By Ken Rooney
One could understand Andre Villas-Boas’ delight in sneering at the press after his side’s 3-0 win against Valencia last week, which saw his Chelsea side top their Champions League group.
Only a victory would have guaranteed the Blues progression to the knockout stages, and speculation was rife that the young Portuguese manager was about to lose his job less than six months into his tenure.
Yet soon after the disastrous prospect of a potential exit from Europe’s elite club competition was lifted, he immediately sharpened, polished and hung a fresh new Sword of Damocles right over own head.
“If we win or draw against City on Monday then we continue to challenge for the Premier League,” he said.
“But, if we lose … then it becomes extremely difficult.
“If they get the win they want, they will almost come out of the game with the assurance that there is one less team in the running for the title.”
The do-or-die nature of the Valencia clash certainly brought the best out of his players, so perhaps the Chelsea boss feels that reproducing that kind of pressure before a big match could pay dividends.
Or maybe he is indulging in some traditional mind games - testing the mental fortitude of a Manchester City side rich in talent but lacking in league-winning pedigree.
By dangling the prize of one less opponent to worry about for the coveted Premier League trophy under their noses, Villas-Boas may feel that his comments could give his more decorated charges the mental edge.
Both tactics could bear fruit, but effectively conceding the title before Christmas is a big gamble in his position, and he will have nobody to blame but himself when his detractors get their laptops out again.
Villas-Boas has admitted his side must "find a way" to beat their Manchester rivals who, ironically, have so far found domestic success playing the brand of football the Chelsea boss has struggled to impose on his powerful yet aging side.
“Our model is Barcelona," opined City winger Samir Nasri recently. "As a team we defend very high up the pitch and I believe that's why we are scoring so many goals.
“When you win the ball in the other team's half it will always be easier to score because you are closer to goal. You have less distance to run and you are fresher running just 30 metres.”
Chelsea largely abandoned this style against Valencia, and would be well advised to do so again this evening, given the pace at Manchester City’s disposal, most notably in the form of Nasri himself and the irrepressible David Silva.
The in-form Micah Richards is set to miss out for City with a calf injury, however. Pablo Zabaleta is fit again, and will most likely replace the Montenegrin Stefan Savic for the encounter.
Aleksandar Kolarov remains out with a groin injury, leaving the left-back berth open for Gael Clichy.
Up front, the mercurial Mario Balotelli could get the nod to partner the free-scoring Sergio Aguero up front, the Italian having scored seven times in his last nine Premier League appearances.
City have goal threats all over the park however, and given the league-goal tallies of players like Silva (eight), Nasri (six) and James Milner (five) already this season, Chelsea’s defense will certainly have their work cut out for them.
They will be without the services of Brazilian David Luiz, who serves a one-man suspension. His fellow countryman Alex would usually seem the obvious replacement, but he has been isolated from the first team after his recent transfer request.
Luiz has come in for substantial criticism of late, and many feel that his absence may be a positive for Chelsea. With the decidedly less adventurous Branislav Ivanovic slotting in alongside John Terry, Villas-Boas may feel comfortable replacing defensive midfielder Oriol Romeu with a rested Frank Lampard.
The veteran England star has been the focus of some negative press himself this season, but he will be well used to pressure-cooker matches such as this one, and boasts an enviable scoring record against the Mancunians, having scored five goals in the last nine games against them.
Up front, Didier Drogba will be hoping to continue his long-overdue resurgence, flanked by Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge who, with seven Premier League goals to his name already this season, will be looking to punish his former paymasters.
Whatever the outcome, one thing this game looks almost certain to deliver is goals. With 48 already to their name, Man City have achieved the enviable record of being the highest-scoring top-division team in league history at this stage since Sunderland in the heady days of 1892.
Chelsea’s defensive record, which shows 11 goals conceded in seven league games at Stamford Bridge this season, compares with some of the worst in the table and is unlikely to keep the likes of Aguero, Silva and Nasri at bay for 90 minutes.
Fortunes have been better for the Blues at the other end of the pitch however, having scored in every one of their last 14 games at the Bridge, so they will be expecting some return against a City backline that has kept only four clean sheets in the league this season.
Unfortunately for Chelsea, their record in vital league encounters this season has been less than convincing, particularly home defeats to Arsenal and Liverpool.
If Villas-Boas’ recent self-preservation instincts continue as he puts the Barcelonafication of Roman Abramovich’s playthings on hold, Chelsea will have a chance. But given City’s firepower and rampant league form, they have to be favourites to edge it and kick the Portuguese boss' obituary bandwagon firmly back into gear.
Chelsea 1 Manchester City 2.