Mourinho's record, title bid on line as Palace visit

Posted by Mark Worrall

BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty ImagesEden Hazard, left, is likely to be in the side when Chelsea host Palace; David Luiz is likely to return to the bench.

Chelsea entertain in-form Crystal Palace in a must-win London derby encounter at Stamford Bridge on Saturday afternoon, with manager Jose Mourinho knowing that securing all three points is an absolute must if the Blues are to retain their status as serious contenders for the Premier League title.

Last weekend’s 3-2 reversal at Stoke City, coupled with the fact that Chelsea also conceded three goals against Sunderland in the game that preceded the loss at the Britannia, has underlined the need for Mourinho to resolve the Blues' defensive fragility particularly on set pieces.

The Portuguese’s remarkable -- and indeed "Special" -- unbeaten home Premier League record, now at 66 games, was almost undone by West Bromwich Albion who led until the dying seconds of Chelsea's penultimate -- and controversial -- league encounter at the Bridge.

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Last time out in SW6, Southampton had the temerity to take the lead in the first minute when Saints striker Jay Rodriguez exploited a shocking back pass from Michael Essien to sweep the ball past Petr Cech. On that occasion the Blues showed great character to bounce back and win 3-1, but the fact remains that this season Chelsea have had the worrying propensity to gift opposing teams the lead and then spend the rest of the game chasing a result. Mourinho will expect his team to arrest this troublesome trend Saturday.

The good news for Mourinho is that he has a fully fit squad from which to select his starting XI (with the exception of the unfortunate Marco van Ginkel, out for the season with a cruciate ligament injury). Cech, rested for the midweek Champions League tie with Steaua Bucharest, will return in goal. While Ashley Cole and David Luiz both earned recalls to the Blues' back four against Steaua, they may well find themselves on the bench Saturday as Mourinho, with one eye on the forthcoming midweek Capital One Cup quarterfinal tie at Sunderland, opts to deploy Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta once more.

Frank Lampard, who scored in a 4-1 rout of the Eagles the last time the sides met at Stamford Bridge in March 2005, should retain his berth in midfield alongside a likely trio of Ramires, Andre Schuerrle and Eden Hazard. Despite being rested in midweek, Juan Mata could again find that Mourinho starts with Oscar in the coveted No. 10 role, with the Spaniard having earned a call-up at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday.

Up front, Mourinho faces his usual dilemma of whom to select out of misfiring trio Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and Samuel Eto’o to lead Chelsea’s line. Having toiled for 90 minutes against Steaua in midweek, Ba may find himself out of the running, leaving the Blues manager with a straight choice between Torres and Eto’o, with both men likely to be given game time irrespective of who starts.

Under new manager Tony Pulis, Crystal Palace have undergone something of a revival, with the Eagles venturing to Stamford Bridge on the back of a remarkable run of two straight victories. That might sound like sarcasm, but given their abject start to the season. the stripey Nigel supporters of the south London club are considering this a roll.

Palace have mustered 10 points out of a possible 15 in their past five league games, keeping four clean sheets along the way. There is no doubt that Pulis, who founded his managerial reputation at Stoke on the back of building teams that defended resolutely, has been instrumental in giving the Eagles a fighting chance of avoiding relegation. “The bad apples are gone, and most of the line-up is made up of the promotion-winning side which had that fantastic character and spirit,” Pulis explained when asked recently how he had turned the club’s fortunes around.

One new addition, Marouane Chamakh, the curiously coiffured, often ridiculed Arsenal cast-off, has found himself the unlikely hero of Palace fans. The Moroccan striker, having scored twice in succession, will be looking to make it three in a row for the first time in his Premier League career against Chelsea.

Notwithstanding the fact that Crystal Palace have improved markedly in recent weeks, they are light years away in terms of quality and strength in depth from the Chelsea side they will face Saturday. The Blues forwards may continue to struggle, but their midfield is more than capable of winning any game, as has been proved on numerous occasions already this season.

Hazard, with six goals and six assists to his name in the league so far, will relish the challenge of adding to his tally as he sets out to run the Palace backline ragged.

Come kickoff time Saturday, Chelsea and their supporters will already know the outcome of the lunchtime clash at the Etihad between table-toppers Arsenal and free-scoring Manchester City. Should City prevail, a Blues victory over Palace would cut the Gunners' lead to two points. With a trip to the Emirates next up in the Premier League for Mourinho and his men, Chelsea -- should they win Saturday -- would be presented an opportunity to head the title proceedings at Christmas. With such a strong motivation, Crystal Palace could be in for a torrid afternoon at Stamford Bridge. Time will tell.

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