Friday 30 December 2016

Chelsea v Stoke City Match Preview (31/12/16): Lucky Thirteen for Blues at the Bridge

Any doubts about Chelsea’s credentials without Diego Costa and N’Golo Kante can be cast aside with relish. The Blues tore Bournemouth to shreds last time out, and the 3-0 scoreline flattered them more than it did us.

Antonio Conte opted to field Pedro and Willian as rotational frontmen in the absence of Costa, rather than bringing in Michy Batshuayi. That is harsh on the big Belgian, and suggests he is struggling to adapt to the pace of English football. That is the only downside to come out of a glorious festive period (so far) for Chelsea.

The victory over the Cherries takes our win streak to twelve, and we are now just two matches shy of Arsenal’s all-time record of fourteen; what a fillip it would be to draw level with the Gunners at White Hart Lane on Wednesday!

But the downside of many a potential champion over the years has been complacency, and writing off this Stoke side – despite their poor run of form – would be disastrous. They may be winless in four, but they have shown glimpses, especially in attack, that they can cause problems.

But even so, Conte will have one eye on the trip to Spurs on Wednesday evening (January 4; it is easy to lose track of the days at this time of the year!). With a couple of players at risk of suspension, he may well make changes here. Not that that should derail the Chelsea title charge too much.

Chelsea Team News

Both Costa and Kante are available again after suspension, and missing the Bournemouth game has been a blessing in disguise for the duo. The Blues cruised to victory comfortably in their absence, and yet the pair have fresh legs ahead of the Stoke-Spurs double header. It’s funny how things work out sometimes in life.

The slightly more negative news is that David Luiz and/or Nemanja Matic would miss the Tottenham game should they pick up a yellow in this match, and that may just inform Conte’s team selection. He will be loathe to break up our outstanding back three, but Luiz’s poise and positional sense will be more greatly required against Spurs than it would against the rather more pragmatic Stoke. With John Terry’s inclusion a plus to help deal with Peter Crouch and Jonathan Walters’ aerial threat, expect the fit-again club captain to make his return here.

And with Kante back from suspension, and Cesc Fabregas turning in some fine performances in midfield of late, we would expect the Spaniard to take his place ahead of Matic here. The Serbian’s dynamic presence in midfield will be desired against Spurs.

One player who will definitely miss the Stoke game is Pedro, who picked up his fifth booking of the campaign against Bournemouth.

Chelsea v Stoke Head to Head

Chelsea typically enjoy the best of the head-to-heads with Stoke; certainly in the past 30 years anyway, where their record reads W14 D4 L2.

The slight anomaly comes from the most recent fixtures, which have ended in a pair of draws and a Chelsea defeat. It was back in March at the Bridge where a late Stoke equaliser stole a share of the points in a 1-1 stalemate (the Blues’ goal that day came from Bertrand Traore), while the rot had truly set in for the Mourinho administration during our 0-1 reverse at the Britannia Stadium in November 2015.

This Chelsea side has a new dynamic under Conte, and we expect a much different result on Saturday.

How the Match Will Be Won

Mark Hughes chose an interesting gameplan for his side’s trip to Anfield on December 27; attack them, with two powerful strikers in Peter Crouch and Jonathan Walters. It worked, to an extent, in the first half with the Potteries side taking the lead, but ultimately it was a strategy doomed to failure – as the 1-4 scoreline testifies.

How he will attempt to tackle Chelsea is anybody’s guess, although attacking us at the Bridge would be tantamount to suicide. A rather more pragmatic Stoke set-up is anticipated.

The beauty of the 3-4-3 system is that even if Stoke get plenty of bodies behind the ball, the width created by Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso ensures that little pockets of space open up for Fabregas and Kante coming short to collect the ball from their defenders, and Hazard and Willian drifting into the half spaces. As we proved against West Brom a few weeks ago, this Chelsea side is capable of circumnavigating a parked bus; even if it takes the bulk of the 90 minutes to do so.

So patience will be key for the Blues once again, but breaking down a Stoke side that has conceded nine goals in their last four outings should not prove too problematic. It could well prove to be a case of lucky thirteen for Conte’s men.

Saturday 24 December 2016

Chelsea v Bournemouth Match Preview (26/12/16): Dazzling Dozen for Blues Despite Costa Absence

Saturday was almost the perfect day for Chelsea. Another win, this time at Crystal Palace, yet another clean sheet (the ninth in eleven starts) and a defeat for Arsenal which saw them fall further out of the Premier League title race.

The only blot on the copybook was that yellow card shown to Diego Costa, with the Spaniard now missing the Boxing Day encounter with Bournemouth. He will have to make do with watching Wallace & Gromit and the Muppet Christmas Carol at home while his teammates are slugging it out with the Cherries.

Of course we will miss the presence of our main frontman, who notched his thirteenth league goal of the campaign – the winner, no less – against Palace at the weekend. The fact that Costa has barely missed a minute this season intensifies the anguish.

But the Blues have won without the striker before and we will simply have to do so once again here. It certainly helps that defensively we are back on form, with the Eagles barely getting a sniff of a chance despite bludgeoning twelve in their five prior outings.

This Chelsea side is far from a one-man team, and while Costa takes most of the plaudits for putting the ball in the back of the net lest we forget this is a side with goals throughout. The likes of Eden Hazard, Willian and Pedro are no strangers to getting themselves on the scoresheet, and with Bournemouth conceding 12 goals in their last five starts we are likely to be given a helping hand by this rather charitable defence at a time of year renowned for gift giving.

Chelsea Team News

The headlines are made, of course, by Costa’s absence, and the tactics that Antonio Conte will employ to replace him. Summer signing Michy Batshuayi hasn’t had much of a look-in this term, but he did show in glimpses in substitute appearances earlier in the season that he may just have what it takes to cope with the physical side of English football.

Another option for Conte would be to implement a ‘false nine’ into this system, most likely Pedro. The Spaniard could drop into the number ten position and add another layer of link-up in the Blues’ slow build. In certain circumstances that shape would be welcomed, but against a Bournemouth side that has conceded so liberally of late playing an out-and-out frontman is surely the way to go.

Less headline-making but equally important, in its own way, is the news that N’Golo Kate is also suspended for this clash. The good news on that front is that Cesc Fabregas, who has been playing well of late when replacing Nemanja Matic, can step in. He may lack the legs of Kante but will add greater orchestration from the middle of the park, which should hopefully help to create plenty of chances.

There have been concerns about Eden Hazard’s welfare of late after the Belgian limped off against West Brom a fortnight ago, but he is back in full training now and ready to add significant punch power to this Boxing Day contest.

Chelsea v Bournemouth Head to Head

Bournemouth’s ascent to the Promised Land of the Premier League has only occurred recently, and so the head to head meetings between these two sides have been kept to a minimum.

But the two occasions they met last season were certainly interesting. Th first encounter came at Stamford Bridge in December 2015, when Glenn Murray’s late goal secured the three points for Bournemouth and hammered another substantial nail into the coffin of Jose Mourinho.

