If you were to describe the mood at Chelsea of late, blue most certainly is the colour as dropped points in the Premier League have seen their title hopes dashed, which has resulted in the Stamford Bridge air being turned a similar shade as the fans tell Rafa Benitez exactly what they think of him.
The former Liverpool and Inter Milan boss was reportedly on the verge of being sacked before Saturday’s 4-1 win over Wigan Athletic and he will be hoping that a run in the Europa League might turn his interim gig into a permanent one, although winning the Champions League was only enough to give Roberto Di Matteo an extra six months in the role.
However, it must be remembered that Benitez has a terrific pedigree in European competition, having won the UEFA Cup at Valencia in 2004, before his infamous 2005 Champions League success at Liverpool, followed by another final in 2007 and another semi-final in 2008 (and many clashes with Chelsea along the way).
Benitez has a reputation for knowing exactly how to win a two-legged tie and it was noticeable that Manchester United and Chelsea’s recent successes in Europe came as a result of copying the same tactics.
Having fallen out of the Champions League, Chelsea are now in the Europa, but with a squad of their quality they will fancy their chances of winning a second successive European trophy. They are currently 25/4 to go all the way and lift the silverware in Amsterdam come May.
In the round of 32 they face Sparta Prague, who qualified from Group I despite winning only two of their six games against Lyon, Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona and last year’s runners-up Athletic Bilbao.
The last time they met was in the Champions League group stage of the 2003/04 season, with the English side winning 1-0 in Prague and being held 0-0 in London.
Vítězslav Lavička’s side are coming to the end of a long winter break from Czech top-flight action and the Rudí (the Reds) currently sit third behind Viktoria Plzen and FK Jablonec.
Sparta have won nine of 11 at home in the league and Europe this season and can be backed at 17/4 to upset the European champions with a first-leg victory.
If Chelsea play as badly as they did at Brentford recently, then they’ll lose, while if they play as they have done in recent games against Southampton and Newcastle, then they’ll likely draw. You can find a decent price of 13/5 on a stalemate.
However, the Blues have scored 16 times in Europe this season, despite being knocked out of the Champions League, and should be able to find one or more away goals in the Generali Arena.
If Benitez’s men can turn it on and fire as they have done in thumping wins over Aston Villa, Stoke City and Wigan, then they will surely come away with a healthy lead and one foot in the next round.
Fringe players Yossi Benayoun and Marko Marin may get starts, while Demba Ba being cup tied should mean a start for Fernando Torres.
Benitez will presumably field many first-teamers as their upcoming weekend fixture sees the Blues entertain Brentford in an FA Cup fourth-round replay.
Petr Cech is also likely to line up against his former club after an injury comeback at the weekend.
The Czech shot stopper told Chelsea’s official website: “I will certainly be playing against Sparta on Thursday, unless something unexpected happens by then.”
Despite some of Benitez’s naysayers anticipating a short run in Europe’s second tier competition, I would back the 67/100 on an away win here, given the length of time since the hosts played a competitive game, and the Spaniard’s ability to negotiate tricky European ties.
Follow David on Twitter @whichdave