February: A Preview
Chelsea kicked off 2013 with a sub-par run in January, knocked out of the Capital One Cup over two legs by Swansea City and dropping valuable points on the league front.
A London derby victory over Arsenal and a competent showing away to Stoke City were offset by an embarrassing defeat at the hands of basement dwellers QPR, and draws against Southampton and Reading.
An FA Cup draw away to Brentford kept our hopes of retaining the trophy alive, but it was a result that further soured supporters' attitudes towards interim manager Rafael Benitez and raised yet more questions about his short term viability as Chelsea manager.
Heading into February, it's absolutely vital that we get back onto a firm footing in the league by going on a good run of form and solidifying our position in the Champions League places.
We currently sit four points ahead of fourth place Tottenham Hotspur and five ahead of Everton in fifth, and whilst our win over Arsenal has brought us a bit of breathing space, the eight point gap between ourselves and Arsene Wenger's boys could be a lot slimmer come the end of the month if we don't get our act together.
We start this Saturday with a trip to Newcastle United. Alan Pardew's outfit have been disappointing this season, failing to build on last years impressive league campaign, and are currently embroiled in a relegation dogfight.
The Toon have yet again been active in the transfer market, bringing in a gaggle of French talent in an attempt to strengthen their squad and avoid the drop. After parting with Demba Ba, the club has splashed upwards of 17 million pounds on five new signings, and finished January with a vital victory over fellow strugglers Aston Villa.
We return to Stamford Bridge on the 9th for a match against Wigan Athletic. Latics boss Roberto Martinez has had a frugal January transfer window, bringing in young Chilean striker Angelo Henriquez on loan from Manchester United and MLS midfielder Roger Espinoza on a free transfer.
Like Newcastle, Wigan's last league victory came against bottom three side Aston Villa, but the team only picked up two points in January after draws away to Fulham and Stoke City.
Our Europa League début is next on the agenda, with an away trip to take on Sparta Prague in the round of 32. The Czech side are managed by former Sydney FC boss Vítězslav Lavička, who spent five years at the club over the course of three stints during his playing career.
Sparta currently sit third in their league, trailing leaders Viktoria Plzen by just three points.
Three days on from our European tie, we return home for the FA Cup fourth round replay against Brentford. The Bees earned many admirers after holding us to a 2-2 draw at Griffin park, and with nothing to loose they will no doubt be relishing the trip to Stamford Bridge.
We're straight back into Europa League action on the 21st with the second leg against Sparta Prague, and depending on the result in the opening fixture, this match could either be a dead rubber or a tense affair.
We wrap up February's league fixtures with a tough away trip to take on defending Premier League champions Manchester City on the 24th. Our last match against Roberto Mancini's side was Rafael Benitez's first in charge after Roberto Di Matteo's sacking, and it ended in a 0-0 stalemate.
Mancini has refrained from hitting the winter market thus far, but he has parted company with controversial Italian striker Mario Balotelli. A 0-0 draw away to QPR was the only blemish on an otherwise perfect January record in the league, and whilst the club currently find themselves trailing Manchester United by seven points they are still very much involved in a title race.
The fifth round of the FA Cup is scheduled to round off the month, and if we progress past Brentford an away trip to take on Middlesbrough is on the cards for the 27th.
The Spanish magician is the fulcrum of our team going forward. With Eden Hazard and Oscar still adjusting to life in the Barclays Premier League, creative responsibility continues to fall on the diminutive midfielder's shoulders and we struggle to notch up victories without him.
Rafael Benitez has been reluctant to throw John Terry in at the deep end as he returns from his injury spell, but the sooner he is bedded back into the starting line-up full time, the better. With David Luiz regularly being deployed in midfield Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic have shouldered the bulk of the centre half duties lately, and have frequently been found wanting.
Without wanting to single out stand in keeper Ross Turnbull for our recent woes, the gulf in class between himself and our regular Czech shot stopper has been abundantly clear for all to see. It is imperative that Cech's recovery from his calf injury is expedited, and if he is not immediately available then Henrique Hilario should be given a run of starts in the meantime.
On paper February looks like a very tame month in comparison to January's fixture list, and under normal circumstances six points in the league coupled with progression in the FA Cup and Europe would be more or less assured.
Given our current run of form though, it would take a brave man to bank on any Chelsea match this month. With the board rumoured to have spelled out to Rafa Benitez in very plain terms the primacy of the push for a top four spot, expect to see a lot of rotation for the Europa League double header against Sparta Prague.
The away trip to Manchester City at the end of the month will be a real test of our mettle, but if Rafa presides over any more slip ups in the league then he could very well find himself out of a job before our trip to the Eastlands.
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