But what a difference a few months can make. Under caretaker boss Guus Hiddink, the Blues romped to a 4-1 win on the south coast in April courtesy of goals from Pedro, Willian and Eden Hazard (x2) – staggeringly the Belgians first league goals of the campaign. Antonio Conte will be expecting a similar level of performance from his charges on Monday.

How the Match Will Be Won

That encounter from April is a pretty handy point of reference for Monday’s fixture. We would expect Hazard and one, maybe two, of Willian and Pedro to start, while Chelsea’s kingpin that day was Fabregas, who assisted three of the four goals that the Blues netted. The signs are good.

Without Costa, there will be greater emphasis on keeping a clean sheet given that our firepower at the other end of the pitch is lessened, but that’s not to suggest Conte will change the successful formula that has earned the Blues a six-point cushion. With a trio of 1-0 wins on the spin, it will once again be a case of same old, same old for the Italian gaffer and his players.

Friday 16 December 2016

Crystal Palace v Chelsea Match Preview (17/12/16): Eleventh Heaven Awaits for Conte and Co

You probably know the stat already – yes, six of the last seven Premier League champions were top at Christmas, and yes Chelsea have confirmed their place at the summit regardless of what happens against Crystal Palace on Saturday. The omens are good for Antonio Conte and the Blues, but now is not the time for the players to take their foot off the gas.

Our next three fixtures are Palace away and then Bournemouth and Stoke at home, so clearly there is the potential for us to see in the New Year with a colossal lead at the top of the league.

But, as Sunderland proved on Wednesday night, there simply are no easy opponents in the Premier League anymore.

The assignment was made tougher when Eden Hazard pulled out of the match at the eleventh hour and failing to overcome a knock picked up on Saturday, so winning without our main playmaker is another box ticked in the examination of our title credentials.

Sunderland set up in the manner we’d expect; not so much the bus being parked but the whole depot. There were eleven men in red and white shirts behind the ball at all times, and so respect must go to Chelsea for showing the patience to break the Black Cats down, which they did courtesy of Cesc Fabregas’ winner. Indeed, but for some fine saves from Jordan Pickford the 1-0 margin of victory could be greater.

And so to Crystal Palace; a side that can pose plenty of problems in attack but whose defence is more generous than Santa Claus buying a round. The Eagles have conceded 24 goals in their last eight starts….and clearly that is the angle for Chelsea to exploit.

Chelsea Team News

The good news to come out of the camp is that Nemanja Matic was merely rested for the Sunderland game, and is fit and raring to go for Palace.

The suggestion is that Hazard will be fit to return too, with Conte insinuating his absence was for one game only. When asked if the Belgian’s injury was serious prior to Wednesday’s outing, he replied ‘no, I don’t think it is. For this game, though, he can’t play.’

Ordinarily during the busy festive period the temptation would be to rest players, but happily Chelsea’s schedule has been rather kind this season. With no midweek football, mostly, the players remain fresh and in good condition, and a Christmas/New Year schedule with matches on December 17, 26 and 31, plus January 4, is not all that demanding – certainly not as hectic as the calendar can occasionally fall at this time of year. Conte will surely resist the urge to make wholesale changes against a capable Crystal Palace side.

Crystal Palace v Chelsea Head to Head

Well, at least this match is unlikely to fizzle out into a draw. The last time these two sides played out a stalemate was 1995 – some twelve encounters ago, and that is well supported by this year’s vintage; two sides not backward in coming forward.

Of the last ten competitive fixtures, it is Chelsea that have enjoyed the upper hand with eight wins to Palace’s two. The Blues’ 3-0 win at Selhurst Park in January was their fifth in six visits to the ground, and neatly identifies the clear head-to-head advantage we have enjoyed over the Eagles in recent years.

But as we know, it only takes 90 minutes for history to be re-written.

How the Match Will Be Won

W2 D1 L5 GF12 GA12 – that’s Palace’s form at Selhurst Park this term, and you don’t need to be Columbo to see that Alan Pardew’s side are vulnerable on home soil.

Twelve goals conceded – eight of which have come in their last four home encounters – highlights their Achilles Heel, and it is one that the Blues will target with relish. In contrast, they are clearly capable in attack, with Wilfried Zaha in particular in blistering form. His pace and mazy running will need to be marshalled well; perhaps Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill will swap sides so that the quick Spaniard is in direct confrontation with the flying winger.

Clearly, somebody like Christian Benteke is going to thrive on aerial service, and so the task of Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso will be to provide plenty of defensive support to prevent Palace’s wingers being able to pick out a cross from the flanks. In the middle, Cahill and David Luiz will need to be as physical as the Belgian powerhouse they are marking.

At the other end, well, a Chelsea attack that has scored in each of their last ten outings will surely enjoy their afternoon’s work against a Palace defence that has conceded in all but one Premier League outing this term. The Blues may concede here, but we would expect them to score at least two in reply.

Tuesday 13 December 2016

Sunderland v Chelsea Match Preview (14/12/16): A Perfect Ten Awaits For Conte’s Blues

It perhaps wasn’t the margin of victory that most were expecting, but Chelsea’s patience against West Brom on Saturday ultimately paid the very best dividend as Diego Costa dispossessed Gareth McAuley and curled home in the 76th minute to secure a narrow 1-0 win.

The Baggies were in typically stubborn mood at the Bridge, and that was a 30-yard free kick from David Luiz which the Brazilian did brilliantly well to get so close to breaking the deadlock. Those were the only two shots on target recorded by the Blues, but you only need to score once to win a game of football and we were largely untroubled at the back. That’s seven clean sheets kept in our last nine, of course.

It was a performance that underlined our title credentials since switching to 3-4-3, and proved that all kinds of opponent – from the conservative Baggies to the more open Manchester City – can and will be disposed off by Chelsea 2.0.

A very different kind of challenge awaits us on Wednesday evening, although what kind of mood Sunderland will be in is anybody’s guess. The Black Cats were flying, relatively speaking, with three wins in four starts, but Saturday’s 0-3 shoeing at the hands of Swansea was a monumental step backwards for David Moyes and his team.

Surely the only thing stopping Chelsea from making it a perfect ten of wins is complacency here?

Chelsea Team News

The secret to Chelsea’s success of late has been in having a settled starting eleven to call upon. Apart from Willian’s absence on compassionate grounds, the only injury blow that the Blues have suffered was Nemanja Matic for the Manchester City game. Just ask Claudio Ranieri about the merits of being able to stick with Plan A week in, week out.

While John Terry and Oscar are considered squad men these days, their absence through a muscle strain and illness respectively clearly weakens the Chelsea bench. But that is a secondary concern when we note that Antonio Conte should be able to name an unchanged starting eleven for the seventh match out of eight on Wednesday.

Could he rest players? That would be something of a regressive step, and even with a busy festive period to come it is not like the Blues have been overworked given the absence of European football; which, ironically, has surely worked in our favour.

So, we go again with this familiar-looking line-up:

Sunderland v Chelsea Head to Head

Chelsea haven’t actually won at the Stadium of Light in three visits, with a 2-3 defeat there back in May backed by a 0-0 draw in April 2014 and a 1-2 loss in the League Cup in December 2013. Even so, this is a rather different Chelsea side to the one that has headed north in recent times.

