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Fan Focus: Banter From The Bridge With Graham MacAree

Sports Blog Nation's Soccer and Chelsea blogs Graham MacAree joined us again to look ahead to Sunday's clash at Stamford Bridge and to chat all things Chelsea, Rafa, Di Canio and more

Paul Thomas

The last time we spoke back in December you were far from complimentary with your comments towards Rafa Benitez, has anything changed in the months since then?

Graham MacAree: Well, we've started losing matches to teams like Newcastle, Queens Park Rangers and Southampton so I'm not really feeling in a complimentary mood towards Benitez at the moment. I'm more worried about finishing in the top four than I probably should be, and that's because we're dropping points in stupid fashion, cup progress or not. His tenure, simply speaking, hasn't gone well.

Benitez was criticised for his team selection for the defeat at Southampton, however following the Bank Holiday Monday win over Manchester United was the Spaniard right to prioritise the Cup?

GM: For the long-term good of the club, the league has to take priority thanks to that pesky Champions League cash jackpot. Missing out on that money this summer would be a disaster whether or not Rafa wins us the double (and really he should have won the Capital One Cup as well; capitulating to Swansea in the way we did was ridiculous). So no, I don't think Benitez was right to prioritise the FA Cup over three points, but if he can continue to balance League and Cup play for the rest of the season and Chelsea finish above Spurs and Arsenal, fair play.

Speaking of the cup, Petr Cech's save from Hernandez's header has to be right up there this season as one of the best we have seen this term.

GM: Petr Cech is a very, very good goalkeeper. I know a lot of praise is being thrown Thibaut Courtois' way (and for good reason) but he has a way to go before he can seriously talk about unseating Cech at Stamford Bridge.

Despite the defeat last time out in the league as mentioned, Chelsea must certainly be assured of a top four finish this season, how high up the table do you believe this side can finish?

GM: I'm not so confident about that, but it's in my nature to be pessimistic. Realistically, second is an option if we really push, but I don't think fifth is out of the question either. I say fourth at the moment, which obviously isn't idea for a club that was leading the league in late October.

With a Europa League clash on Thursday evening ahead of Sunday afternoon's Premier League game which, if any, fixture will Benitez prioritise?

GM: My guess is that the upcoming (at time of writing) match against Rubin Kazan will take priority. Sunderland at home won't be seen as a particularly difficult tie, and if Chelsea can kill off the Russians prior to the trip over there next week, they can rest up for the FA Cup semifinal against Manchester City.

Without wanting to draw you into the political minefield we find ourselves lost in on Wearside, what do you make of the recent Managerial comings and goings at Sunderland?

GM: I don't think that highly of Martin O'Neill as a modern manager and obviously things weren't working out at Sunderland. I don't think I saw any of Swindon under Paolo di Canio, so I don't have a strong opinion about the way he plays or his managerial merits - nobody seems to want to talk about those thanks to the political talk that's been flying around.

Are there any weaknesses in the current Chelsea setup that Sunderland could look to exploit?

GM: Midfield. Our midfield is permeable and Stephane Sessegnon in particular should be able to find a pocket of space and control the game when Sunderland win the ball back. Depending on Benitez's lineup, winning the ball back may prove somewhat difficult, but still, it's the best way to get at us. Ashley Cole's injury means that left back is also a problem spot.

Any Sunderland player that causes you particular concern?

GM: There are players in your squad I like but none of them are on a good enough run of form that I can say I'm particularly afraid of them. My worry is that di Canio's arrival will inject the club with belief it seems to have lacked rather than any individual player.

Viceversa, what areas of the Sunderland side do you think Chelsea could exploit?

GM: I don't mean to be harsh but recently Sunderland have looked pretty weak everywhere. I don't know if that changes at Stamford Bridge but as it stands I'm not worried about attacking a specific area as a game plan - I'd tell the attacking players to control the ball, move it quickly and break down what's in front of you, because eventually you'll get the space to do some damage.

Finally a prediction?

GM: This will depend on how seriously Benitez takes it. I think it'll be a marginal Chelsea win if he uses up Juan Mata and Eden Hazard in the Europa League and far more comfortable if those two play this weekend. The first scenario is probably more likely, so let's go with 1-0.

Many thanks again to Graham for joining us for Fan Focus this week. Be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his work on SBN here.

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