It’s tempting to bill Manchester City’s trip to Stamford Bridge this weekend as an FA Cup tie that pits a mid-table side who have fallen from grace against a lethargic, ageing giant who can no longer cope with the pace of it all, swatting at flies and missing by a distance.
In that regard, it would seem as though we will all be crowding round our TV sets (or laptops, iPads, utility belts whatever modern technology has created) to watch something akin to a clash between Fernando Torres and Kolo Toure. Who said the magic of the cup is dead?
Fortunately for everyone, though, that characterisation is way off the mark. Because if this game were a board game, it would look something like snakes and ladders – for both teams, it’s time to roll the dice.
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February is usually the month we associate with the ritual shattering of Arsenal’s dreams, but this month’s losers will probably be one of either Manchester City or Chelsea, that’s how big Sunday’s game is.
There is always a tendency to overstate periods such as this one. The games come thick and fast over the winter period: ‘new’ Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp will take charge of his new team for the 31st time when they play Augsburg on Thursday.
That’s 31 games in four months. It’s no wonder he’s constantly railing against fixture congestion in press conferences. Clearly going on a bad form over that period of non-stop football is a terrible affliction, but it’s one that looks like ailing Manchester City.
Two defeats in a row to genuine title contenders have left Pellegrini and his men in fourth place, six points behind the leaders. If City are still in a quadruple chase, they are by the skin of their teeth. They clearly don’t like playing against teams who play with a high intensity, so having to face Liverpool in the Capital One Cup final is a problem for Manuel Pellegrini.
Six points behind in the league, no guarantee of winning the League Cup, and on the back of this run of form, trips to west London in the FA Cup and Kiev in the Champions League look more daunting than usual. Those trips are never walks in the park, but now they could be the difference between a good season and a terrible one.
They’re a team that need to find form again over the next week or two if their season is to hold any interest at all past mid-March. It may not be as random as rolling the dice against Chelsea, but losing this game would be like landing on a very large snake indeed. It may indeed appear unseemly to replace a manager who has given the club a chance of landing a quadruple, but replacing a man who has presided over two trophyless seasons looks very different. At this point, it’s all a matter of degrees – roll the dice and see what comes up.
Chelsea, meanwhile, are praying for a six. They are rubbing the dice between their hands, blowing on them, kissing them and doing whatever you do to get a lucky roll. They have everything crossed, and as well they might – their margins are incredibly fine, too.
It’s as if they’ve woken up from the nightmare that dogged the start of this season. Around Christmas, it was hard to believe that the rest of the season would see Chelsea do anything other than make up the numbers, now there’s a chance of winning a double.
Defeat last night away to PSG was a negative result, but being only one goal behind and having an away goal in the bank will leave Chelsea with every reason to believe that they can overcome their Parisian nemeses for the second time in three years. Whilst beating City would bring them into the quarter-finals of another competition.
So whilst City have an ugly-looking snake on the horizon, Chelsea have a ladder in sight. The next roll is crucial, and what could have been an unprecedented quadruple-winning season for Manchester City could turn into a trophyless one; whilst what could have been an abject season of unprecedented failure for a Roman Abramovich-led Chelsea could yield two trophies.
In fact, Chelsea could manage to win all four major competitions in just two years with pretty much the same squad. If that doesn’t represent success, I don’t know what does. Similarly, if two trophyless years in succession for one of footballing history’s most expensively assembled sides doesn’t represent failure….
Yet City could still win anywhere between zero and four trophies, Chelsea anywhere between zero and two. It’s that time of year again, either your luck’s in or it ain’t. This roll will be crucial.