Overall, the Blues have rather enjoyed the upper hand on the Black Cats, and of their last 25 meetings in all competitions Chelsea have won 19, with two draws and four defeats.

Last season the Blues presented Guus Hiddink with the perfect welcome gift in his first game in charge with a 3-1 win at the Bridge courtesy of goals from Branislav Ivanovic, Pedro and Oscar, while in the reverse fixture goals from Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic were not enough to ward off a 2-3 defeat.

How the Match Will Be Won

As already mentioned, it is hard to know which Sunderland will turn up here. They’ve turned in some decent performances of late, but the manner in which they succumbed to Swansea at the weekend was a huge surprise.

The Black Cats were completely played off the park, and this was the eighth match of fifteen in which they had conceded two or more goals.

The renaissance is, perhaps, a false dawn. Victories over inconsistent Bournemouth, a poor Leicester City and hapless Hull are nice but expected, and it is noticeable that Sunderland have continuously fallen short against the division’s form teams (at the time): Liverpool (0-2), Arsenal (1-4), Everton (0-3) and Stoke (0-2) highlights how they have struggled against teams whose star was or is in the ascendancy.

So how will this match pan out? Well, you would expect a straightforward Chelsea victory with little homage being paid to Sunderland. They will pack the midfield with strong, defence-minded players, but as we saw against West Brom at the weekend that is a problem that this Blues side can, eventually, overcome.

Going forward Sunderland offer very little. Jermain Defoe remains an outstanding finisher, but if you don’t get the ball to him in the right areas then his presence on the pitch borders on the pointless. Victor Anichebe is a big strong lad but his eventual output in front of goal is rather limited. And that, really, is about the limit of their ambitions going forward.

This should be as easy a victory as Chelsea have enjoyed in this winning streak. They will enjoy plenty of possession, and as long as they move the ball around with purpose and at pace they should have no problem unlocking a rugged but technically-lacking Sunderland back line.

Saturday 10 December 2016

Chelsea v West Brom Match Preview (11/12/16): Conte’s Troops Ready to Make it Nine

We hate to say we told you so, but even with pundits, punters and even some sections of Blues support suggesting that Manchester City would prove a worthy adversary for the Blues, we maintained our stony defiance: this Chelsea side was simply too good for a City outfit that cannot defend properly.

Okay, spoiler alert, Pep Guardiola’s side created a hatful of chances and could have won what was a feisty affair, but if you don’t take your opportunities against quality sides – as Chelsea have become – then you can expect to get punished. Particularly when the central spine of your defence is Claudio Bravo-John Stones-Nicolas Otamendi, but hey: that’s a different debate for another time.

The Blues were ruthlessly efficient on the counter-attack – not a tactic they have had to deploy too many times of late, and goals from Diego Costa (who else), Willian and Eden Hazard got the job done. Yes, City were reduced to nine men, but both Aguero and Fernandinho were sent off after the Blues had taken their 3-1 lead. Tough luck, lads.

This week, attention turns back to Stamford Bridge as we welcome West Brom to London on Sunday. The Baggies have been in decent form themselves of late, but clearly the focus will be on claiming that ninth straight victory since Antonio Conte crafted Chelsea 2.0

Chelsea Team News

The absence of Nemanja Matic hit particularly hard at the City of Manchester Stadium last week, and is proof of how the Serbian has grown this season. He offers excellent physicality in the middle of the pitch, and while his replacement Cesc Fabregas is a more than able deputy, it will be nice to welcome Matic back on Sunday.

There is a concern about Diego Costa, who hobbled off in the dying embers on Saturday. It looked like cramp at first, although it is believed the Spaniard has been on light duties this week in training. Presumably that is just a precautionary measure.

Other than that, there should be no enforced changes for Conte to make, although we wonder if he will be tempted to start with Willian in the inside right position. The Brazilian was hugely impressive when he came off the bench on Saturday, scoring the second and producing an all-action display. Conte may choose to stick with Pedro though given that he has served him so well in these past seven weeks or so.

Chelsea v West Brom Head to Head

It might be a tad surprising to learn how many times West Brom have beaten Chelsea over the years – 42 wins in 135 matches, and while that might not look all that impressive on the face of it, to think that generally the Blues have been the far better side for the past century or so suggests the Baggies hold no fear of the Blues.

Chelsea won thirteen in a row against the West Midlands outfit between 1993 and 2011, and then a small sea-change occurred: the Baggies won back-to-back matches at the Hawthorns, and their last four trips to the Bridge have yielded a pair of defeats and two draws. They certainly should not be underestimated here.

How the Match Will Be Won

The first thing that Chelsea must do in this match is not be complacent. They may have beaten the likes of Manchester City, Tottenham and Everton in recent weeks, but to dismiss this week’s guests as ‘only’ West Brom would be fatal. Tony Pulis’ side have proven in their unbeaten run of four that they are no mugs, and currently they are proving to be particularly enterprising in attack too.

Defending set pieces will be crucial too; Chris Brunt offers an excellent delivery and there are some big lads in this West Brom side, such as Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans. Not switching off at corners and free kicks will be top of Conte’s list this week in training.

Realistically, there is little in this West Brom side that should be able to hurt us in open play. Matt Phillips is in excellent form on the right wing and he will need to be watched closely, but in an attacking sense the Baggies aren’t too hurtful – apart from at set pieces, as mentioned.

This is a Tony Pulis side so clearly they are going to defend deep and in numbers when out of possession, so it could be one of those frustrating afternoons unless we strike early. Patience will be the key, as will overloading on the left flank where Allan Nyom will be stationed as West Brom’s right back. He is the typical modern number two: an excellent athlete, but not the most reliable defender. Hazard on his left shoulder and Alonso on his right could be a very fruitful combination.

Starting moves from deep – and thus sucking out the West Brom lines, and occupying the spaces either side of Darren Fletcher and Claudio Yacob (a decent midfield pairing but not the most mobile), will go a long way towards securing a Chelsea win here. Just stay alert to those whipped crosses into the box at set pieces!

Friday 2 December 2016

Manchester City v Chelsea Match Preview (03/12/16): Blues Ready to Step On Pep

They had us worried there, there’s no doubting that. When Spurs took the lead early in the game last week through Christian Eriksen, a shiver went up the spine of many a Blues fan.

At that moment in time Tottenham were, truthfully, dominating the early stages, and they continued to do so up until half time. Thank the stars then for Pedro, who curled home a beautiful shot to level up the match just as the two sets of coaches were about to disappear down the tunnel.

A goal just before the break is often a game-changer – imagine being in that Spurs dressing room! – and so it proved when the Blues bossed the second period. When Victor Moses fired home in the 52nd minute, hearts went from mouths back into chests and normal order was resumed. Tottenham STILL haven’t won at Stamford Bridge; a run which extends to 30 games dating back to 1990.

We may not have been the better side, but the three points is all that counts and right now the Blue boys are sitting pretty at the summit of the Premier League.

