Chelsea could go a long way to taking some pressure off itself in its UEFA Champions League group with a win and three points against leaders FC Schalke 04 in Germany on Tuesday.
But doing so will take an outstanding performance against the Bundesliga side, which currently sits atop Group E with a 2-0-0 record (six points) after shutting out its first two opponents in the group (Steaua Bucharest and FC Basel) behind stingy goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand.
The Blues (1-0-1, three points) were shocked in their tournament-opener, losing 2-1 to Basel at Stamford Bridge, but rebounded in their second game, hammering Steaua in Romania 4-0, as Ramires scored a brace for the Europa League champions.
In this match, expect Die Koenigsblauen (The Royal Blues) to be ready from the opening whistle at a raucous Veltins-Arena for the visiting and more highly publicized club from the English Premier League.
The site, crowd noise and energy provided to Schalke here might be worth a half a goal, and Chelsea will really be put to its biggest test against manager Jens Keller and his boys in this one.
Schalke (4-2-3) is presently in fifth place in the Bundesliga and has gone 2-1-1 at home to start the season, its only loss a 4-0 pasting at the nimble feet of defending European champions Bayern Munich a month ago.
Striker Adam Szalai (four goals) is Schalke’s leading scorer in Bundesliga play, and the Blues back four will have to work to contain the 25-year-old Hungarian as well as an outstanding midfield that includes Kevin Prince-Boateng (three goals), RomanNeustaedter and the sensational Julian Draxler—although Prince-Boateng’s inclusion will depend on the status of an injured knee according to a story in the Daily Mirror.
Defensively, Schalke and Hildebrand have been perfect so far in group play, but AtsutoUchida (two assists) and the rest of the German side’s defense will really be put to the test against Chelsea—a team which has suddenly found its offensive groove, scoring 11 goals in three straight wins.
The majority of those Blues goals came from, or were been produced by midfielders, including Oscar, Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, Frank Lampard, Ramires and AndreSchuerrle and there is no doubt these players have picked up the slack on the attack for the strikers who have scored just once so far—courtesy of Samuel Eto’o in the previous game versus Cardiff City—in league play.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho has relied heavily on John Terry and BranislavIvanovic on defense so far this season, so, with this match being of such significance, expect the two Blues vets back in The Special One’s starting XI with Ryan Bertrand again possibly spelling a healing Ashley Cole (ribs) at left-back.
Striker Fernando Torres (knee) returned from an injury against Cardiff and was a second-half substitute in West London in Saturday’s win. The Spaniard should feature against Schalke as the 29-year-old seems to be much better in international play and is now immersed in another grueling streak without a goal in Premier League play.
Schalke has more than its own share of injury problems heading into this clash, with midfielder Marco Hoger (knee) suffering an injury in the club’s 3-2 weekend win atEintracht Braunschweig, Jefferson Farfan (hamstring) mending, Jermaine Jones, SeadKolasinac and Kyriakos Papadopoulos all out and star striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (knee) requiring surgery and sidelined for the foreseeable future.
The latest UEFA club rankings may be a bit too kind to both teams, with Chelsea checking in at No. 4 and Schalke at No. 13, but both teams have had respectable starts in their leagues which probably rank as two of the top three on the Continent.
These two teams met at this stage of the tournament back in 2007, with Chelsea and goalkeeper Petr Cech registering a clean sheet in a 2-0 home win and then playingSchalke to a 0-0 draw a fortnight later at the Veltins-Arena.
Should Chelsea defeat the hosts, it could vault into first place in the group on goal differential, but this game should be a real test, both physically and emotionally, for these two clubs who both seem to be destined to advance from Group E.
The two meet again in two weeks in the return leg at Stamford Bridge (Nov. 6) while the next game on the Blues schedule is a huge Premier League showdown with fourth-place Manchester City (5-1-2) and Yaya Toure on Sunday at Stamford Bridge.
This one should end up playing out like somewhat boring chess match with real scoring opportunities for both teams limited and the home crowd playing a huge part in Chelsea’s sometimes fragile collective psyche, although the Schalke injury woes open up the door for a big road win.
In the end, I say the group looks pretty much the same after this game ends in a draw with the Blues opening the scoring with a Mata goal and Schalke answering late in the second half with a Draxler equalizer.
If so inclined, let me know what you think happens in this game the space below in what, if anything, is a must-not-lose game for Chelsea in Gelsenkirchen.