Chelsea face huge fixtures pile-up
Chelsea are facing a fixture pile-up that could mean they have to play three games in five days in three competitions should they reach the quarter-finals of the Europa League.
Following Sunday's 2-2 FA Cup draw at Old Trafford, Chelsea have to find room for a replay in an already crowded fixture list, and that could further strain Rafael Benitez's squad.
With an international break looming, Chelsea are still involved in Europe and the FA Cup semi-finals scheduled for the weekend of April 13-14, there are limited options for the FA as they try to find a slot for the return game.
Chelsea face Steaua Bucharest on Thursday at Stamford Bridge needing to overturn a one-goal deficit from the first leg in Romania last week, and the FA will wait until after the game before deciding when to schedule the fixture.
Should Chelsea be eliminated, the replay will be held in the first week of next month, after the round of Premier League fixtures that follow the international break.
That is also the most likely timing should Chelsea go through, though with the Europa League resuming that week there may be no option but to squeeze the FA Cup replay in on a Monday or Tuesday ahead of the Thursday night European game.
The draw for the Europa League quarter-finals is on Friday, and Chelsea might try to have the replay scheduled in the same week as the home leg.
That ambition could be complicated by the Premier League schedule.
Chelsea are due to play Southampton in the 4.0 match on Sunday, March 31, while United face Manchester City on Monday, April 8, further squeezing the schedule.
The likeliest option is to play the replay on Tuesday, April 2, two days after the Southampton game and 48 hours before the Europa League tie.
With a home league game against Sunderland the following weekend, Chelsea may have to play four games in eight days.
That may not be the only time that Chelsea are required to play three times in less than a week. They already have a Premier League game against Fulham to fit in, postponed because of the FA Cup sixth round, and should Chelsea beat United in the replay, their game against Tottenham will also be put back.
The draw at United was Chelsea's 51st game of the season and the 30th in 105 days since Benitez took over, and he has repeatedly cited the danger of fatigue as a reason for his constant rotation of the starting XI. With a maximum of another 19 games in 66 days should Chelsea reach both the Europa League and FA Cup finals, he will have to continue changing personnel.
There will be few complaints if those changes are as effective as the double substitution that turned the game at Old Trafford. Two goals down at half-time Benitez replaced Frank Lampard and Victor Moses with Eden Hazard and Jon Obi Mikel with immediate effect despite the taunts of Chelsea fans that the manager did not know what he was doing.
Hazard scored Chelsea's first goal and Mikel brought stability to the midfield. After the game the Nigerian praised Benitez for the way he changed the team.
"It did look grim. But we went back to the dressing-room after the first half and had a chat. We came out in the second half and showed more character, a bit more belief that we could come back into this game," Mikel said.
"The manager just said we had to go out there and put things right. There was no anger. We just had a normal chat. It was about finding the determination, and we found it from nowhere.
"In my case what he wanted me to do was keep my shape and ensure we kept the shape of the team. That's exactly what we did. We got the first goal, then the second and we started to believe we could win it." (© Daily Telegraph, London)