March: A Preview

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February ended as it began for Chelsea in the Barclays Premier League, the month book-ended by away defeats against Newcastle United and Manchester City.

The picture on the cup front was slightly rosier, with a laboured victory over Sparta Prague in Europe and a couple of wins against lower league opposition in the FA Cup, but overall it was not a happy period for manager Rafael Benitez.

After being overtaken by Tottenham Hotspur in the league and with Arsenal closing in, March is quickly shaping up to be a pivotal month in Chelsea’s top four push.

At the beginning of February we sat four points ahead of Tottenham, and eight clear of Arsenal. Spurs now hold a two point lead over us heading into their North London derby clash at the weekend, whilst Arsenal trail us by just two points.

Our superior goal difference means that should Tottenham loose or draw we’ll have a chance to climb above them, but with Gareth Bale currently enjoying a terrific run of form, most pundits are tipping them to get the better of Arsene Wenger’s team.

Our first league fixture of the month features the return of a former Chelsea stalwart to Stamford Bridge.

Steve Clarke is enjoying a fantastic début season at the helm of West Bromwich Albion, the club occupying a top four spot for several weeks early on, but a recent downturn in form has seen them slip away from the big boys.

The Baggies currently sit in seventh place, sandwiched between Merseyside outfits Everton and Liverpool, and finally ended a run of six matches without a win by beating Sunderland 2-1 last weekend.

With Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku unavailable for the match, expect to see Republic of Ireland international Shane Long leading the line on Saturday.

We’re back in the thick of things on Thursday night, with a trip to Romania to take on Steaua Bucharest in the Europa League.

Steaua upset Dutch giants Ajax in a penalty shoot-out to advance into the Round of 16, and will fancy themselves to get something out of the match at the National Arena. The perennial title contenders are currently ten points clear at the top of Liga 1, and haven’t lost at home in a domestic fixture all season.

Old Trafford beckons for an FA Cup quarter final clash next, our match against Manchester United set to enjoy top billing as the most high profile tie of the round. United are in action in Europe next week in their Champions League decider against Real Madrid; should they go through, Alex Ferguson’s side will no doubt be fired up for a push towards a potential treble.

Our last cup battle with the Red Devils was an exciting one, as Roberto Di Matteo led us to a 5-4 victory in the Capital One Cup, and with our acrimonious league encounter fresh in the memory banks the stage is set for more fireworks.

We return to Stamford Bridge for our second leg against Steaua Bucharest on the 14th of the month. If the Romanians take a leaf out of Sparta Prague’s book and put in a solid defensive display, we could be in for a tricky test.

A London derby against West Ham United is next on the cards, with Sam Allardyce’s side set to visit on the 17th.

The Hammers currently sit six points clear of the relegation zone, and after their 3-1 victory over us at the Boleyn Ground back in December, have only managed to notch up a further two Premier League wins.

After a brief pause for the international break, we round off the month with an away trip to face Southampton on the 31st.

The Saints held us to a 2-2 draw at home back in January, before ruthlessly sacking manager Nigel Adkins. New boss Mauricio Pochettino has overseen a solitary league victory thus far, and the club are just three points clear of the drop zone.

Key players

Eden Hazard: The Belgian’s Europa League heroics against Sparta Prague earned him plaudits, his late winner killing the prospect of extra time as the Czech side were finally undone by a bit of brilliance. Hazard has had a positive début season at the club, and if he can continue to assert himself and take control of matches, it will help the likes of Juan Mata and Oscar to thrive as well.

Frank Lampard: Ongoing contract situation aside, it has been business as usual for Lampard lately, the midfielder continuing to prove his worth for the club on the pitch with vital goals. As the season hits the business end, his performances will be even more crucial.

Demba Ba: Ba made a solid start to life at Chelsea with goals in both the league and the FA Cup against Southampton, but the Senegalese striker has failed to find the back of the net since. Cup-tied for the Europa League, Ba will have four opportunities to shine in March and has to make the most of them.

Prediction

March really is do or die time for Chelsea, our backs are very much against the wall and if we fail to arrest our league slump quickly we could be in big trouble come the end of the season.

All three of our league opponents are beatable, and we should be aiming to take the maximum nine points on offer.

Our headline match against Manchester United in the FA Cup will draw a lot of attention, but with Champions League qualification on the line it may well take a back seat to our Premier League campaign.

About Dylan McKee

21, New Zealand, part-time hack.
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