As Tottenham Hotspur head to Stamford Bridge for Wednesday’s pivotal derby date with Chelsea, their hopes of victory surely rest squarely upon the shoulders of star man Gareth Bale once again.
The Welshman has fired 30 goals for club and country in a remarkable campaign which has seen him enjoy a clear sweep of all three individual awards handed out by the Professional Footballers’ Association and the Football Writers’ Association.
Bale was at it again last weekend as he rescued Spurs with a stunning late strike against Southampton at White Hart Lane, just when the game appeared to be petering out into a goalless draw.
The 23-year-old’s latest masterpiece papered over a listless performance from Andre Villas-Boas’ men, who will need to improve dramatically if they are to give their bid for Champions League qualification a major shot in the arm in west London.
And yet with Bale in their line-up, Spurs will be quietly confident about their chances of claiming a priceless victory which would blow the race for the top four wide open again.
Bale, who is as long as 9/5 to score at the Bridge, possesses a combination of power, pace and skill which is almost impossible to combat and he has almost single-handedly overwhelmed opponents at times this term.
Chelsea will know that they must find a way to nullify Bale as they seek the three points that would all but ensure they are dining at Europe’s top table once more next season.
So now’s the time to listen up, Mr Benitez, because I reckon I’ve got a potential solution (and naturally I’m sure you will read this before finalising your strategy for the game).
I’m sure Rafa won’t mind me saying that my renowned tactical brain, honed during a trophy-laden 21 years of Football Manager glory, is telling me that while it is not an approach he has used regularly in the past, the Blues boss should look to reduce Bale’s influence on the game by man-marking him.
Easier said than done, you might say, and with some justification too.
But on the evidence of the past five months at the very least, it would appear that if you stop Bale, you stop Tottenham.
Suggestions that Spurs are a one-man team have been scoffed at in some quarters – but the argument is not entirely without merit.
As a man who is famously partial to the odd fact, Benitez will presumably know that Tottenham have not tasted victory in a Premier League game in which Bale has failed to score since January 1st.
He may even be aware that the Welshman’s contribution has won 26 points for Spurs this term – more than any other player in the division.
But Phil Jones showed in Manchester United’s 1-1 draw at the Lane in January that an intelligent man-marking job on Bale can limit his effectiveness and therefore dramatically blunt Spurs as an attacking force.
So to whom should Chelsea turn for this admittedlly uneviable task?
Benitez has a couple of solid options in his expensively-assembled squad, but for me, one man stands out above all others: Ramires.
The Brazilian has become a key component of Chelsea’s midfield and his incredible engine surely makes him a prime candidate for the job, regardless of whether Bale plays through the middle or on the left.
Of course, he would need to curb his natural attacking instincts and show plenty of discipline, which, it has to be said in the interests of balance, are characteristics not normally associated with his game.
But paradoxical as it may sound, it is actually those attacking instincts that make me believe he could be used as a superb defensive shield against Spurs, assuming he is backed up efficiently by his team-mates.
Ramires has matured greatly in the past 18 months and has consistently impressed for the Blues this term with his driving runs through midfield and often beyond the strikers, both with and without the ball.
He is the very definition of perpetual motion and such intelligent movement suggests he has a well-developed appreciation of space, which is arguably a crucial weapon in the bid to combat Bale.
The Welshman loves to drop into gaps between the lines of defence and midfield, ideally picking up the ball in a central area and turning to run directly at the opponents’ back line.
But in Ramires, Chelsea have a man with enough speed and dynamism to prevent that particular scenario unfolding by getting as tight to Bale as possible at every available opportunity.
Harrying him the instant he receives the ball, nicking it off his toe with a well-timed interception, being able to live with him in a foot race: all of these are well within the Brazilian’s compass.
This approach would prove even more effective if the nearest Chelsea player to Ramires as he tracks Bale – wherever they are on the pitch – ensures that he doubles up on the Spurs man or ushers him into areas where he is less dangerous.
And if he sticks to the task doggedly, Chelsea will be delighted to see Bale drifting ever deeper or wider to get on the ball as he struggles to exert his influence on the game.
A successful implementation of this strategy would also allow the Blues to play on the front foot against their bitter rivals – something their fans will surely be demanding on Wednesday night.
The sight of Ramires constantly snapping at Bale’s ankles would surely boost the volume inside the Bridge and the former Benfica midfielder could set the tone for the whole team to play a high-tempo pressing game and cut off the supply line to Bale at source.
Indeed, winning the ball back early would be an ideal way for Chelsea to expose Villas-Boas’ favoured high defensive line, should he choose to use it as he returns to his old stamping ground.
Juan Mata, Oscar and the fit-again Eden Hazard could use their craft and eye for a pass to help spring the offside trap with swift counter-attacks, potentially allowing Demba Ba to get in behind Michael Dawson and Jan Vertonghen, both of whom lack real pace.
Benitez will probably have other ideas, but in this humble writer’s view, giving Ramires the chance to solve the Bale conundrum could provide the blueprint for a landmark Chelsea triumph.