With the biggest game in four years on the horizon for Chelsea (certainly in the eyes of Roman Abramovich) and a depleted squad to draw from, Roberto Di Matteo will have to put a lot of tactical thought into how he approaches not just the Champions League final, but also the games in between.
The matches between now and May 19 can, and should, be used to test the options available for our clash at the Allianz Arena, as well as keeping the fight for fourth place alive.
As demonstrated against Barcelona, Chelsea are good at soaking up pressure and striking on the counter – something we will need to do in the final. But beware! Bayern Munich are not as good as the Catalan side but could actually pose more of a threat to Chelsea in a siege situation thanks to the directness of players like Arjen Robben – who of course we know very well.
Furthermore, Barcelona do not possess any player of the nature of Mario Gomez – somebody who in the midst of all of their tika-taka tippy-tappy would be able to stand in the middle of the box and simply prod balls into the net. Bastian Schweinsteiger too, will be a prevelant, powerful force in the middle of the park and tough to handle for Chelsea’s midfielders.
The Germans’ main threat comes from the aforementioned Robben, and his partner in crime Frank Ribery. Without the tireless Ramires and even Raul Meireles – for all his inability to actually make a tackle – to put in the running, Chelsea will be short in midfield.
What are the options? John Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard are nailed on to start, with Florent Malouda and Michael Essien competing with Salomon Kalou, Daniel Sturridge and Fernando Torres for the remaining two slots in the team (assuming Chelsea play four at the back plus Didier Drogba and Juan Mata). The inexperienced Oriol Romeu will surely not be trusted in a game of this magnitude after so long on the sidelines .
The natural Chelsea fall-back plan is 4-3-3, with Mikel, Essien and Lampard behind Mata, Kalou and Drogba. But this would not play to the strengths we displayed against Barca. It would place too much stress on the midfield trio and be too easy for Bayern to slice us open. Essien lacks mobility, chasing has never been Mikel’s game, and, after all, Lampard will be close to 34 years old come the final.
Despite Malouda’s languid performances this season thus far, if sufficiently motivated, the Frenchman can offer Chelsea something vital.
Against Arsenal he demonstrated a quicker speed of thought than Chelsea’s other midfielders and attackers – but when they include Sturridge, Kalou and Torres, perhaps that is not difficult – even if his overall contribution remained erratic.
He also has a strong relationship with Drogba, the two having combined on several occasions to find the net for Chelsea. Having only appeared sporadically throughout the year, a few full games will bring him to the peak of fitness, so it is just a question of motivation. And the Champions League final is about the biggest motivation you can get.
Malouda was on the pitch when Tom Henning Ovrebo’s incompetence robbed both us and him of the chance to play in the 2009 Champions League final. He will want to make the most of this one.
Kalou’s defensive work-rate is actually reasonably good, but both Malouda and Essien would be able to offer more in a transitional midfield role, while Sturridge’s defensive aptitude doesn’t bear thinking about (or even exist). Torres is willing, but showed his ineptitude defensively against Barcelona when he replaced Didier Drogba.
With this in mind – a midfield of Mikel, Lampard, Essien, Malouda and Mata should be deployed in the upcoming game with in-form Newcastle on Wednesday.
Facing Pardew’s side is a decent warm-up for Bayern, not least because the German side will be top heavy in the final – three of their defensive-minded players are suspended, with their replacements either struggling with injury or lacking match practise. Newcastle’s defence is also their weakest point – individually players like Danny Simpson can be targeted. They have undoubtedly performed well as a unit, backed by the outstanding Tim Krul, but can be got at. Meanwhile their attack has played with the fluidity we can expect from Bayern, with Yohan Cabaye pulling the strings a la Schweinsteiger, Papiss Cisse as lethal as Gomez, and on his day, Hatem Ben Arfa as tricky to handle as Robben.
It will be a good chance for the players to get used to the way they must operate together and how they can break. Obviously the suspended lightning-quick Ramires is ideal for breakaway attacks (as demonstrated twice against Barca to great effect) will be available for the Newcastle game. It is here Di Matteo must make a choice – go with his strongest XI and include the Brazilian or lay some groundwork for Munich and have faith in his squad players.
Malouda, while no Ramires, can operate on the break, if instructed to release the ball quickly. In the final he could end up being the box-to-box player Essien used to be. The Ghanaian does not appear to have legs to move box to box anymore for 90 minutes (let alone a possible 120) – but the Frenchman can cover a fair amount of ground, albeit not at whippet speed.
Most Chelsea fans, with good reason, have lost faith in his ability, but as demonstrated by Jose Bosingwa’s out-of-position performance against Barcelona, as part of the right set-up, anything is possible. Malouda is a confidence player. If the fans get behind him in the coming weeks and he is given specific functions to fulfil, he can shine again – even if he is sold afterwards.
Against QPR, with Branislav Ivanovic suspended –as he will be for the final – it might be worthwhile giving Bosingwa more experience at centre-back, should we need him there if David Luiz or Gary Cahill cannot recover from a hamstring problem.
If both are not fit, a worst case scenario back four of Ryan Bertrand, Ashley Cole, Mikel and Bosingwa could be deployed. Cole is intelligent enough to play inside, while Mikel would be tasked with sticking to Gomez like glue. Unlike Essien (who has experience at centre-back) the Nigerian is strong enough in the air to cope with the striker – or at least be our best bet.
That sort of backline could be tried against Blackburn on final day, if by then it becomes apparent Luiz and Cahill will not be fit. It should go without saying, hopefully it does not come to that.
Essentially, Di Matteo needs to ensure players who have not featured much this season – Essien and Malouda in particular – are at the peak of fitness for the final. Because as demonstrated by Bosingwa against Barcelona (not for the first time in his career), even oft-derided players can step up to the mark on the biggest occasions.
And this is the biggest of occasions.
Written by Rik Sharma. Follow him on Twitter @rbsfeatures