Thursday 25 August 2016

Chelsea v Burnley Match Preview (20/8/16): Expect Blues to Triumph… But it Might Not Be Pretty

Three games, three wins. Forget the minutiae and the details, just drink that in. The Chelsea revolution is well underway with Antonio Conte on board; and he’ll be hoping his side can make it four on the bounce against Burnley on Saturday.

Things didn’t look particularly rosy after a flaccid hour or so at Vicarage Road last week, and Watford probably deserved the lead they took when Etienne Capoue fired home.

But an inspired triple substitution from Conte – introducing Michy Batshuayi, Cesc Fabregas and Victor Moses after 70 minutes – changed the nature of the game completely. Batshuayi notched the equaliser with a predatory finish, before Fabregas set Diego Costa free with a sublime through ball and the Spaniard duly obliged.

Up until the introduction of this trio, the Blues had managed just one shot on target. In the last 20 minutes alone they managed another three and spent 20% more time in Watford’s penalty area. So we can call this a masterstroke from Conte if we wish, or we can praise the influence of the three men that came on. A bit of both, perhaps.

That theme continued on Tuesday night with a 3-2 win over Bristol Rovers in the EFL Cup, where Batshuayi once again impressed with a brace (it could have been a hat-trick but for an offside flag). Fabregas was outstanding again, and so Conte has plenty of food for thought ahead of the Burnley clash.

Team News

With Willian the only injury concern – the winger is still recovering from a calf injury, and is rated as 50/50 at best – Conte has a full compliment to choose from. The hard part will be coming up with the personnel that can break down stubborn Burnley resistance. The Clarets will play a 4-4-2 system, but their wide players will operate in a defensive manner, with Andre Gray dropping deep to support his two central midfielders.

So with the onus on Chelsea to break down their opponents – Liverpool had 80% possession against Burnley last week remember – the temptation to pair Batshuayi and Costa from the off will be very much on the Italian’s mind.

With less demand upon a midfield shield, Fabregas could well keep his place ahead of Nemanja Matic, with Eden Hazard again drifting in from the left flank and causing havoc between the lines.

This is how the Blues could line up:

Head to Head

Chelsea and Burnley have locked horns on 92 occasions, with the very fixture dating back to the year 1905 when the Blues triumphed 1-0. The overall head-to-head sits at, surprisingly, 33 wins to Chelsea, 37 to Burnley and 22 draws.

Much of the Clarets success came during their halcyon days in the 1910s and 1920s, and other than a bizarre spell between 1954 and 1956 when they played out six consecutive draws Chelsea have had the upper hand ever since. Post 1973, the Blues have won ten of the fifteen meetings.

The last time the two sides met at Stamford Bridge was in a 1-1 draw back in February 2015.

How the Match Will Be Won

Make no mistake: this won’t be the walkover that many are predicting. Burnley have only conceded one goal so far, and while they are happy to allow their opponents to have the ball they are so well organised defensively that they don’t mind that too much.

This Burnley outfit has echoes of Leicester City in 2015/16: men behind the ball, and then counter attack at pace with Sam Vokes a physical ‘out ball’ and Andre Gray’s extreme pace feeding off any knockdowns. The Blues will have to be wary of this, but with N’Golo Kante in his usual midfield destroyer role we should have plenty of strength in our final third of the pitch.

The mistake Liverpool made against the Clarets is that they shot almost exclusively from outside the box; a symptom of being unable to break down the two banks of four in front of them. Instead, they would have been better served doing what Swansea did in their 1-0 win over Burnley: loading early crosses into the box. Leroy Fer’s goal came from a rebound which was a header saved from Fernando Llorente, and the Swans’ best work came from quick play out wide and whipped crosses for their lanky frontman to attack.

Let’s hope that Antonio Conte reads this and starts with Batshuayi up front alongside Costa to give the Blues a greater physical presence in attack! The good news is that if Hazard and Pedro can isolate themselves against Matthew Lowton and Stephen Ward respectively then plenty of crossing opportunities should be available; watch out for the introduction of Victor Moses too, an old-fashioned winger who has started the season brightly.

At the other end of the pitch Burnley shouldn’t pose too many problems; they’ve recorded just five shots on target so far in two games. Consequently, a 1-0 or 2-0 Chelsea victory should hopefully be in the offing.