We suspected that this fortnight would go a long way towards determining our title hopes this term, and while Spurs have been brushed aside we know face the bigger threat of a trip to Manchester City. Pep Guardiola has got them playing some decent stuff, that’s no secret, but in our bones we fancy that there might just be an opportunity for Chelsea to come away from this game with a positive result. Time will tell.

Chelsea Team News

With seven wins in a row using essentially the same starting eleven, there really is no particular reason for Antonio Conte to change things up. He might be tempted to introduce Willian for Pedro as the Brazilian can cover more ground from a defensive perspective, but that would hardly be a progressive move and besides the little Spaniard has been in fine form in the last few weeks. If the Italian gaffer agrees with our assertion that the best way to beat City is to attack them, then Pedro will surely keep his place.

In our opinion it would be wrong to change this winning starting eleven just because we are facing a quality opponent away from home. That continuity helps to breed confidence and familiarity, and it is fair to say that this 3-4-3 system has been a roaring success. Conte would change it at his peril.

So, we anticipate an unchanged line-up once again:

Manchester City v Chelsea Head to Head

Really, you could make the same argument for both City and Chelsea here: any head-to-head meetings prior to the ‘money years’ are basically irrelevant.

Instead, we’re looking at those matches played since Roman Abramovich and City’s sheikhs came in to their respective clubs like a whirlwind; let’s say the summer of 2008.

Since then, it’s been W7 D3 L10 for Chelsea, with just one win in six meetings. City have certainly become a bit of a bogey team for us. We’ve only won once at the City of Manchester Stadium since the money years as well.

But this is a leaner, meaner Chelsea 2.0; and we’ve got a sneaky feeling that Saturday’s match might go better than might be predicted.

How the Match Will Be Won

First things first, Chelsea have to go out and win this game; rather than playing on the back foot and hoping to sneak a winner on the break. The 3-4-3 system lends itself to attacking football, while falling back and defending in numbers when the time is right. And, perhaps most pertinently, City can’t defend for toffee.

They have conceded in 11 of 13 matches this term remember, and that is unmistakably linked to the inadequacy of their defenders: if Manchester City is the richest club in the world, then a back four of Sagna, Stones, Otamendi and Kolarov suggests that somebody, somewhere, has been rather foolish with their money.

There are so many possibilities here: Costa will run riot playing on the shoulder of either Stones or Otamendi, and we expect Hazard and Pedro to be asked to play a little wider and isolate themselves against Sagna/Kolarov and prevent them running into the snapping tackles of City’s defensive midfield pivot, Fernando and Fernandinho. If Yaya Toure also starts, as he has been doing, then N’Golo Kante will run him into the ground.

Perhaps the key, though, will be in wide areas. If Hazard and Pedro do drift wide, then that will mean City’s wingers – Raheem Sterling and Nolito – will need to track back with Marco Alonso and the revelatory Victor Moses. There is only one winner in those battles, frankly.

At the other end of the pitch, clearly Sergio Aguero is an astonishingly good player. But remember the Chelsea system: three at the back. Even if Aguero sells David Luiz a continuous dummy, the steady Gary Cahill and ultra-reliable Cesar Azpilicueta are on hand to mop up. Alonso and Moses add extra bodies in wide areas, and depending on if Toure or Kevin de Bruyne starts we will still have the numbers in the middle of the park to overload.

Football, as beautiful a game as it is, very rarely goes as we expect it to. Even so, the key here is that Antonio Conte and his troops have absolutely nothing to fear from a trip to the City of Manchester Stadium. In fact, they have everything to gain.

Saturday 26 November 2016

Chelsea v Tottenham Match Preview (26/11/16): Blues Worthy Favourites for London Derby

It was never in any doubt, was it? Any concerns over Chelsea’s win streak coming to an end against a Middlesbrough side in decent form at the moment can be filed away under ‘don’t be so silly’.

Okay, let’s be honest, Aitor Karanka’s side came to the party and were ready to mix it with the boys in blue. But Chelsea dominated the match from the first whistle to the last – confirmed by the stats which show that Conte’s army had 57% possession and restricted the Boro to a solitary shot on target.

Just one goal was forthcoming from Diego Costa, who passed a late fitness test, and while Pedro saw a shot hit the bar and several other half chances shelled it was still a fantastic day out in the north for the Blues faithful. A sixth consecutive clean sheet, three points and back at the top of the Premier League table for the first time since May 2015.

All of which sets us up rather nicely for a tea time duel with our London neighbours Tottenham on Saturday. They have been ‘struggling’ of late, and we do use that term loosely, but knockout out of the Champions League and needing two goals in the last five minutes to beat beleaguered West Ham? That shows signs of a struggle.

So can the lads extend their lead at the summit of the division?

Chelsea Team News

If you submitted such an opinion in the pub you would be laughed at uproariously, but the more time that passes and the more evidence that stacks up in the affirmative, the more we can see that NOT playing in a European competition is good for the club. That might sound counter-intuitive, but think about it: Leicester City won the title last year without needing to resort to a Plan B, because their first choice starting eleven was, by and large, fit throughout the season.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that Chelsea and Liverpool currently straddle the league table then, and as we have seen in Antonio Conte’s team selection in recent weeks the need for consistency and continuity is vital.

Happily, the Italian can call on the same eleven once more with Costa and Eden Hazard back to full fitness after playing with niggles last week. It really is a dreamy situation to be in when things are going well.

Kurt Zouma played another 90 minutes for the Under 23 team as he nears match sharpness, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek is training at full tempo following his back strain. With Cesc Fabregas also ready for selection we have a full strength squad to call upon.

Consequently, there is absolutely no reason to rip up the template that has served us so well in recent weeks.

Chelsea v Tottenham Head to Head

As two stalwarts of English football it is not a surprise to see that Chelsea and Spurs have met on some 137 occasions. The Blues have the upper hand with 58 wins compared to Tottenham’s 44, with 35 draws making up the count.

In contests at Stamford Bridge….well, you probably know the famous stat. Spurs haven’t won here since February 1990, with 17 Chelsea victories and 10 draws in the meantime.

Of matches played in the last five years, Chelsea have won on five occasions, Spurs once and there have been six stalemates.

How the Match Will Be Won

Historically, Chelsea have had the upper hand on Tottenham and that trend has continued in the past few years as well, but of course that is only of minute advantage when looking at the overall picture.

Mauricio Pochettino is mixing and matching his starting eleven at the moment; desperate to arrest a decline that ahs witnessed his side winning just two of their last six matches in the Premier League and a rather tame early exit from the Champions League.

He switched to three at the back against Arsenal, a match which ended in a 1-1 draw, and we suspect he might be considering doing the same against the Blues. That would enable him to more or less replicate our 3-4-3, which could be one way to counteract the overloads in wide areas we have enjoyed in recent matches.

The risk with that, from a Tottenham standpoint, is that they simply won’t be as efficient in playing the system as Chelsea, who are growing in strength and confidence week on week.

Another big loss for Tottenham is the absence of their commanding centre half Toby Alderweireld. The Belgian is still out injured, and while Eric Dier and Kevin Wimmer are able deputies they lack his positional nous. As we saw at Middlesbrough last week, give Diego Costa an inch at the moment and he will take a mile; he’s already bagged ten goals this term.

