As the business end of the EPL season kicks in this weekend with five teams still in the title hunt, there is only one thing to do: Follow the money, as fourth-place Chelsea hosts third-place Manchester City at Stamford Bridge. At this point in the proceedings, a draw doesn't help either of the billionaire-backed teams' championship aspirations much, and that makes Sunday's matchup a must-see contest.
In order to put pressure on Manchester United and Arsenal, the two sides above them, both teams need three points. And for Chelsea, wins against City have been very hard to come by of late. The Berties head to the Bridge on a three-game EPL winning streak against the Blues, including a 1-0 win at Eastlands last September.
But I think the Blues will slay their bogeyteam this time around. Carlo Ancelotti's team has been defined by streaks all season: hot, can't-stop-scoring streaks at the beginning to inconsistent "what happened to Chelsea?" streaks as autumn turned to winter. The latest streak sees Chelsea finding ways to get a result since owner Roman Abramovich opened his checkbook during the January transfer window.
It's amazing what an infusion of cash can do to a team. Nobody knows that better than Chelsea. Its media-shy paymaster went on a shopping spree in the New Year, and with the lavish purchases of Fernando Torres and David Luiz, the other players got his message. He's still engaged, still ambitious and not happy to settle for second place. With the notable exception of the home loss to Liverpool in February, Chelsea is playing like a team that's hungry again.
For all the sturm und drang about the huge disparity in disposable income between Sunday's combatants and the rest of the EPL, the cash has financed massive success in Chelsea's case and a massive revival (along with huge expectations) for City. It's hard to argue that the mega-millions on both sides, for the most part, haven't been money well spent. But right now, Chelsea has the title-winning experience, a recent morale-boosting win over Manchester United and a healthy squad. Roberto Mancini's team doesn't have any of that.
But Mancini does have Carlos Tevez. Has any team relied more on one player than City has on El Apache this season? He gets my vote as EPL Player of the Year. And as John Terry and company well know, the gifted Argentine makes a habit of scoring against Chelsea. He's bagged six goals in his past five Premiership games against the Blues, and he'll want to add to that tally this week.
Tevez will be the first name on Mancini's team sheet, but who lines up with him is anybody's guess. In this age of excessive fixture lists, big squads and player rotation, Mancini has taken a lot of criticism for letting the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor, Wayne Bridge and Roque Santa Cruz leave Eastlands during the transfer window. That's unfair. Mancini is a proven manager who knows the pulse of his team and made those moves knowing that injuries or suspensions can haunt any team at the wrong moment. Be it attitude issues, a bad fit with his tactics or a reluctance to hold onto to injury-plagued players, Mancini undoubtedly let them go elsewhere because he felt it was in the best interests of his team.
What isn't in the best interests of Mancini (or his team) is the ongoing tabloid speculation that Jose Mourinho will soon replace him on the blue side of Manchester. That's the nature of the big-game build-up beast in Blighty these days, but Mancini will have to make sure that his stylish City scarf doesn't seem put out of joint by the Special One story.
Perhaps even more of a challenge for Mancini will be getting his players to focus on the EPL prize after the disappointment of Thursday's Europa League exit to Dynamo Kiev and the upcoming FA Cup Manchester derby looming on the horizon. All the talk for City is about securing a Champions League spot; at Chelsea it's still about winning the league.
Chelsea needs to make up some ground, but it has a game in hand on Manchester United, which it plays in May. But first Ancelotti's men need to get the three points against the Red Devils' cross-city rival.
On Wednesday, Ancelotti didn't start Torres, Florent Malouda or Michael Essien for the FC Copenhagen Champions League game. He said he was resting them for City. The 0-0 tie wasn't a vintage Chelsea performance, but Ancelotti got the result he wanted. He's got his team back in the get-the-results groove at just the right time.
Expect more of the same Sunday.