Chelsea seek FA Cup boost ahead of defining matches in their season
Chelsea interim boss Guus Hiddink appears to be making a reasonable fist of galvanising the Stamford Bridge dressing room and guiding them out of trouble.
With three home games in the space of a week to look forward to, Blues supporters will have a clear indication whether last weekend's resounding 3-0 victory away at Crystal Palace was the turning point in what has been a shocking season.
The first of these matches presents Hiddink with a chance to take a step forward in salvaging the campaign by masterminding victory over League One side Scunthorpe United in the FA Cup.
Hiddink won the FA Cup with Chelsea in his previous interim spell back in 2009. A repeat of that would cap a fine end to what has been a poor campaign.
THE BEST OF ESPN FC
- Bell: Liverpool fans make themselves heard
- Cox: Leicester improving | Why Poch should stay
- Okwonga: Man United's market | City's title hopes
- Laurens: PSG's pre-UCL issues | Hertha's curse
- Highlights (U.S. only): Stuttgart 1-3 BVB
- FC TV: Champions League W2W4 | LVG wrong
- News | Transfer | Toe Poke | Fantasy | FC TV | Podcast | MLS
Scunthorpe will be no pushovers, though. Backed by 6,000 vociferous travelling fans, their players will be supremely motivated and buoyed by the memory of what happened at Stamford Bridge last January. Fellow League One side Bradford City knocked Chelsea out in the fourth round having come from 2-0 down to win 4-2 in one of the biggest cup shocks of all time.
Jose Mourinho said it had been one of his worst days as a manager -- little did he know what the future would have in store for him in SW6.
Given that the FA Cup represents Chelsea's most realistic opportunity of winning silverware this season and despite the prospect of facing two Premier League matches in quick succession after Sunday's tie, Hiddink is unlikely to field a weakened starting XI against Scunthorpe.
In goal, Asmir Begovic may get a game in place of Thibaut Courtois, while Baba Rahman, Bertrand Traore and Kenedy could be selected. In midfield, Nemanja Matic can expect to be given an opportunity to restore self-confidence after being dropped following a poor showing at Old Trafford against Manchester United.
Knocking Scunthorpe out of the cup will be another positive step in the right direction, as would beating West Brom, who visit Stamford Bridge next week for what must be viewed as an eminently winnable Premier League fixture. Tony Pulis' side, 12th in the table, two places and three points better than Chelsea, will provide stubborn opposition with an obdurate backline supplemented by the likely return from injury of keeper Ben Foster. Pulis may well park the bus at the Bridge, but in Willian the Blues have a player in the form of his life who unlock the meanest of defences.
Should Chelsea prevail against Scunthorpe and West Brom, dressing room confidence should be at an all-time high for the home match against Everton. Roberto Martinez's team, also in mid-table, won September's corresponding fixture 3-1 at Goodison Park when a Steven Naismith hat trick proved the Blues' undoing.
That result, and the manner in which Mourinho's men slumped to defeat, stoked the rumours that all was not well and Martinez would have taken great pleasure from the result given Chelsea's pursuit of Everton central defender John Stones in the summer transfer window, which had just concluded at the time.
Stones to Chelsea is a story that won't go away, and it's certain to provide a key talking point in the build-up to next week's game, as is hulking Everton striker Romelu Lukaku, who'll be out to prove a point and help take all three from his former employers. Lukaku has 19 goals already this season, and the Belgium international has scored 55 goals in 105 appearances for Everton. Such a record underlines the widely held belief among fans that Chelsea were foolish to sell the 22-year-old even if they did receive £28 million for his transfer.
After this trio of fixtures the expectations of Chelsea supporters for what lies ahead for the remainder of the season should have a clearer perspective.
They need to be in a positive place, because next on the agenda after that is an away game with current Premier League table-toppers Arsenal. This match may have lost its edge as Mourinho will no longer be around to verbally joust with his old adversary Arsene Wenger, but for the fans, the build-up is likely to be as feisty as ever.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco