying a mischievous smile at the prospect of Chelsea's visit to Portsmouth.
Fratton Park, Portsmouth
Fratton Park, Portsmouth
Pompey spent much of the season under intense financial pressure off the pitch, but having escaped their worst nightmare - being wound up - they duly entered administration and incurred the inevitable nine-point deduction, leaving them effectively facing relegation with nothing else to dread, and an FA Cup semi-final to look forward to.
Administration appears, perversely, to have brought a touch of stability to the troubled club, with the manager and squad apparently able to rely on being paid on time again. It is as though the pressure has been lifted off the players, who are playing for pride and, in many cases, to impress prospective new employers.
In contrast Chelsea, who led the Premier League for much of the campaign and were many pundits' tip to claim the title, have experienced an unnerving wobble at a particularly inappropriate time. The Stamford Bridge camp does not appear to be a happy one at the moment; blue may be the colour, but so is the mood.
The home defeat by Inter not only ended Chelsea's Champions League dream for another season, and apparently angered owner Roman Abramovich; it may also have dealt the squad a psychological blow. The two dropped points against Blackburn Rovers on Sunday were uncharacteristic and betrayed a tentative approach when bold decisiveness was called for.
Now Chelsea find themselves four points behind defending champions Manchester United, two behind city rivals Arsenal, and desperate to regain their equilibrium and authority in this, their priceless game in hand against Portsmouth.
It's a fixture they would normally be relishing, against the League's bottom club, and indeed they will probably be eager to get back on the pitch to reassert their credentials. But the pressure has been cranked up a few notches by the recent results of themselves and their rivals. They appear to have suffered a collective knock to their confidence, possibly dating from the damaging John Terry affair, which has manifested itself in a lack of consistency not normally associated with the team.
The build-up to their trip to the Hampshire coast has included Abramovich allegedly threatening to wield the axe this summer if silverware should elude the club; Ancelotti boldly insisting that, win or lose, his job his safe; and Joe Cole admitting his Chelsea future is in the balance in the absence of a new contract offer from the club.
These are hardly auspicious indicators of a confident title push. Regarding that push, Ancelotti reckons 86 points will seal it for the Blues, which leaves them little margin for error: it means they can afford to drop only three more of the 24 points still potentially available to them.
Meanwhile, their former manager Avram Grant, somewhat harshly sacked by Abramovich in 2008 after taking Chelsea to within two points of a Premier League title and a scuffed penalty of Champions League glory, has urged his Portsmouth players to achieve a points total this season that would have kept them up had the League not stripped them of nine points for entering administration.
Their spirited fight-back to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against fellow strugglers Hull City on Saturday was hugely encouraging for the Israeli coach, who could yet take Pompey to the FA Cup final. They already have a Wembley date to look forward to against either Tottenham Hotspur or Fulham in the semi-final, and it would be a fitting 'thank you' to their long-suffering fans if they could give them another day to remember in the final.
Of course, holders Chelsea could well be in the final too, notwithstanding the substantial obstacle of Aston Villa to overcome in the semis; but you have the distinct impression that it is the Premier League the Blues must win if a certain Russian is not to dismiss this season as a costly failure.
20 Mar (Premier League) v Hull City (H) WON 3-2
15 Mar (Premier League) v Liverpool (A) LOST 1-4
9 Mar (Premier League) v Birmingham City (H) LOST 1-2
6 Mar (FA Cup) v Birmingham City (H) WON 2-0
27 Feb (Premier League) v Burnley (A) WON 2-1
20 Feb (Premier League) v Stoke City (H) LOST 1-2
21 Mar (Premier League) v Blackburn Rovers (A) DREW 1-1
16 Mar (Champions League) v Inter (H) LOST 0-1
13 Mar (Premier League) v West Ham United (H) WON 4-1
7 Mar (FA Cup) v Stoke City (H) WON 2-0
27 Feb (Premier League) v Manchester City (H) LOST 2-4
24 Feb (Champions League) v Inter (A) LOST 1-2
Portsmouth are expected to be without striker Aruna Dindane for contractual reasons: they can't afford to pay the £4 million transfer fee that would be triggered if the Lens loanee makes another first team appearance.
Doubtful are Kevin-Prince Boateng (ankle), John Utaka (groin) and Hassan Yebda (knee), while Anthony Vanden Borre is unavailable with a hamstring injury.
Last starting XI (v Hull): James, Rocha (Basinas 84), Hreidarsson, Belhadj, Mokoena (Kanu 57), O'Hara, Mullins, Owusu-Abeyie (Webber 82), Wilson, Piquionne, Smith. Subs not used: Ashdown, Finnan, Diop, Brown.
Serbian defender Branislav Ivanovic will be out for a month after tearing medial knee ligaments in Sunday's 1-1 draw against Blackburn Rovers.
Yuri Zhirkov, who substituted for him at Ewood Park, is likely to step in although it is a further blow to Ancelotti, whose defence is already shorn of long-term absentees Jose Bosingwa and Ashley Cole.
The Italian has only Paulo Ferreira, Juliano Belletti and Zhirkov available as recognised full-backs, so his defensive cover is now decidedly stretched.
There is better news about goalkeeper Petr Cech, though. He has been out since February 24 with a calf problem but will return at Fratton Park.
Last starting XI (v Blackburn): Turnbull, Ivanovic (Zhirkov 45), Ferreira, Terry, Alex, Lampard, Mikel, Malouda, Drogba, Kalou (Deco 74), Anelka (Sturridge 90). Subs not used: Sebek, Bruma, J Cole, Matic.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Nwankwo Kanu once famously scored a hat-trick for Arsenal against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge to turn a 2-0 deficit into a stirring 3-2 victory, and having come off the bench to net Portsmouth's winner against Hull at the weekend, the mercurial and unpredictable Nigerian could potentially give Chelsea further nightmares.
Grant said of the 33-year-old this week: "You see Kanu, he's not young any more but he is clever - I think he will play until he is 51... that is in two years!"
Will he prove clever enough to help Pompey to one or more points on Wednesday?
Another African striker, Didier Drogba, represents Chelsea's best hope of confirming the difference in respective positions between the Blues (third) and Pompey (20th).
The Ivorian has already scored 28 goals this season, including 22 in the Premier League, and set the team on their way with a coolly placed sixth minute opener against Blackburn on Sunday.
On that occasion, his team-mates failed to press home the advantage, but Drogba will be called upon to provide a decisive cutting edge again at Fratton Park. He has scored 13 goals in his last 13 league matches.
Portsmouth literally have nothing to lose, while Chelsea simply dare not lose. The balance of psychological pressure is thus squarely in Pompey's favour - but logic, history and the quality of the respective teams all point equally squarely to an away win.
On the subject of history, Portsmouth have not won any of their last 17 top-flight matches against the Blues, spanning 52 years; they've only drawn four of those too. Indeed, if they fail to beat Chelsea it will equal their longest run without a top-flight victory against another team (they haven't beaten Arsenal in 18 consecutive matches).
The Blues last lost at Fratton Park in December 1957 but, unusually, Chelsea have won just three of their last seven league matches, and remarkably have lost 16 points from winning positions this season. It would, however, be even more remarkable if they were to leave the south coast without a victory.
Portsmouth 1-2 Chelsea
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