Victor Ruiz of Valencia tackles Ramires of Chelsea during the UEFA Champions League Group E match between Valencia CF and Chelsea at the Estadio Mestalla in Valencia, Spain. Chelsea and Valencia face off again on Tuesday, December 6, 2011. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Breaking down all of the tactical dilemmas that Andre Villas-Boas and Unai Emery ahead of the key UEFA Champions League match between Chelsea and Valencia
Chelsea's loss to Bayer Leverkusen on Match Day 5, and Valencia's 7-0 smashing of Genk set up a tantalizing finale between Chelsea and Valencia, and, in what is essentially a playoff, Chelsea need to win or draw 0-0 (depending on Bayer Leverkusen's result). Valencia, though, need to score to progress to the next round of the Champions League, with a score draw or a win of their own enough to send them through.
In the return fixture on Matchday 2, Valencia were able to control possession, and play through Chelsea's high line, while taking advantage of the gap that was left by Juan Mata's drifting inside and Jose Bosingwa's willingness to get forward. Valencia have also been impressive against Barcelona, where they took a 2-0 on the back of a superb counter attacking and pressing performance. They are a flexible side, not only because of their players, but also because Unai Emery makes adjustments to his tactics almost every single game, making it hard to predict exactly how his side will line up. What can be done, however, is to look at some of the important aspects of the match.
1. How Do Valencia Stop Juan Mata and Others
In his return to the Mestella, Juan Mata was kept fairly quiet by Valencia. Mata, starting on the right, came up against two full backs, Jeremy Mathieu and Jordi Alba, was kept fairly quiet when he stayed out wide, and then was well marshaled by David Albeda when he came inside. However, by drifting inside, he allowed Ramires to get forward, often unchecked, and he was at the heart of Chelsea's best moves. After the first half, Mata and Florent Malouda switched, giving Mata more freedom to create and more influence.
Mata is Chelsea's obvious creative threat, but that does a slight disservice to Frank Lampard and Ramires, both of whom have been excellent this season. While both are thought as more of a box to box, arriving late in the box threat, Ramires, and particularly Lampard, both have more creative play in them, along with the goal scoring threat. Because of that, Unai Emery might play two holding midfielders; one of whom will look after Juan Mata when he drops into middle areas, and the other to keep track of Frank Lampard and Ramires. While detailing a fullback, likely Miguel, to stay with Mata may be one option, Emery would likely decide against it because of the space it would then allow a pushed up Ashley Cole to have.
Finally, there's Daniel Sturridge to deal with. The English inside forward had a superb game against Newcastle, getting behind Ryan Taylor. However, because Sturridge is left footed, he won't be keen on staying wide, which means that if Alba or Matheiu get tight to him, they can nullify his threat.
2. How Do Chelsea Defend
Andre Villas Boas' high line has certainly gained criticism off the backs of defeats to Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Bayer Leverkusen. The problem seemed to be the players discomfort with not only the space left in behind, but also, the lack of midfield cover. John Obi Mikel has done a poor job at protecting his centre backs this season, as evidenced by the return fixture, and also Robin van Persie's first goal, where Mikel didn't close down Aaron Ramsey. In the return fixture between these two sides, Valencia were more penetrative than Chelsea, and one reason is the lack of cover that Mikel gave. In the zone just before the penalty area, there's a distinct lack of Chelsea passes, especially compared to Valencia's passes, an area where Mikel should be patrolling.
Since then, Oriol Romeu has come into the side in place of Mikel, and has impressed, giving more cover to John Terry and David Luiz, and forming a back 3 better than Mikel had. The back 3 is crucial for Chelsea's high line, as it gives their defence more width when the full backs push forward, which is something Ashley Cole, and to a lesser extrent Branislav Ivanovic, do. That lead to Valencia using the width in the earlier fixture, especially on their left, when Juan Mata drifted inside, while Pablo Hernandez was much more central. Their other tactic was long balls over the top for Roberto Soldado, who was able to get in behind the Chelsea back line.
Against Newcastle, Chelsea were slightly deeper than they have been this season. Whether Andre Villas Boas told them to do so, or whether it was because Newcastle put Chelsea under a lot of pressure in the second half is unclear. But with Chelsea needing to win on Tuesday, their full backs will get forward, and there'll be space in the wide areas for Valencia. How high, and coordinated, Chelsea's backline, then, is crucial; if it's too high, it'll be easy for Valencia to play long balls in behind the fullbacks, then quickly isolate John Terry and/or David Luiz, and Chelsea could be ripped apart like they were by Arsenal's counter attack last month. Valencia used that approach to get in behind Dani Alves in their 2-2 draw with Barcelona, and a similar tactic would likely see them create enough chances to get the result they need. If Chelsea defend deeper, though, Valencia will find it harder. John Terry is a much better defender when he has less space to cover behind, and will reduce the threat of long balls over the top.
Either way, Chelsea should be expected to be the dominant team in possession. They're at home, and virtually need a win, and Valencia will be happy to play on the counter attack, given Chelsea's tendency to push their full backs up. One key battle will be between Valencia's holding midfielders, especially the veteran David Albeda, and Chelsea's creative two of Frank Lampard and Juan Mata. The other crucial battle will be in the wide areas; can Valencia get in behind the full backs and beyond Chelsea's back line? If they can, they should be confident about going through.
Predicted outcome: Chelsea 2-2 Valencia
Check out Chelsea FC blog We Ain't Got No History for more on the Blues. We'll have coverage of all of the UEFA Champions League matches at SB Nation Soccer. For more from around the world of football, follow @SBNationSoccer on twitter.