Chelsea face Sparta Prague tonight at Stamford Bridge as the Blues look to progress in the Europa League. Rafael Benitez's men have a 1-0 lead courtesy of Brazilian midfielder Oscar and are favourites to seal qualification to the last 16.
However, Chelsea have the task of travelling to Manchester to face the Champions just 3 days later. Benitez will have that game playing on his mind more than anything, so let's discuss who he should play this Thursday.
Beyond Petr Cech, it is fair to say that Chelsea do not have any real competition fighting for a place between the sticks. Ross Turnbull may be the number two at the club, but playing second fiddle to one of the top goalkeepers in the world has hindered his development. In fact, it is certain Petr Cech will play this Thursday. Benitez chose him for the game against Brentford which to me, suggests the Spaniard is far from convinced with his replacements. There is no need for Benitez to unsettle his defensive unit, therefore Petr Cech will remain in goal for the Blues.
Azpilicueta missed the game against Brentford, so I expect the Spaniard to return to the starting line up for the home leg tomorrow. The right back has had an impressive debut season at Chelsea and has proved to be a solid, reliable option. Somewhat making the right back position his own. I think John Terry will be rested for this game with Manchester City just round the corner. The media have claimed that Benitez and Terry are at a war with each other, but Benitez will know Terry is his strongest defender. Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic have looked impressive this season, and together will marshall a back four against a Sparta Prague side who will give it their all. Ashley Cole will be rested for the weekends game, meaning Ryan Bertrand can get some valuable game time.
After lifting the African Cup of Nations trophy, John Obi Mikel will be called upon against Sparta Prague. Benitez will be keen for the Nigerian to bring back some wining mentality, with the Blues struggling in recent weeks. Ramires was another who was rested for the game against Brentford. The Brazilian has had an impressive campaign to date and his lung-busting work rate will ensure the Czech's do not over-run the midfield. Frank Lampard meanwhile will get a vital rest for the trip to Manchester City. The 34 year old has 11 goals in the league this season, proving to everyone he still has the ability to play for Chelsea Football Club.
Chelsea's top goalscorer Juan Mata will be rested tonight for the Manchester City game. Meaning Eden Hazard, Marko Marin and Victor Moses will take up the three attacking roles against Sparta Prague. It is fair to say that without Juan Mata, Chelsea are not the same team. However, Eden Hazard showed just how influential he can be against Brentford. The Belgian came off the bench and saw his side score three goals as they progressed to the latter stages of the FA Cup. Marko Marin has not started his Chelsea career the way he would of wanted, but will be given valuable game time against the Czech side. The £7million signing from Werder Bremen has failed to break into the first team but scored his first goal for Chelsea against Wigan. Similarly to John Obi Mikel, Victor Moses will come back into the fray on Thursday. The Nigerian has come on leaps and bounds since Rafa Benitez was brought in. His direct running, pace and power give Chelsea a new attacking approach to break down teams.
Fernando Torres is the Blues' only eligible striker for the Europa League. With Demba Ba cup tied, the Spaniard has a full 90 minutes available to look forward to. The 28 year old is still coming in for a lot of unfair criticism from the media and some sections of the Chelsea crowd, but with 15 goals to date the Spaniard can look at this as a successful season in a Chelsea shirt.