Expect a tight and conservative encounter for the most part – both teams have plenty to lose points-wise and in terms of local pride, but with Spurs failing to score in four of their last six meetings with the Blues we’re going to predict that Chelsea will win to nil here.

Thursday 17 November 2016

Middlesbrough v Chelsea Match Preview (20/11/16): Blues Confident Ahead of Northern Jaunt

The international break….what is it good for? Does anybody truly take any enjoyment from it? And couldn’t World Cup qualifying be settled in a campaign which is a lot less long-winded and contains fewer pointless fixtures (no offence San Marino fans).

If having international players picking up injuries in meaningless friendlies and qualifiers means clubs are a victim of their own success in attracting top-level stars, then really the game’s gone wrong.

Apologies, rant over.

That came about because Chelsea were set to be without both Diego Costa and Eden Hazard for this week’s match with Middlesbrough when both picked up injuries whilst on duty with Spain and Belgium respectively. The good news is that Hazard has recovered fully and Costa has returned to training, so both should be on the bus north.

That’s a timely boost, as the international lay-off rather got in the way of the Blues’ outstanding form. Since Antonio Conte did the business and transformed his side into a 3-4-3 winning machine, all foe have been swept aside with consummate ease.

Mind you, the Boro are probably pretty peeved that their mini revival has been scuppered by a fortnight’s inactivity. Draws with Arsenal and Manchester City, plus a 2-0 win over Bournemouth, have renewed confidence in the camp and Aitor Karanka will have been cursing his luck at the break.

Chelsea Team News

We’ve already mentioned the travails of messrs Costa and Hazard, but happily that particular tale should have a happy ending with both set to take to the field at the Riverside Stadium.

Further good news comes in that Cesc Fabregas and Kurt Zouma should be fit enough for places on the substitutes bench after lengthy injury lay-offs. Neither can command a regular starting spot at the moment, but their presence when the fixture list becomes rather cramped around Christmas and the New Year period will be gratefully welcomed.

With the same personnel delivering five consecutive victories and a handful of clean sheets, there really is no need for Costa to change his set-up.

Middlesbrough v Chelsea Head to Head

Historically, Chelsea have had the upper hand over the Boro as you can probably imagine. In 91 head-to-head meetings, the Blues have prevailed in 42 meetings and suffered defeat in 24, with 25 draws.

More pertinently, Chelsea have won each of the last six against Middlesbrough; who have failed to score a solitary goal. But those matches came in 2006-2013, so we have to take them with a pinch of salt.

But some statistics are simply too interesting to ignore, and the fact that the Blues have lost just two of seventeen in the English top flight to Middlesbrough is pretty damning of a quality gap between the two sides.

How the Match Will Be Won

The beauty of the 3-4-3 system is that it offers stability in defence while enabling plenty of bodies to flood forward to support the attacking phase. This system also offers numbers in wide areas, and that could be crucial to Chelsea winning this match.

Five of the Boro’s last seven goals have come directly or indirectly from crosses into the box, and so the job of the wing backs here will be to stay close to their men and prevent them from getting crosses into the box. On the left Middlesbrough have the much maligned Stewart Downing, who actually possesses a wand of a left foot, and he will look to swing crosses onto the not-inconsiderable bonce of Alvaro Negredo. Victor Moses will need to close Downing down quickly and show inside onto his right foot if we are to prevent that from happening.

One of Middlesbrough’s most impressive stars of late has been Adama Traore, the tricky right winger who has been timed as one of the fastest players in the Premier League. The plan to stop him will be two-fold: let Alonso drop off so that Traore can’t ‘around the back’, as John Barnes once rapped, and also that Gary Cahill, as the left-sided centre half, keeps a watching brief should Traore decide to nip inside.

Gaston Ramirez will need to be watched carefully in the number 10 role as he’s a crafty so-and-so, but other than that the Boro are a fairly ordinary team to play against. Their midfield pivot, Adams Clayton and Forshaw, are industrious and metronomic in possession, but can be overpowered. Defensively they are solid; they’ve only conceded two goals in a single game once in their last half-dozen outings, and so patience will be required until we break them down.

But, and it’s a big but, we quite fancy Chelsea’s win – and clean sheet – streak to continue here with a narrow victory.

Friday 4 November 2016

Chelsea v Everton Match Preview (05/11/16): Blues Ready for Visit of Unlikely Rivals

When you scroll back through the recent history of English football, there can’t be many sides that have gotten the better of Chelsea from a head-to-head perspective. If there are, you would assume that it would be a side at the very upper echelon of the game.

Not so. Since the start of the 2009/10 season, Chelsea have beaten this week’s opponent Everton just six times in eighteen attempts, with six draws and six defeats. That means that the Blues’ success rate is a rather paltry 33% against the Toffees; a rather startling statistic.

The good news is that this particular vintage feels like a Chelsea 2.0 under Antonio Conte and his trusted 3-4-3 formation, and with four wins on the spin, eleven goals scored and none conceded since the Italian introduced the system we can be confident going into this game with the Merseysiders no matter what the history books might tell us.

Such self-assurance comes naturally when in your past three games you have defeated a trio of sides – Leicester, Manchester United and Southampton – who could all lay claim to being a top six outfit in the Premier League. The Blues are looking stable in defence, rigid in midfield and lively in attack, with the wing backs and Eden Hazard in particular taking their performance levels into the stratosphere in the past month or so.

The Saints are a fine side but were ruthlessly brushed aside by Conte’s men, and it was fantastic to see how secure we looked in defence. David Luiz is benefitting from having another centre half either side of him, and with the wing backs working hard down their respective flanks finally we are able to command the middle third of the pitch without having to commit bodies wide.

But it is in attack where the most obvious benefits to this 3-4-3 have been felt, and Eden Hazard in particular is blossoming. Shorn of his defensive duties, we have witnessed 2014/15 levels of performances from the Belgian; and that can only be a good thing. With Diego Costa banging in the goals, this Chelsea side is going to take some stopping.

Chelsea Team News

This section of the previews has started writing itself. With no European football to worry about, Antonio Conte has no requirement to rest players and so, barring injuries, can name the same starting eleven week in, week out should he wish.

We are at full strength now with Cesc Fabregas having recovered from his thigh injury. So, Conte can name pretty much any side he wants! Naturally, the Italian will want to stick with the winning formula.

Chelsea vs Everton Head to Head

We’ve mentioned a bit about Everton’s surprisingly good record against Chelsea in recent times, and that is a feature throughout history too. There has been some 163 meetings between the two teams since 1907, with Chelsea holding a narrow 61-52 lead.

As far as more contemporary matters are concerned, we’ve already noted the W6 D6 L6 record that both teams boast in the past seven years or so, but what about matches played at Stamford Bridge? Here the news is much brighter for Blues fans. Everton’s last win at the Bridge came in 1994 – some 25 meetings ago! In that time there has been 14 Chelsea victories and 11 draws, so that’s another string to the bow heading into Saturday.

