There are to be no prizes for guessing which match will grab all the attention this weekend. It already looked to be a big game in prospect earlier this week, as many will have said Chelsea need a win to stay within touching distance of City and United, whilst the Citizens themselves will need a win to reclaim top spot, assuming Man United beat QPR the day before. However, this hot match has become that little bit more heated as Roberto di Matteo has become the eigth managerial casualty of Roman Abramovich's boardroom, allegedly following his dropping of Torres in the 3-0 defeat in Turin on Tuesday, and Rafael Benitez has become the interim manager to immediately take his place, Sunday being the Spaniard's first match in charge. With so much at stake, let's analyse the match a little closer...
Man v man battles
Although he's yet to manage a game for the club, I'm going to take a guess of who Benitez will field for Chelsea. He was the first man to fully incorporate the 4-2-3-1 formation at Liverpool, which is the system Di Matteo had been using, so I can't see that changing. Roberto Mancini has been something of a tinkerman in recent matches, having played an attacking 4-4-2, 3-5-2 and 4-5-1 in City's last three games; all in all it won't be straightforward to predict what the two line-ups will be - I'm open to contradicting views on who either manager will play - but here's my guess:
Cesar Azpilicueta v David Silva- Azpilicueta has made a decent start to his Chelsea career, and has looked solid whereas David Silva has hardly been the great assist machine he was last season, producing just 2 assists and 1 goal from 9 Premiership games this year. On balance though, I would say he has the trickery and passing quality to get the better of Chelsea's new versatile fullback.
Brandislav Ivanovic v Sergio Aguero- with John Terry ruled out until about early-mid December, Ivanovic has been incorporated as a centre-back in some matches and could play there again in this, either that or it'll be Gary Cahill alongside Luiz- I think either would have a tough time against Aguero, arguably one of the best forwards in the world. Then again, Ivanovic will have had 5 days to prepare for this match after the Juve game on Tuesday, and didn't actually feature the Saturday before against West Brom, whereas this will be Kun Aguero's 3rd match in 8 days, so he may suffer from fatigue. Could be a tight battle.
David Luiz v Carlos Tevez- the Argentina was rested against Real Madrid on Wednesday, and after his two goals against Aston Villa the week before, I would fully expect him to start this. David Luiz has been known to hold position too far up the pitch, so I could see Tevez's tough and tenatious style dispossesing Luiz and exploiting the space in behind to carve out chances for himself and his teammates. What's also worth noting, is that Chelsea are without a clean sheet in 10 consecutive matches, in all competitions, and Luiz has played in each of these games- it can't all be down to him but he must take a degree of responsibility, and I personally would worry about him playing against a world-class forward.
Ashley Cole v Samir Nasri- a duel between two ex-Arsenal men which could be a tight one. Few can dispute that Ashley Cole is one of, if not the best left-back in the world and still appears to have the pace he used to despite getting into his 30s. From the 6 games Nasri has played so far this season though, he has scored an impressive 3 goals and has provided 2. In my opinion, Nasri deserves his chance from what he's shown this season, I'd hope that Mancini plays him rather Kolarov on the right, which makes no sense at all given that he's a left-back (or he might play Kolarov on the left and move Silva to the right). I reckon fielding Nasri is the City's best chance of worrying Ashley Cole.
Ramires v Yaya Toure- these are similar types of players in many respects; both have a fantastic engine and can get into both boxes in the space of seconds, both have a good range of ball skills, strong tacklers who can dominate the midfield, and neither are too often seen to be barged off the ball. Although Ramires adds an element of dyamism to these Chelsea attacks, I would say Yaya Toure is marginally more important to City because he does so with such presence, an air of leadership and composure, I would argue he's slightly better at reading the game than Ramires. If Toure begins to boss this midfield, it could spell a difficult afternoon for Chelsea.
John Obi Mikel v Gareth Barry- if Mancini opts to go with Barry to partner Toure like he did last week, I think Mikel would win his battle. I would say Barry is one of those average players who signed for City just when Mansour took over, when they couldn't attract world class stars, but needed a few average players to fill out the squad, who have been put on long-term contracts and now they can't get rid of him because of his wages. Having said that, Mancini has questionably stuck with him in recent matches ahead of the likes of Rodwell and Javi Garcia, but I can't see what Barry adds to the team and think Mikel will outmuscle him.
Oscar v Gael Clichy- Brazilian sensation Oscar has shown flashes of brilliance and can be dazzling to watch at times, plus if Clichy is instructed to push forward from the left-back position as part of this new 3-at-the back Italian style/Barca-esc philosophy of Man City, then Oscar may well exploit some of the space in behind with his impressive dribbling ability and flair. On the whole though, Clichy was rested on Wednesday against Madrid so I would back him to have the work rate to track back and help out his defence, I think he can stop Oscar.
Eden Hazard (free role)- the Belgian may not have an assigned marker if he plays in the hole, which is where he can cause problems in behind Torres. This might allow him to pull the strings, drag Man City's defence out (particularly with Nastasic so inexperienced) and play in the likes of Torres, Oscar, Mata, or even Ramires. If Mancini doesn't give someone the instruction of staying tight to him, Hazard could have a good game and play a key role in Chelsea's attacks.
