Chelsea cannot afford complacency as Wolves target another FA Cup shock
An FA Cup tie between the runaway leaders of the Premier League and a team struggling in the Championship should be a foregone conclusion. But in a straight knockout competition -- excepting replays, of course -- nothing should be taken for granted when Chelsea travel to Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday.
If Antonio Conte and his team required any reminding of the unpredictable nature of cup football they need only to look back at the last round. In what was a famous day for one of the Football League's founder members, Liverpool were beaten 2-1 at home as they became Wolves' second Premier League victim of the season having won 2-0 at Stoke in the third round. Focusing the mind even further will be Chelsea's own humbling on home turf two seasons ago when Bradford City of League One came from two goals down to claim a famous 4-2 victory. Conte's winning mentality will surely guard against any complacency from seeping into his players.
His stance will only be further galvanised after last weekend's 1-1 draw at Burnley. At Turf Moor, a team boasting far fewer resources but with an exceptional work ethic took advantage of Chelsea's slight drop in intensity after they took the lead and used a baying crowd combined with an intelligent tactical approach to earn a positive result. Wolves boss Paul Lambert will have watched with interest and will be aiming to mimic Burnley's display in a bid to repeat their own heroics from the previous round at Anfield.
One of the key differences between Liverpool and Chelsea, however, will be the strength of the respective sides fielded by the Premier League teams. When Wolves travelled to Anfield, they faced a Liverpool side featuring just one player -- Roberto Firmino -- that could be considered an automatic starter in their first choice XI. That might not have been such a problem if Jurgen Klopp had a strong squad to choose from yet after choosing to rest his stars he could only select from a smattering of young players together with some senior pros, such as Alberto Moreno and Divock Origi, that have lately been out of sorts.
Chelsea might make a number of changes from the XI that took the field at Turf Moor though the team will still boast plenty of skill and experience as well as form. The totemic Cesc Fabregas will pull the strings in midfield alongside the energetic Nathaniel Chalobah, who has looked highly promising in his outings this campaign. Last season's Chelsea player of the year, Willian, is likely to start in attack as will Ruben Loftus-Cheek, an ever-present in the Blues' cup teams this season.
In defence, David Luiz will be afforded the chance to give his troublesome knee a rest so Kurt Zouma will play with club captain John Terry also available for selection having recovered from an ankle injury. Conte has indicated that Marcos Alonso will also be given the day off which means that Kenedy might get a rare run out having been a late substitute in the 4-0 win over Burnley.
It will be interesting to see who the manager opts for as his central striker. Michy Batshuayi has been the regular choice in cup ties this season though Conte might be tempted to pick Diego Costa following his mini goal drought that has seen him fail to score in his last three starts. That hardly constitutes a crisis though the chance to get his main target man back on the scoresheet and bolster his confidence ahead of the next tranche of league games might be difficult to resist.
Another interesting aspect of team selection will be whether Pedro is given another opportunity at right wing-back. His deployment there proved devastating in previous rounds against Peterborough and Brentford with the Spaniard scoring three goals across the two games and generally causing havoc by attacking from deep. Both those matches were at home, however, so playing him at Molineux where Wolves might feel the onus is on them to attack will be a different test for him.
Whether Wolves will have the confidence to take the game to Chelsea and try to ruffle more Premier League feathers is a different matter. Although they won 3-1 at Barnsley three days after beating Liverpool, they have since lost three matches in succession with the last two reverses coming at home including Tuesday's 1-0 defeat to a Wigan side just below them in the relegation zone.
The FA Cup, however, has the ability to see form and reputation thrown out of the window so nothing should be taken for granted. But if Chelsea's players match the intensity and the application of their hosts on Saturday then their collective and individual talent should see them through.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.