Chelsea may be making serene progress in both the FA Cup and Europa League at present but last season’s Champions League winners may be in danger of reaching the competition next season after a run of away defeats has left them just two points ahead of fifth-placed Arsenal in the battle for the top four.
Rafa Benitez can still count on an impressive run of results at Stamford Bridge of late, where the Blues have won their six of their last seven matches in all competitions. The Spaniard could recall Demba Ba to the starting XI after the former Newcastle forward was ineligible for their Europa League victory over Rubin Kazan in Thursday, though Benitez may be wary of the impact that will have on the confidence of Fernando Torres, who impressed in a two-goal display against the Russians.
Gary Cahill and Ashley Cole will still be missing with knee and hamstring injuries respectively, while it remains to be seen whether John Terry will start or drop back to the bench in favour of a central-defensive partnership of Branislav Ivanovic and David Luiz.
For relegation-threatened Sunderland, all the attention will be on Paolo Di Canio, who takes charge of his first game as manager of the Black Cats after replacing the sacked Martin O’Neill last weekend.
All the controversy surrounding the Italian’s arrival has perhaps masked the fact that Sunderland’s timid 1-0 defeat at home to Manchester United last week was their eighth match without a win, a run that has left them just a single point outside the drop zone and precipitated the departure of O’Neill.
Indeed, with a tough fixture list to come, it remains to be seen whether Di Canio, who has no top flight managerial experience to date, can drag the Mackems out of trouble with just seven games to play.
David Vaughan and Carlos Cuellar are both unlikely to be fit for Sunderland due to ongoing groin and ankle problems while Lee Cattermole and Steven Fletcher have already been ruled out for the rest of the season. There could however be a welcome return for Wes Brown, who has spent most of the campaign on the sidelines with a knee injury.
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