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Football Whispers

Conte's last stand, trophy-hunter Mourinho on prowl

FA Cup
 By Phil Lythell

Chelsea with reason for optimism ahead of FA Cup clash vs. Man City

It is rare for an air of positivity to surround a defeat, but there is a distinct lack of gloom around Stamford Bridge following the 2-1 Champions League last 16 first leg defeat to Paris Saint-Germain. Edinson Cavani's late winner certainly took some wind out of Chelsea's sails, though it couldn't obscure the fact that the Blues had handled one of Europe's most dangerous sides pretty well, while looking dangerous themselves. The tie is very much alive and they achieved all this without first team regulars John Terry, Kurt Zouma and Nemanja Matic, who were unavailable due to a combination of injuries and suspension.

It was a good start to a tough week, one that could help to define the second half of Chelsea's season. Hot on the heels of the trip to Paris is the visit of Manchester City in the FA Cup for another clash of the titans. City still retain an interest in four competitions, and with a place already booked in the Capital One Cup final, together with a kind Champions League draw, the quadruple remains a viable target for City.

Nevertheless, it might just be a good time to be playing Manuel Pellegrini's team. City will arrive on the back of two straight home defeats to title rivals, results that will surely be gnawing away at the team's confidence. Thoroughly outplayed in the 3-1 reverse to Leicester City, they could at least point to a questionable penalty awarded in Tottenham's favour to partly explain their 2-1 loss last week. Even so, there seemed to be a lack of competitive edge in both performances that could be a consequence of January's announcement that Pep Guardiola would be replacing Pellegrini in the summer.

City also face a long return trip to Ukraine to face Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League just three days later, followed by the Capital One Cup final on the ensuing Sunday. That the FA Cup tie was pushed back 24 hours from Saturday to Sunday to satisfy television demands has enraged many at the Manchester club who wished to have greater preparation time for the next step of their European quest. Pellegrini has tetchily suggested that he would pick a weakened team as a result. Successive league defeats, dropping to fourth place in the table and the feeling that their chances in Europe are being unnecessarily hindered means that the current mood at the Etihad is not great.

But such setbacks can drive a team forward and threats of fielding a weakened team must be taken with a pinch of salt. City will have had a full week off since losing to Spurs while Chelsea will have had the physically and mentally draining challenge of playing in Paris in midweek. City's players should be suitably refreshed as they attempt to stop the rot.

Equally, with this being the manager's last few months in charge, he will surely be targeting every trophy possible, and it would make little sense for him to potentially forfeit the FA Cup when there are still four rounds and several stellar teams remaining in this season's Champions League. As Chelsea can testify having played them twice already this campaign, Dynamo Kiev should pose few problems for City, especially as the Ukrainians haven't played a competitive game since Dec. 9. Apart from stubbornness, there is little reason for them to field anything but a strong lineup at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea boss Guus Hiddink is expected to field a strong lineup against Manchester City on Sunday.
Chelsea boss Guus Hiddink is expected to field a strong lineup against Manchester City on Sunday.

As for Chelsea, manager Guus Hiddink has shown his intention to win the FA Cup by fielding very strong sides against both Scunthorpe and MK Dons earlier in the competition, so he is certain to do the same again on Sunday. Zouma will definitely miss out, though Matic will be available for selection and there is a chance that Terry will return, despite the heroics performed by the Gary Cahill-Branislav Ivanovic partnership at the Parc des Princes.

It would, however, be good to see Baba Rahman given another outing against top-class opposition following his pleasantly surprising display against PSG. Until Wednesday night, the overriding feeling was that the former Augsburg defender was a man out of his depth at Chelsea. Capable enough against lower league opponents in the domestic cups, Rahman has looked largely out of sorts when playing at the top level, which made his outing against PSG seem like something of a revelation.

The Ghanaian has always looked promising when going forward and indeed he continued to impress in that regard in the French capital, delivering an inviting cross from which Diego Costa really should have scored. But the concerns about his suitability have centred around the defensive side of his game, the part of a full-back's repertoire that should be the primary function, but that in the modern game seems to have become secondary to attacking.

Against, PSG, the pre-game fears proved unfounded with his energy and intelligent positional play helping to nullify his direct opponents, with the majority of the attacks coming down the other flank. With City boasting electric pace out wide through Raheem Sterling and Jesus Navas, there must surely be the temptation to combat that threat through the mobility of Rahman on one side and Cesar Azpilicueta on the other. As able as Ivanovic has been in his time at right-back, memories are still fresh from the dizzying experience that he endured during the 3-0 defeat at the Etihad back in August where he had no answer to Sterling's speed or trickery.

A more mobile option should be deployed on Sunday, as well as an attack-minded approach. Chelsea have shown that they can cause good sides problems when they go forward, as evidenced by their performance at PSG, as well as the 1-0 win at Arsenal and the 1-1 draw with Manchester United. With City's defence far from infallible, the chance is there to exploit any weakness. With both team's blessed with some in-form forwards, it promises to be an eventful afternoon at Stamford Bridge.

Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.


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