Stoke City-Chelsea Preview
As Chelsea look to continue their undefeated stretch in the Premier League, just who will try to help coach Guus Hiddink do that remains to be seen.
Before the Blues worry about their Champions League replay next week, they can record a fourth consecutive victory by keeping surging Stoke City from earning their first top-division points at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
"We have a tight schedule as everyone knows," Hiddink told the club's official website. "The squad is not very broad so we hope everyone is on board in the upcoming time. If everyone is, with no big injuries, then we would like to go as high as possible towards the European (tournament) spots."
Though Chelsea (10-9-9) are 10th in the table, they're 6-6-0 in top-division play since Hiddink replaced Jose Mourinho. With 39 points, the Blues are eight out of the top four and an automatic spot in next season's Champions League competition, a possibility beyond remote given their 4-3-9 start before "The Special One" departed.
Chelsea get the chance to overturn their 2-1 loss at Paris Saint-Germain on Feb. 16 when they play the second leg of that Champions League round of 16 tie Wednesday in west London.
The Blues also remain alive for a Europa League position via the FA Cup, where they visit Everton in a quarterfinal clash March 12. Chelsea are also seven points out of sixth place - a spot that may result in a Europa berth if League Cup champions Manchester City finish in the top four of the Premier League.
Active in three competitions, Hiddink knows rotating his players to keep them healthy is a challenge, and it is possible forward and January signing Alexandre Pato will make his club debut somewhere in this stretch.
Captain John Terry continues to deal with a hamstring injury. Premier League rookie Kenedy made his second league start and scored 39 seconds into Tuesday's 2-1 victory at Norwich City. Youngster Bertrand Traore also earned a start while veteran Willian came of the bench.
Hiddink might again turn to his younger options in this contest as the fixtures continue to come thick and fast.
"The manager has shown faith in the young players," Chelsea veteran Gary Cahill said.
Star Diego Costa is likely to remain in the lineup no matter the competition after scoring for the 10th time in his last 14 overall matches Tuesday.
"I'm sure for a striker if you're scoring goals you feel as though every time you take to the field you're going to score, and he's in that mindset now," Cahill added. "He feels confident."
Costa got off only two shots as Chelsea lost for the second time in 15 league matches against Stoke (12-6-10), 1-0 on Nov. 7. Three points ahead of the Blues and seventh in the table, the Potters have been outscored 18-2 in losing all seven league matches at the Bridge but remain cautiously optimistic.
"We are both in good form, both used to winning matches so it will be a good matchup," Stoke manager Mark Hughes told his side's official website.
"Two or three months ago had we been playing this fixture then it may have been easier, but they were just as good a side then as they are now - only playing with less confidence ... We will see how we go."
The Potters have totaled six goals in the last three league fixtures after going scoreless over the previous four (0-1-3). Xherdan Shaqiri scored in the 80th minute Wednesday, lashing home from 25 yards, to provide a 1-0 victory at Newcastle United on Wednesday.
Marko Arnautovic, who has a team-best 10 goals across all competitions, scored in the 53rd minute of the season's first meeting with Chelsea.