How the Match Will Be Won

We’ve written at length about Chelsea’s new shape in recent weeks, and how it causes problems for the opposition with attacks being launched from all angles. But we haven’t considered just how reliable it is defensively, and up against an impressive Everton side – former blue Romelu Lukaku and all – this will come into question once again.

But four clean sheets in a row indicates that the system works, and it is about having bodies in the right places at the right time. Lukaku will be well marshalled by Luiz and Cahill, with Azpilicueta will be required to deal with Kevin Mirallas. Ross Barkley, at times anonymous this term but impressive last week, will need to be picked up by either N’Golo Kante and/or Nemanja Matic so that he can’t dictate traffic.

On the left, Marcos Alonso will have his hands full with both Yannick Bolasie and Seamus Coleman charging forward, and so he will need support from Hazard to avoid an overload situation – that could be an area of weakness for the Blues.

Going forward, it will be same again for Conte. Hazard will drift in from the left and look to slide passes through to Costa, who should have the advantage against Ashley Williams. The Welsh defender is an excellent presence but lacks pace on the turn, so cute throughballs will be the order of the day for the Spaniard to exploit.

We also like the Moses-Pedro combination down the right, with Kevin Mirallas not known for his defensive work, Bryan Oviedo replacing the injured Leighton Baines and Gareth Bale lacking the mobility to cover across from midfield. This could be Everton’s Achilles heel, and should offer Chelsea plenty of joy as they look to extend a run of four straight victories.

Friday 28 October 2016

Southampton v Chelsea Match Preview (30/10/16): Blues Confidence High Ahead of Tough Saints Trip

Well, that’ll do nicely. Last Sunday’s clash with Manchester United was always going to be overshadowed by the return of Jose Mourinho to Stamford Bridge for the first time since his sacking, but Blues fans will note with relish just how well the side played in that 4-0 victory.

The 3-4-3 system deployed by Antonio Conte is working a treat, as a third consecutive clean sheet – backed by nine goals scored – attests. The extra body in the heart of defence has added security, with Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses on the flanks delivering both from a defensive and attacking perspective.

The extra defender enables Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante to maraud forward too – the Frenchman bagged the fourth, and Eden Hazard is afforded the luxury of a free role in the attacking third without having to worry about tracking back. How long will it be before other clubs are switching to this formation?

Let’s not beat about the bush; Pedro’s opener after 30 seconds changed the whole complexion of the game before it had even properly begun. But that should not detract from a thoroughly professional display from that point onwards.

A trickier task awaits this week in the form of a trip to the south coast to take on Southampton on Sunday tea time, and with the Saints unbeaten in five they are clearly going to take some beating.

Chelsea Team News

When things are going well and you are building momentum, the dream scenario is to continue the run by naming an unchanged side week in, week out if possible. The good news for Conte is that his squad is, largely, injury free.

While Cesc Fabregas and Branislav Ivanovic recover from minor injuries, the reality is that neither would have troubled the Chelsea starting eleven right now anyway. John Terry is fit again and Willian has returned from compassionate leave following the death of his mother, but in truth why would Conte change his team following three comfortable victories?

Southampton vs Chelsea Head to Head

The first fixture between these two sides occurred in 1966, which was a good year for English football if memory serves, and there has been a further 66 Southampton vs Chelsea encounters in the meantime for a nice bit of symmetry.

The Blues have largely had the upper hand with 30 wins to 19, and in the past decade Chelsea have edged things W4 D3 L2.

For matches played on the south coast between the pair, Chelsea’s record is still handsome enough at W15 D9 L10, and they have taken to life at St Marys rather nicely – lucky really, since the Blues took on Southampton in the first competitive match at the ground in August 2001. They have lost just once at the replacement for the Dell in nine visits (six wins, two draws).

How the Match Will Be Won

When this Chelsea set-up plays against a side with two attacking wingers who aren’t keen on the defensive side of their duty, the Blues really should prosper. And that’s exactly what they will face at St Marys if Claude Puel sticks with his preferred frontline of Charlie Austin through the middle and Dusan Tadic and Nathan Redmond either side of him.

Tadic and Redmond will be required to track back with Alonso and Moses; if they don’t, that will mean either Steven Davis or Jordy Clasie having to come across to cover. That would be disastrous for the Saints as that would open up pockets of space for Hazard and Pedro just in front of their back four, and we know what that pair are capable of when in possession.

It could be a tough afternoon’s work for Diego Costa as he comes up against a pair of defenders who, in many pundits’ eyes, are the most complete centre-half partnership in the division in Jose Fonte and Virgil Van Dijk, but the Spaniard may get some joy if he drifts out to the Saints’ left hand side. Their two first-choice left backs, Ryan Bertrand and Matt Targett, are struggling with injury, and that may mean that young Sam McQueen, a winger by trade, will have to fill in again.

Can Southampton trouble Chelsea at the other end of the pitch? You wouldn’t expect much to come from the middle of the park, with Davis tasked with getting forward to support Austin; an outstanding finish; but not somebody that has the pace to get in behind. That makes the through ball a no go.

The Saints’ real strength is in wide areas, with Tadic and Redmond both enjoying fantastic campaigns to date. Moses and Alonso will be pressed into marking them, mostly, although the safety net of Cesar Azpilicueta, who is capable of defending in wide areas, will give Moses a helping hand in dealing with Tadic. Should he shuffle inside then Kante will be there to pick up the pieces.

Southampton have dropped points at St Marys to both Sunderland and Watford, scraped past Swansea and defeated a Burnley side shorn of their main attacking outlet in away fixtures; the pace of Andre Gray. So this will be their first real test on home soil, and with Chelsea buzzing from successive victories you would have to fancy the boys in blue notching their fourth straight win here.

Thursday 20 October 2016

Chelsea v Manchester United Match Preview (23/10/16): Blues Primed for Return of the Special One

Inevitably, Jose Mourinho’s first return to Stamford Bridge after his ignominious sacking will dominate the headlines – it’s only natural when Sky Sports have artificial hyperbole to build, and that should not overshadow what is likely to be a highly tactical affair; even if it is the spectator that misses out.

The Blues should be in good spirits heading into Sunday’s clash after their complete and utter dominance of Leicester last time out. Antonio Conte’s reimagined 3-4-3 formation came up trumps once again as his side ran in three goals – and could have had more, and restricted the Foxes to pot shots from long range. This new system is working out very nicely for the Italian.

How his troops will deal with the hysteria surrounding Mourinho’s return will go some way to deciding Sunday’s match, and their capability in breaking through the Special One’s parked bus will also determine where the points go.

Chelsea Team News

No injuries, no worries for Conte, who will also welcome Willian back into the fold after he missed the Leicester game on compassionate grounds. The Brazilian may just have a job on his hands to dislodge Pedro, who was outstanding as his replacement.

Otherwise, it will be business as usual for the Blues ahead of the visit of United, although we have a sneaky suspicion that Conte might be tempted to bring John Terry back into the side to deal with the physical presence that is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Who will make way? Possibly Cesar Azpilicueta, which would be harsh on the Spaniard who has been excellent as the third centre half in recent weeks, or maybe Victor Moses, with Azpilicueta switching to right wing back. That would be equally as harsh on the Nigerian, who has been outstanding since featuring in the starting eleven.

