Manuel Pellegrini must put a stop to Manchester City woes vs. Chelsea
While the recent form book doesn't look good for Manchester City ahead of a tricky FA Cup tie with Chelsea, the travelling fans will be able to take solace in one statistic: Guus Hiddink's side have never beaten Manuel Pellegrini's in the FA Cup at Stamford Bridge. In fact, in their entire histories, City have only ever been eliminated from the competition by Chelsea once.
Of course, that stat looks less favourable when it's made clear they've met five times in total and only one of them came at Stamford Bridge -- a 3-0 win for the visitors in the fourth round in 1971 before City went on to be knocked out by Arsenal 2-1 at Maine Road just over three weeks later.
It was a match played in torrential rain, as a notoriously poor surface cut up, and Colin Bell netted twice for the away side that afternoon. His first -- the game's opener -- was a slide-rule finish from an Ian Bowyer flick-on, before he doubled City's lead by latching on to a superb Neil Young cross to the back post. Bowyer added a third following a goalmouth scramble, and the away side had a trouble-free day. Few believe that Sunday's fixture will be quite so easy.
City have won once at Stamford Bridge in their last 17 visits -- when the home side finished with nine men and the media focus was on Wayne Bridge facing off against John Terry.
This season, Chelsea have stopped the rot that was setting in under Jose Mourinho and Hiddink is turning their fortunes around. It may be that they're going into the FA Cup tie on the back of an unfortunate 2-1 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain, but that's the only loss in their last 13 matches. Pellegrini's men have suffered three in that time, two of them back-to-back in the last two fixtures against Leicester and Tottenham.
It's crucial that the Chilean puts a stop to that run quickly. If his side aren't out of the title race then it's becoming a close-run thing and there can't be too much leeway left. Should he fail against Chelsea on Sunday and then struggle in the coming games with Dynamo Kiev and Liverpool in the Champions League and League Cup Final respectively, then the campaign could effectively be over. Worse, it could yet be thrown into a battle to remain in the top four instead of a fight to win silverware.
City are reportedly unhappy with the timing of Sunday's match, with the manager threatening to play a weakened team because of the fact that the tie is being played the day before his side are due to fly to Kiev for their Champions League last-16 first leg. The Chilean would have preferred the fixture to be played in one of the Saturday afternoon slots, but they were unavailable due to policing issues as Chelsea's neighbours Fulham are in action at Craven Cottage.
The threat of a weakened team could have been a bluff by Pellegrini, though it seems injuries to seven of his first-team players mean he might choose to stick with that idea. It was reported City rested youth players Bersant Celina, Manu Garcia, Aleix Garcia and Kean Bryan for the under-21s' 1-0 defeat to Leicester on Monday in preparation.
Previously, Pellegrini has said that the FA Cup is "not a competition you can throw away" but he feels his hands have been tied by the schedule. It's a big risk if he were to rotate and lose Sunday's match and then not get a positive result in Ukraine on Wednesday.
Equally, it appeared the club felt differently last season, as they took several first team players to Hamburg for a friendly in the midweek before their 2-0 fourth round defeat to Middlesbrough. The squad arrived back in Manchester less than 24-hours before kick-off.
It feels a little like the Chilean is getting his excuses in early. However, with the run of fixtures City have got coming up -- which also include a trip to Anfield in the Premier League and the Manchester derby at the end of March -- the team could really do with playing themselves into some good form.
Many are expecting the tie in Kiev to be a City win, and a fairly comfortable one at that, but going to Ukraine on the back of three defeats would make it a difficult evening in the Champions League and the squad's mentality is already quite fragile. It would also leave potential for them to head into the League Cup final on a run of four straight losses. Things need to change; the earlier, the better.
David Mooney is a writer and a radio journalist based in Manchester. He is also news editor on 104.9 Imagine FM. Twitter: @DavidMooney