After being eliminated from the EFL Cup on Wednesday night at the hands of Arsenal, Chelsea embark on another round of a cup competition, taking on Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
With the Premier League trophy seemingly headed for Manchester, Chelsea’s best chance at winning a trophy this season is in the two remaining cup competitions, the FA Cup and the Champions League.
Up first for Chelsea is the fourth round of the FA Cup and the visit of Newcastle United. In the previous round, Newcastle had a much easier time despatching Luton Town than Chelsea did against Norwich.
The Magpies advanced to the fourth round with a 3-1 win over Luton at St. James Park, while Chelsea required a replay and penalties at Stamford Bridge to see off Norwich after a 0-0 draw at Carrow Road and a 1-1 draw after extra time with a ton of drama.
The Blues will hope that this round is more straightforward, though new challenges confront the reigning Premier League champions ahead of Sunday’s match.
To say Alvaro Morata has been short of form lately is a vast understatement, but the Spanish striker has missed the last two matches, one through suspension after being sent off against Norwich and one through a back injury that will rule him out of the match against Newcastle.
Compounding Chelsea’s injury worries is that Willian limped off with a hamstring concern in the first half against Arsenal on Wednesday. He remains out against Newcastle, but on Wednesday night, his departure seemed to take a bit of the sting out of the Chelsea attack.
That attack is hard to predict, especially Ross Barkley still searching for match fitness after a long-term injury and with Morata and Willian both out. Michy Batshuayi would be the natural choice to lead the line, but after a good performance against Brighton in a 4-0 win, the Belgian striker failed to convince against Arsenal when called upon from the bench, and speculation that he may leave on loan in January still runs rampant.
But it might just be that Chelsea need to put in a professional performance, and that will depend on the team selected by Rafa Benitez on Sunday.
While Benitez doesn’t really have the same injury concerns as Antonio Conte, he does have one major concern: relegation. The Magpies have endured their share of ups and downs in form this season, and they sit just one point above the relegation zone.
Most Newcastle supporters would love a run in the FA Cup, but I doubt they’d exchange a cup run for staying in the Premier League. Benitez has suggested on Friday that he’s going to need to use his squad, and the Newcastle side on Sunday might look very different from the one that took the lead at Stamford Bridge back on 2 December before eventually falling 3-1.
It’s hard to predict how this match will go because it’s hard to predict the lineups that each manager will pick. Benitez is likely to make changes to his Newcastle side ahead of facing Burnley midweek, but his lineup will probably contain a number of veteran players on the fringes.
Conte’s lineup is likely to look a bit more conventional, with maybe just a handful of changes. It’s unlikely that the Chelsea manager will go for a full rotation because it would mean needing to play players from the U23 side, something Conte’s has been reticent to do in the past.
Who knows exactly how this match will play out, but on paper, Chelsea should be moving on and awaiting their fifth-round opponent, but the one thing Chelsea won’t want is another replay to tax a squad that is looking more and more stretched to its limit.