N’Golo Kante will be tasked with keeping Paul Pogba quiet, and with Mourinho likely to go down the conservative route once again the Blues defence can expect plenty of long balls directed towards Ibrahimovic.

The key player for Chelsea will be Nemanja Matic, who will be expected to distribute the ball effectively even in the crowded midfield battleground. If he can break the lines and get Hazard and Willian/Pedro into the game, that will be the best way to break down this stubborn United rearguard.

Chelsea vs Manchester United Head-to-Head

Good news for Blues fans: we haven’t lost to United since the 2012/13 campaign, on that fateful day at the Bridge when Branislav Ivanovic and Fernando Torres were sent off in a 2-3 reverse. Since then we have mostly dominated the head-to-heads; W4 D6 L0 is a decent enough record anyway.

Indeed, historically Chelsea have dominated against United on home soil, having lost just three times in 22 meetings. That bodes very nicely ahead of Sunday’s clash.

How the Match Will Be Won

With great difficulty would be the first observation. Anybody who saw Manchester United’s clash with Liverpool on Monday night – and anybody who followed Chelsea during the Mourinho years – will know of his penchant for a rather pragmatic style of play when up against a quality opponent on away soil.

So we can expect the Red Devils to flood the middle of the pitch with bodies in an attempt to stifle our creative talents, and when not in possession their wide man will retreat in an attempt to help their midfielders with Hazard and Willian dropping into the half spaces.

So instead, we suspect that Hazard and Willian will be instructed to hold their width, and with Alonso and Azpilicueta/Moses joining in that could be an area where the Blues can get around the sides of a stout United line. In this system Matic will be encouraged to get forward and support Costa in central areas.

At the other end of the pitch we really shouldn’t have too much to worry about. Ibrahimovic will be feeding off scraps if United line up in a similar fashion to Monday night. As long as Pogba is shackled in the middle of the park it is hard to see Chelsea not extending their run of clean sheets to three.

Set pieces could be an area in which Chelsea prosper too; should Terry, Cahill, Luiz and Costa all start their aerial prowess will be a real threat. So our wide men isolating themselves against their markers – especially Hazard on the clumsy Antonio Valencia – could deliver the ultimate dividend.

Friday 14 October 2016

Chelsea v Leicester City Match Preview (15/10/16): Can Blues Win Lunchtime Battle at the Bridge?

Now that’s more like it. It might seem like an eternity ago, but cast your mind back to Chelsea’s last outing in the Premier League and you may recall a comprehensive 2-0 victory over Hull City.

The match was pertinent for many reasons, perhaps even the manner of the performance more enjoyable than the result itself. As predicted by this very column, Antonio Conte had had enough of the defensive woes that had beset his side in the preceding weeks and decided to switch to his favoured 3-4-3 formation that had worked so well for him while in charge of Juventus and the Italian national team.

The outcome? Well, it worked clearly, as a clean sheet and a greater solidity to the spine of the team complimented the attacking trio of Hazard-Costa-Willian very nicely. There was the odd stumble, but every journey starts with a first step and now the Blues can head into Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off against Leicester with renewed confidence.

Chelsea Team News

The international break is an absolute nightmare for club managers; they’d prefer it if their players didn’t travel at all, or if they do at least wrap them up in bubble wrap and pray that they are an unused substitute.

Happily, it wasn’t all bad news for Conte. Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard enjoyed a fright-free time in Belgium’s 6-0 win over Gibraltar, while defenders Cesar Azpilicueta and David Luiz and midfielders Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante weren’t selected for Spain, Brazil, Serbia and France respectively. Diego Costa netted against Albania and subbed off after an hour against Italy, so his workload hasn’t been too demanding either.

Away from international duty, John Terry looks set to be fit after a lengthy battle with injury, and he may come into the side in place of Gary Cahill, who endured a tumultuous evening for England against Slovenia on Tuesday. It is unlikely that Cahill and Terry will play in the same back three together as they lack the pace to deal with Jamie Vardy’s probing runs into the channels.

Victor Moses appears to have shrugged off a hamstring injury which has dogged him all week – good news, given his man-of-the-match performance as a wing-back against Hull, but one player definitely missing is Willian, who has flown home to be with his family following the death of his mother.

Willian’s loss leaves a bit of a gap – he looked every good last time out playing just behind and to the right of Costa. It may be the case that Oscar gets the nod to replace him, although the Brazilian appears to have been frozen out a little bit by Conte. Other options include bringing in Pedro or Ruben Loftus-Cheek, or switching to a 3-5-2 and pairing Costa with Michy Batshuayi.

How the Italian plays it is anybody’s guess, but bringing in Oscar is perhaps the move that makes the most sense. Here’s how we would expect the Blues to line-up accordingly:

Chelsea vs Leicester City Head-to-Head

Given that Leicester were in the doldrums for so long, it is perhaps unsurprising that Chelsea hold such a dominant head-to-head lead over the Foxes: 38 wins to 18 to be precise, with 23 draws.

That is exacerbated further in matches played at the Bridge: Chelsea with a huge 27-4 lead on home soil. Indeed, Leicester have only won one of their last 23 visits to the home of football!

How the Match Will Be Won

There has been plenty of talk this week of Claudio Ranieri following his compatriot and changing his side’s shape to deal with some rather inconsistent form (particularly away from home). He may opt to bring an extra man into midfield to help deal with the threat of Eden Hazard, and leave Jamie Vardy up front on his own as a focal point. After failing to get onto the pitch in England’s two games last week, he will be chomping at the bit.

Here’s how Leicester might line up:

So what does this mean for Chelsea? Well the good news is that we will have an overload at the back: Cahill and Luiz can manage Vardy’s runs between them and a combination of Alonso and Azpilicueta can deal with Mahrez, with Kante picking up the loose balls in front of the back four. That is Leicester’s main attacking outlet diminished.

Out wide you would expect that Mahrez and Albrighton will be tasked with tracking back with Alonso and Moses – that is a definite area of strength for the Blues, and if Hazard can pick up little pockets of space over Drinkwater’s right shoulder, with Matic pushing forward as a ‘left half’ too, then he could cause carnage.

Leicester have conceded eight goals in their last two away trips to Liverpool and Manchester United, and while the United game was marred by some schoolboy defending from Ranieri’s men, it was obvious how easy it is to tear them apart post-title win just with some direct attacking play and high pressing.

It could be a tight game, won by a single goal margin, but Chelsea deserve to be bookmakers’ favourite for it.

Friday 30 September 2016

Hull City v Chelsea Match Preview (01/10/16): Expect Blues to Bounce Back in Style

One point, two defeats, three goals scored, seven conceded – that’s how Chelsea are shaping up in their last three Premier League outings following a 0-3 dismantling courtesy of Arsenal. Quite frankly, it’s not good enough.

It’s always easy to point figures in these situations of course, although sometimes a collective acknowledgement of underperformance is required. Yes, defensively we have been shambolic at best in recent weeks, but that mindset begins from the front to the back. Two of Arsenal’s goals last week were partly caused by a lack of application in midfield in breaking attacks down, and so numbers 1-11 should be looking at themselves in the mirror and asking how they can do better.

