Ivanovic and Stones: Changing fortunes for Terry's heirs apparent
They are contrasting visions of Chelsea's future, opponents and opposites who could be direct competitors to fill the void John Terry is set to leave at Stamford Bridge. John Stones and Branislav Ivanovic could meet on Saturday with the immediate prize of a place in the last four of the FA Cup and as part of a broader battle for the succession.
Stones was Jose Mourinho's preferred candidate. Ivanovic appears Guus Hiddink's favoured choice. The eventual decision will be taken by another, whether Chelsea's next manager or the mysterious Michael Emenalo, the Blues' seemingly unaccountable technical director.
But Stones and Ivanovic present different models. They are separated by a generation, a 21-year-old looking the long-term option and a 32-year-old a short-term solution.
Stones is the smooth ball player, the centre-back who performed a Cruyff turn inside his own penalty area in Everton's September win over Chelsea. Ivanovic is the no-nonsense stopper, the redoubtable character who showed his leadership qualities with the emphatic, dramatic late winner at Southampton. It was a Terry-esque contribution from the man who has deputised recently as both centre-back and skipper for the stricken 35-year-old.
These are men who have had experienced fluctuating fortunes this season. Ivanovic began it dreadfully and Stones majestically. Of late, the Englishman had been frustrated while the Serb has flourished. Injuries to Terry and Kurt Zouma -- who, if Mourinho had got his way, may have been Stones' centre-back partner for a decade -- have afforded him an opportunity in the centre of defence. He has taken it.
And yet, if there is an element of chance to his shift from right-back, it is also the product of the peculiar way Chelsea are run. Since they failed with three bids for Stones, they have signed three centre-backs. Between them, they have played one minute of first-team football for their parent club.
Michael Hector was promptly loaned back to Reading. Papy Djilobodji took the field for the final few seconds in a League Cup tie at Walsall and has now been dispatched to Werder Bremen, out of sight and out of mind. The prognosis for the young American Matt Miazga may be better, but he is yet to feature.
Instead, Ivanovic has offered reminders that he arrived at Stamford Bridge as a central defender, not the marauding right-back he became. Indeed, he was Chelsea's premier centre-back during Rafa Benitez's reign, when Terry was marginalised. He anchors the defence for his country. He has started to do the same for his club and while Gary Cahill is the regular, it is worth noting both Mourinho and Hiddink have omitted the Englishman at points this season.
Ivanovic possesses a prodigious spring and could have leapfrogged him in the pecking order. He used to be able to accelerate past wingers, but part of his physical powers may be declining. His early-season embarrassments, when he was exposed and exploited time and again, showed that the full-back positions can be an unforgiving spot for the ageing player.
As Terry has proved, it is possible to extend a career into a player's mid-30s in the middle of a well-drilled defence.
When Ivanovic was awarded a one-year contract extension and Terry was not, various fatuous comparisons were made, ignoring the reality the Serb is more than three years younger. What went unsaid, but was perhaps the most pertinent point, is the notion he could move inside to take both the armband and the older man's spot.
Recent weeks have offered a glimpse of next season for Chelsea and Everton alike. Hiddink has relocated Cesar Azpilicueta to the right, his natural side, and used either Baba Rahman or the prodigious Kenedy as an attacking left-back.
Roberto Martinez had been starting without Stones, initially because of a hamstring problem. Phil Jagielka and Ramiro Funes Mori lent solidity as they only conceded two goals in six games. Selection was made on merit, especially as Stones had endured a traumatic January when his willingness to pass the ball in perilous positions gifted Swansea a goal and his predilection for those Cruyff turns brought barracking at Goodison Park.
He returned to the starting XI against West Ham last Saturday, as Martinez adopted a back three, only to be removed in the half-time reshuffle after Kevin Mirallas' dismissal. That Funes Mori was at fault for two of West Ham's three late goals could suggest the Argentine will be the man omitted for Stones on Saturday.
Yet his troubled 2016 changes little. He remains England's most gifted, coveted and classy centre-back. Chelsea should recall the way Stones started the move, 100 yards from their goal, that led to Steven Naismith completing his hat trick in Everton's 3-1 win on Sep. 12. It indicated a rare level of football ability in a defender.
If their pursuit of him last summer seemed the precursor to a move this year, the framework has changed. Stamford Bridge may be a less appealing destination without Champions League football, Stones may not be a priority for the next regime and seems to be one for both Manchester clubs, who are conveniently closer to his Yorkshire roots.
And while Everton, both under David Moyes and Martinez, have fought hard to prevent themselves becoming a selling club, their resources had always been limited until the British-Iranian businessman Farhad Moshiri bought a 49.9 percent stake last month. They are in a better position to raise the wage ceiling and resist offers, or to drive any eventual fee to a record level for an Englishman.
Rather than the start of a successful pursuit, last summer may have proved Chelsea's best chances to rob Everton of their precious Stones. Perhaps that offers encouragement to Ivanovic, maybe even to Terry, who could make his comeback at Goodison at the start of what may prove a two-month campaign to secure a contract extension.
Or he may have a watching brief as potential successors advertise their differing qualities. It could be silk against steel, promise against proven performance, one who brings Terry's assurance in possession against one who offers a similar threat from set-pieces. Stones may be the finest centre-back Chelsea could have got. Increasingly, Ivanovic is looking like the best they will find to take over from Terry.
Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.