Juan Mata v Pablo Zabaleta- as with Clichy, Mata could easily exploit the space in behind Zabaleta if he's instructed to get to far forward in support of City attacks, particularly because the Argentine played in the Champions League on Wednesday, and the weekend before that so he could be a little jaded- and that's not a state to be in when you're facing a winger with the movement, pace and creativity of Juan Mata. I'd fancy the Spaniard to win this duel.
Fernando Torres v Kompany + Nastasic- given his connection with him during their Liverpool days, I wouldn't be surprised if Benitez is prepared to give Torres more chances to prove himself, even if most managers would probably be prepared to cut their loses and replace El Nino, so I'm sure he'll start. If Mancini sticks with Nastasic (who I personally don't rate) like he did in City's last two matches, there could be a tendency for his inexperience to draw him out of position to try and tackle either Hazard, Mata or Oscar, which would leave Kompany very exposed to surging runs from midfield, or from Torres, so I think the Citizen's defence can potentially be opened up. Chelsea's number 9 is in poor form, but you can never tell what kind of impact a new manager will have if he gives Torres a vote of confidence, plus he was rested during the week. A goal for El Nino isn't out of the question, but I think he would badly need it on Sunday, if he's ever going to be a success at Chelsea.
The Torres issue leads me onto the next factor concerning this game. The decision to sack di Matteo and appoint Rafael Benitez seems to be another poor decision from Roman Abramovich, and one that ultimately lacks logic. Yes, you would question di Matteo's decision making this season (as mentioned in an article previous to this), but to just sack him because of that and replace him with a manager, hardly of a higher calibre seems bizarre. I would have also thought the Russian would have spent more time trying to persuade Guardiola to come to Stamford Bridge, but the fact that it was an immediate Benitez appointment suggests there was little hesitation, or element of last-resort, involved.
Not only will this constant changing of manager be unsettling for the players, the fans strongly dislike the ex-Liverpool man. It's been mentioned a lot on the Chelsea fans forum amongst other sources, also I'm a Birmingham City fan and went to see them play Chelsea at home in the FA Cup last season for di Matteo's first game in charge as temporary manager- the whole Chelsea section were singing anti-Benitez songs. Surely Abramovich knows they don't like him, so the appointment just makes no logical sense. I don't remember any manager taking charge at a club in a scenario in which the fans were completely opposed to him, who ended up succeeding- it's certainly very rare. Brian Clough in his time at Leeds springs to mind as an example, this being a slightly less extreme case, but you can see it never works.
What also worries me, is that Benitez has been described as an 'interim' manager, which suggests he too won't be there for very long, I can't see him staying for longer than a year- Chelsea just don't need an interim manager, they need someone who can take them through a transition period and who will be there for at least three years. The best man to do that, in my view, was Pep Guardiola. If the majority of the fans are so opposed to Benitez managing, how will that affect the players going into this match? It may be very difficult for him to gain the respect of the dressing room when he insulted Chelsea so much as manager of Liverpool. I just don't see how he can motivate the team, and I would imagine most of the players, at least subconciously, are thinking: 'it's okay, he'll only be with us for a few months, we don't need to perform for him', I get a feeling that that will be their general mindset, which can't achieve sustained success at a football club. What made Chelsea such a success under Mourinho, was that every single player loved their manager and were desperate to perform for him, they were always motivated- I'm not sure Benitez can instill that level of confidence and will-to-win in the team. All in all, I think the appointment will have a negative impact on Chelsea.
I'd like to make this point supposing that Manchester United will beat QPR the day before. Football is a funny game, so do forgive me for being a little presumptuous, but I think 99% of us will all agree the chances are United will win- the other 1% would be alcohol-influenced QPR fans. If things do indeed go according to plan for Alex Ferguson on Saturday, then the Red Devils will go 2pts clear at the top of the table, but of course, City will have this game in hand.
That being the case, City would need to win this if they want to reduce the significance of the Manchester derby coming up. If they draw or lose this match against Chelsea, they would need to win that game, and also equal or better United's results in the two matches leading up to it to stay top, whilst Chelsea would be back in the title race. However, if they can win this match, it would mean they can afford settle for a draw in the Manchester derby, taking the pressure off, and Chelsea would be essentially out, barring a fantastic run in the second half of the season.
It seems, perhaps a little pedantic to consider the mathematics of it, and what Man City would need to do to stay top, as we've still got a long, long way to go in this season, but I do think for this year it's especially important for the general morale of the club to be top of the table after the Manchester derby, and at Christmas time. Man City's poor performance in the Champions League has put a degree of pressure on Roberto Mancini's shoulders, if it looks more than plausible midway through the season that the Citizens won't retain the title, then rumours of his exit could begin to circulate, which won't do the confidence of the team any favours at all.
I'm going to stick my neck out and say a Manchester City win. In my opinion, Rafael Benitez was completely the wrong appointment for Chelsea, it's got very much a temporary feel to it, the fans don't like him and I just don't think the players will be in the right frame of mind going into this match, though I'd have to say Benitez may be the most likely manager to get the best out of Torres, if it's possible at all for him to rediscover his Liverpool form. Realistically speaking it simply won't be enough though, and they face a Manchester City team who will be with requirement of a win, if not in desperate need of one, so I think they'll attack Chelsea and put the Blues's shaky-looking defence to the sword.