Manchester City enters this game as it did in September, when hosting Chelsea at the Etihad, trailing its opponent by five points. A win by City, closing the gap to two points, could inspire the reigning champion to reach its previous heights, seldom seen this season, but a win by Chelsea would give the host an eight-point lead, with only 15 Premier League games remaining, and it would all but end the title race.
A-LIST ACTORS MISSING IN ACTION. A pair of games played outside the EPL on Wednesday will result in five different players missing Saturday's matchup, three of them among the world’s best. A 1-0 win over Cameroon by the Ivory Coast will keep Yaya Toure chasing the African Cup of Nations, along with Wilfried Bony, City’s latest addition. While Chelsea left its grueling 120-minute Capitol One Cup semifinal win over Liverpool on Wednesday with injuries to Filipe Luis and Cesc Fabregas, who has a hamstring issue. Fabregas did light training on the side Thursday, but is listed as highly doubtful for Saturday.
Diego Costa was given a three-game ban for violent conduct on Thursday due to a stamp missed by the referee in that same game. An independent party will hear Costa’s appeal Friday, but the FA’s punishments have been upheld 99 percent of the time, which doesn’t bode well for the EPL’s leading scorer.
Leaving us to wonder if Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho would’ve fielded his best team, for a Capitol One Cup game with only three days of rest prior to Chelsea's biggest game all year, if he hadn’t been “ashamed” of the Blues’ performance during a loss at home to third-division Bradford City in the FA Cup last Saturday.
We'll never know, but the addition of Costa and Thibaut Courtois, who will likely be the world's best goalkeeper sometime soon, from Atletico Madrid, along with Fabregas, who has flourished in London once again as the focal point he never got to be at his boyhood club in Barcelona. These are the three new ingredients that turned Chelsea from a very good team into England's most imposing starting 11, and two could be missing.
Costa has 17 EPL goals, Didier Drogba, likely to start in his place, only has three EPL goals in his 17 appearances, but the 36-year-old Ivorian did score in two of his three Premier League starts this year. If Costa isn’t the EPL’s current MVP, then Fabregas and his league leading 15 assists are, and replacing Fabregas' ability to dictate from deeper in the midfield could prove more difficult. Oscar plays further up, and Willian's energy is better served on the wing.
It would surprise no one to see Mourinho go defensive by inserting Ramires as a second holding mid next to Nemanja Matic, the excellent Serbian. Mourinho's teams are notorious for ultra-defensive postures in big games, and the onus is on City to chase all three points in this game.
As for City, it hasn't won any of the four EPL games Toure’s missed this season, and Samir Nasri is also unavailable, out injured until mid-february. While Sergio Aguero, still the EPL's second leading scorer, hasn’t scored, or looked as lethal, in his three games since returning from a Dec 6 injury.
LAMPARD GIVEN THE COLD SHOULDER. With London papers destroying entire forests to cover Costa's behavior, suspension, and Mourinho's predictable outrage at said ‘persecution’ --- the Portugese coach announcing he's boycotting Friday's press conference --- relatively little attention has been given to the fact Chelsea's all-time leading scorer will be making his return to Stamford Bridge. With Toure out, Manuel Pellegrini will need to choose two midfielders from Fernandinho, Frank Lampard and the defensive-minded Fernando. Needing goals, ands someone capable of seizing the moment, Lampard’s role in his return home should be larger than previously expected.
As for the club where he became a legend, Chelsea has already stated there would be no special ceremony or acknowledgment of Lampard's service. Which sounds a bit odd considering the club honored both Didier Drogba’s and Michael Ballack's Champions League returns, with Galatasaray and Bayer Leverkusen respectively, but any displays of affection for Lampard, who appeared in 648 games and scored 211 goals during 13 years of service at Chelsea, will be left to the fans at Stamford Bridge.
Perhaps that tells you as much about the importance of Saturday’s game as anything.
THE SPANISH MAGICIAN HOLDS THE KEY. Say what you want about Mourinho, although it would take a clever person to produce an original insult about the Portuguese coach, the man knows how to employ disciplined defense, and sometimes negative soccer, to achieve desired results in the biggest of games. It was Mourinho's Inter Milan team that stymied Barcelona in the Champions League at its peak, as his less-talented Italian club went on to win the treble, laying the blueprint for Chelsea's improbable run, and others looking to park the bus and hit Barca on the break.
With Toure and Nasri unavailable, the worst kept secret in London is that City’s attacking spark will rely almost entirely upon the clever touches of David Silva, the little left-footed magician who does his best work when bearing a shared load.
This will almost certainly lead Mourinho to having Matic, Ramires and any defender near Silva, under strict orders to stay tight and get physical with the dangerous, and slight, Spaniard. Pellegrini could look to ease Silva's burden by feeding the ball out to the right, where Jesus Navas and right back Pablo Zabaleta can combine. This would also force one of the world's best wingers to defend, although Eden Hazard is capable of winning any game by himself, so Zabaleta must choose his spots carefully.
Lampard scored City’s lone goal in September’s 1-1 draw, and all the extra attention Silva receives may also lead to Lampard finding space for shots from the top of the box. Offering a moment of opportunity to score a season-changing goal at Stamford Bridge -- one the Chelsea legend has vowed not to celebrate.