Manchester City-Chelsea Preview
The last time both Manchester City and Chelsea finished out of the Premier League's top three, Peter Schmeichel was enjoying a Premier League victory lap across town with his former club's derby rivals and John Terry was a month away from his senior debut with England.
Schmeichel, who spent 2002-03 with City, now has a son nearing an unlikely Premier League title, and Terry is entering what's likely the final three home matches of his storied Chelsea career injured.
Thirteen years on, the clubs have six Premier League titles between them while arguably overtaking Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool as England's most relevant sides. But rather than a match with title implications, the current holders and runners-up meet Saturday at Stamford Bridge with one grasping onto a top-four spot and the other narrowly in the table's top half.
It'll take a lot more for it to signal another such shift in English football, but these are two clubs already well aware of the occasional emergence of new powers pushing aside old regimes. They're just better known as the demagogues.
Terry, who debuted with England in June 2003, is said to be targeting a May 2 return from Achilles and hamstring injuries. Chelsea finished fourth a month before that debut and second in 2003-04 before Jose Mourinho took over for 2004-05 and guided the Blues to their first top-flight title in 50 years.
Mourinho is now long gone from his second stint in west London, and it was his 2014 castoff Kevin De Bruyne who made this week's headlines in English football. The Belgium international, who played sparingly for Mourinho in 2013-14 before moving to Wolfsburg and eventually City on a club-record deal prior to last season, scored in the 76th minute of Tuesday's 1-0 Champions League win over fellow nouveau spenders Paris Saint-Germain for his fourth goal in his last five matches in all competitions.
It sent City (17-6-9) through to their first semifinal on a 3-2 aggregate - the most significant benchmark for the club since ending their own title drought back in 2011-12, which was David Silva's second year with the club.
"Manager (Manuel Pellegrini) is very happy, but now we have to think about Saturday's game against Chelsea. We have two league games in a very short space of time and we have to perform well," the Spanish midfielder told the club's official website. "It's not easy to get to the semifinal but we are doing the right things. We won the title for the first time in 44 years and then wanted to go further in the Champions League and that's a reality now."
It comes with growing confidence in a back line often deemed inadequate during a season in which Vincent Kompany's health has been tenuous. Centre backs Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala combined with Joe Hart to keep a clean sheet against Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the French champions, drawing their manager's praise.
"I was very happy for both of them," Pellegrini said. "I don't think they had bad seasons. Maybe they had some individual mistakes in some games. ... They have faced a lot of criticism."
But the cohesion comes just as Kompany could return from his latest calf injury as City try for a third straight league win. They've given up two goals in their last five league matches (3-1-1), but it follows a three-game losing streak that essentially ended their title hopes.
Chelsea's have been gone for far longer, and any hopes of miraculously climbing back into the top four are gone after gathering five points from their last four matches. Last Saturday's 1-0 loss at Swansea City ended their 15-match unbeaten stretch in the league dating to a 2-1 loss at first-place Leicester City that ended Mourinho's second stint with the club.
Against the Swans, they played without the suspended Diego Costa and have introduced plenty of youth in reaction to a rash of absences. Midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Terry protégé Matt Miazga, both 20, have started successive matches after playing 90 minutes in a 4-0 win over Aston Villa on April 2.
Recovering from a loss presents a new challenge, and it remains to be seen how much youth will be in Guus Hiddink's first XI against a more demanding opponent.
"I hope (the young players) don't get used to (losing)," the interim manager told the club's official website. "They must get used to winning and try to be in a winning situation always. In the long run of a competition you have a defeat, but there must also be a reaction. You can almost see, in big games and after big games, how they react."
There's also the matter of club regulars showcasing for their appointed 2016-17 manager in a match between two clubs that figure to look very different next season with Antonio Conte taking over in London and Pep Guardiola rumoured to have extensive plans to overhaul Manchester in his impending move from Bayern Munich.
"We have six games left this season," said Chelsea midfielder Oscar, who may be one of the players departing over the summer. "We played well against Swansea but we didn't win and now we have to focus on the next match because it's very important for us."
While City are fourth in the table on 57 points, the loss to the Swans kept the Blues in 10th on 44. The reverse fixture was a 3-0 City win at the Etihad Stadium on Aug. 16, though they haven't won at the Bridge since 2009-10.
Manchester City ending that dry spell could do more than move Chelsea closer to the bottom half. Combined with at least one point from Arsenal at Crystal Palace, it'd push them 16 points back of the top four with five matches to play, officially eliminating Chelsea from next year's Champions League for the first time since 2002-03.
Maybe they'll consider keeping Terry around to share a thing or two on executing the necessary climb.