It’s early days of course and dropped points aren’t the end of the world right now, but ironing out some fairly schoolboy mistakes has to be a priority for Antonio Conte and his team.

There is some good news however: Hull City should provide some respite this week. After back-to-back matches with Arsenal and Liverpool – two teams we should be matching, in truth – at least we can rely on a Hull side in steady decline at the moment to ease the pressure on our stricken backline. Surely three points await for the lads?

Chelsea Team News

Clearly we have defensive issues at the moment, and the return of John Terry should help to solve those. He may slot in at centre half as a straight swap for Gary Cahill, who has been at fault for a couple of goals recently, or Conte may instead opt to play his preferred 3-5-2 formation with Terry and either Cahill or Branislav Ivanovic alongside David Luiz in the three.

This is how we could line up against Hull City:

It’s just an idea of course, but no doubt plenty of Blues fans are crying out for Conte to shake up what has become a rather stale-looking side in the past few weeks. This system would add defensive solidity without blunting the attack, with Michy Batshuayi let off the leash from the start (taking some of the pressure off Diego Costa) and allowing Eden Hazard to roam in a free role. It would be harsh on Willian, the main casualty of a change in shape, but something must be done to get the campaign back on track.

Hull will be without the suspended Ahmed Elmohamady, and with Michael Dawson and Alex Bruce both still inured it means that Jake Livermore will continue at centre half. He is not a natural defender by any means, so pairing Costa and Batshuayi up top will put extra pressure on his defensive capabilities.

Hull vs Chelsea Head-to-Head

Hull City have bobbed in and out of the English top flight over the past few decades, so their head-to-head record with the Blues is rather patchy.

The good news is that in the 44 matches they have played, Chelsea have had the upper hand with 30 wins (ten draws and four defeats). Hull last defeated us way back in 1988, and in the 12 matches played since then our record reads W10 D2 L0. That bodes very nicely indeed.

How the Match Will Be Won

First things first….let’s defend better, for starters! Conceding seven in three is wholly unacceptable, and while pinning the blame on individuals isn’t helpful let’s hope that Conte has been working on a winning formula to resolve that. Whether Terry comes in as a straight replacement for Cahill, or the formation is re-jigged entirely, let’s just get the basics right.

If we can keep a clean sheet here we should be laughing. Hull have conceded nine in their last two starts, are without a recognised right back due to Elmohamady’s red card last week and in Jake Livermore are lacking a defensive general in the form of a Michael Dawson, who is still not 100% fit.

So we should have plenty of chances….but how do you break this Hull side down? Here is how they typically line up:

It is a necessarily defensive line up, and as you can see from the central midfield three there is no real onus on getting forward. The task of supporting Abel Hernandez will fall to the in-form Robert Snodgrass and Diomande, which actually lends itself to playing the 3-5-2 system: our wing backs can track them inside, or let them run into the half back spaces monitored by N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic. Either way, there will be plenty of bodies in place to repel the Tigers.

In an attacking sense, Hazard is likely to be well patrolled by any number of Hull players, and so there will be a need to play wider and stretch the game. Both Azpilicueta and Alonso are handy going forward, and they could theoretically e swinging balls into the box for Costa and Batshuayi to attack against Livermore and Davies. Our money is on the Blue boys to win that particular duel, and to bring the three points back to London.

Thursday 22 September 2016

Arsenal v Chelsea Match Preview (24/9/16): Expect Goals at the Emirates

After all of the optimism, the excitement and the passion, Friday night’s defeat to Liverpool was a real hammer blow and burst the blue bubble that was just threatening to take flight under Antonio Conte’s studious management.

In fairness, Jordan Henderson’s wonder goal deserved to win any game, but the complete absence of any marking for Dejan Lovren’s opener was reminiscent of Chelsea circa 2015/16 under Jose; and that’s a dark place we really don’t want to go back to.

Diego Costa managed to pull one back – his fourth in five Premier League games, incidentally – but it was all too little, too late and in truth a laboured showing from the lads deserved no reward. The match stats, displayed below, don’t tell the real story here:

Into Wednesday’s EFL Cup tie with Leicester we went, not really knowing what to expect. Marcos Alonso was handed his debut, while the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Victor Moses and Pedro were given an opportunity to impress. Fabregas and Moses, in particular, did not disappoint.

But it was defensively, yet again, where we floundered. Both of Leicester’s goals could have been avoided with slicker defending, and in truth it was only our incisive attacking play that gave the scoreline any respectability in the first 90 minutes.

The performance of Moses was very pleasing – he looked pacey and dangerous on the right flank, but it was Fabregas who deservedly took the Man of the Match honours with a brace of goals, an assist and some outstanding medium-range passing. Conte was pleased with what he saw:

"I am pleased for Cesc because he played a good game, he showed me great commitment in the training sessions. I am satisfied when I see this behaviour."

It will be interesting to see how we get on against an Arsenal side in a state of flux on Saturday evening.

Team News

As good a place as any to start with the team news for this encounter across the capital with Arsenal is Fabregas: Conte must surely be considering bringing in the former Gunners man at the expense of Nemanja Matic, who for the past 12 months or so really has been off his game.

Otherwise it is likely to be as you were, with John Terry still missing with a foot injury and Marcos Alonso not quite doing enough to force his way into the reckoning in midweek.


As two titans of the English game, it is no surprise to learn that Chelsea and Arsenal have met a whopping 165 times in the past. Arsenal have the upper hand with 62 wins to 55, but what we’re interested in is the more recent clashes.

In the past five seasons it has been honours even: eight wins for Chelsea, eight wins for Arsenal, and three draws. But what we really like is our record at the Emirates Stadium: W6 D4 L2. That’s very handy indeed.

How the Match Will Be Won

The idea against Arsenal might have to be outscoring them: their defending is almost as bad as ours! They have conceded in four of their five matches in the Premier League so far, and in the one they didn’t they probably should have….how Leicester didn’t get a penalty for this (7:14) is anybody’s guess:

Interestingly, that could be a ploy that Chelsea utilise. Hector Bellerin is the modern kind of defender who is better at attacking than he is his ‘day job’, and a tricky Eden Hazard should have plenty of joy against him if he can stay wide on the left flank and isolate himself against the Spaniard.

It will be good to see Costa play on the shoulder of Arsenal’s new boy Shkodran Mustafi too. He’s still getting adjusted to life in the Premier League after joining from Valencia, and some quick balls into the channel for Costa to chase could yield dividends.

Defensively, it depends on whether Arsene Wenger decides to play Olivier Giroud through the middle or Alexis Sanchez. If Giroud is up top then we can play as normal; just stop the Arsenal wingers getting to the byline and hurling crosses into the box.

If Sanchez gets the nod, he will drift into pockets of space, and it will take discipline from Luiz and Cahill not to follow him. Defending deep will be crucial, and it will also be important for one of our midfielders – probably Oscar – standing on Cazorla or Xhaka (whoever starts), as they will act like a quarter back for all Gunners’ attacks. It might be wise for Costa to drop off slightly too.