Chelsea seek to silence sceptics with Cup progress
LONDON: The scale of the hangover from Chelsea's traumatic defeat by Manchester City will become apparent when the FA Cup holders entertain Stoke in the last eight of this season's competition this weekend.
Carlo Ancelotti's squad remain on track for a league, cup and Champions League treble but the 4-2 home defeat by City has been interpreted by some as heralding the imminent collapse of their challenge on all three fronts.
Ill-discipline, ragged defending and poor goalkeeping all contributed to Chelsea's first home defeat since November 2008 and Ancelotti will expect an immediate response from his players when Stoke visit Stamford Bridge on Sunday in the last of the quarter-final ties.
Chelsea's Daniel Sturridge celebrates after scoring against Watford during their FA Cup match at Stamford Bridge, on January 3. FA Cup holders Chelsea entertain Stoke in the last eight of this season's competition this weekend.
Reading, the only survivors from outside the Premier League, entertain Aston Villa earlier on Sunday while Saturday sees Fulham take on Tottenham in a London derby and financially-stricken Portsmouth face Birmingham.
Chelsea will once again be relying on the services of back-up goalkeeper Hilario, who was at fault for two of City's goals last weekend, with Petr Cech still at least two weeks away from a return after tearing a calf muscle.
Juliano Beletti and Michael Ballack will also be missing after being sent off against Stoke although Ancelotti will have been cheered by captain John Terry's composed performance for England in midweek.
The centreback's form has dipped noticeably in recent matches for his club as he grapples with the fallout from an extra marital affair with former team-mate Wayne Bridge's ex-partner, but his morale should have improved after he was praised for the way he handled his first match for his country since being stripped of the national team's captaincy.
Stoke will be without influential central defender Ryan Shawcross who is suspended as a result of the tackle which left Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey with a broken leg last weekend.
Reading remain in danger of being sucked into the relegation fight in English football's second tier, the Championship, but they have repeatedly belied their poor league form with confident displays in the Cup.
Manager Brian McDermott believes they are capable of upsetting a Villa side bent on securing a return to Wembley in the wake of their League Cup final defeat by Manchester United.
"Villa are strong, quick and they've got pace all over the team," McDermott said. "They've got a chance of making the Champions League and it shows what a fantastic job Martin O'Neill's done there.
"But we just have to concentrate on our strengths and play to them. We'll have a gameplan and we'll try to make the next round and make that little bit more history."
Portsmouth, the 2008 winners, will seek to lift some of the gloom shrouding the club at the expense of Birmingham's cup ambitions.
Pompey were effectively condemned to relegation when they went into administration last month and first-team coach Paul Groves acknowledged it would be an extraordinary achievement if his side were to get into a Wembley semi-final.
"Birmingham are well-organised and difficult to play against, so it won't be an easy task," he said. "But it is a home tie and it would be a fantastic achievement to get to Wembley with everything that's happened this season. It'd be something to give back to the fans."
Israeli centreback Tal Ben Haim and South Africa captain Aaron Mokoena are both expected to return from injury for the lunchtime clash.