Saturday 20 August 2016

Watford v Chelsea Match Preview (20/8/16): Blues Look to Make It Two From Two at Vicarage Road

Well, what a start that was! Antonio Conte’s regime got off to the best possible start with a 2-1 win over West Ham, and while the scoreline suggests otherwise the Blues were rarely troubled by our London neighbours. The stats: 62% possession, six shots on target and seven corners highlight just how dominant we were.

Eden Hazard took the Man of the Match honours for a spellbinding display on the left hand side, but really it was Diego Costa who caught the eye for many reasons. His goal ultimately separated the two teams, but it was the manner in which he put himself about the pitch that really warmed the cockles. As Sky Sports pointed out, he completed more sprints per 90 minutes than any other player in the Premier League last weekend.

And how pleasing was it that we looked so much more solid defensively. Yes, it helped that Andy Carroll was alone up front and with barely a claret shirt within 20 yards of him at any time, but he was well shackled by Terry and Cahill anyway. N’Golo Kante came in and did what he does best: marshal the midfield areas and break up any moves that had a hint of danger attached to them.

But it was the tactical nuance of Conte that helped win the day. West Ham’s right back is Michail Antonio, a winger by trade who is handy going forward but who, defensively, isn’t as solid as a Premier League full back should be. So Eden Hazard slipped inside, allowing Cesar Azpilicueta and Nemanja Matic to overload. It worked a treat, as the foul Antonio committed on the Spaniard for our opening goal testifies.

Late on Conte introduced Michy Batshuayi for his debut alongside Costa in a two-pronged attack, and the change worked almost instantly: the Belgian nodding down a long ball for Costa to fire home. If anybody needed proof that two up top can still work in the modern game, that was it.

Onwards we march to Vicarage Road to take on Watford, who took a respectable point home from a trip to Southampton on the opening day. However, the fact that the Saints fired some 24 shots on goal suggests that attacking opportunities won’t be hard for the Chelsea boys to create come Saturday.

Team News

A clean bill of health has been reported, and so we can expect an unchanged starting eleven to the one that took to the field on Monday evening.

For now at least, Conte will resist the urge to pair Costa and Batshuayi from the start, instead opting for the 4-2-3-1 that served his side so well against the Hammers.

Head to Head

If history is to repeat itself then we should be cheering a Chelsea win come 5:45pm on Saturday: they hold a 14-9 head-to-head lead over the Hornets, and perhaps most pertinently the Blues have lost just once in 15 meetings with Walter Mazzarri’s side.

Last season both fixtures ended in a stalemate: 0-0 at Vicarage Road and 2-2 at the Bridge.

How the Match Will Be Won

Watford will pose a very different kind of threat to West Ham. While the Hammers looked to hit Andy Carroll aerially, or isolate their wide players against our full backs in order to deliver crosses, the Hornets play through the middle, with Troy Deeney dropping off Odion Ighalo and acting as the focal point of their attacks.

Kante should be able to break down their movements, however, and deny Deeney the space he needs to slide Ighalo through on goal.

Watford will employ a 3-5-2 formation, and so Oscar will be required to drop back into midfield and support Kante and Matic against Etienne Capoue, Valeron Behrami and Adiene Guedioura. They generally play as a flat three however, which is a much easier system to break down.

Chelsea’s joy will come down the flanks. Hazard can once again drift into the inside left channel and leave Azpilicueta in a one-on-one situation with Nordin Amrabat, who is better going forward than he is defensively. Given the amount of joy Dusan Tadic had in the number ten role last Saturday against them, expect Hazard to drift inside more and more as the game progresses.

Like last season, this could be another tightly-fought contest between these two sides. Chelsea will need to defend in numbers before breaking at speed, and the key to victory could once again be Hazard playing between the Watford lines. Expect the Belgian to fire the Blues to a narrow victory.

Thursday 11 August 2016

Chelsea v West Ham Match Preview (13/8/16): Home Advantage Could Be Key in Close Contest

The Premier League has finally returned after what feels like a lifetime away, and after our mostly horrendous season last time around Chelsea fans could be forgiven for licking their lips at what should hopefully be a hugely improved campaign.

West Ham are first up at the Bridge on Monday night, and all eyes will be on the changes that Antonio Conte has brought in. Reports of almost military-esque fitness work, diet and nutritional changes (no pizza and fizzy drinks allowed!) and a couple of upwardly mobile signings has left many hoping that the Blues will be a more physical outfit in 2016/17.

So can we get our season off to the best possible start with victory over our London neighbours?

Team News

There are no major injury worries so Conte will have a full strength team to call upon. We’re still unsure as to which shape the Italian will set his new side up in – he has been an advocate of 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 in the past at Juventus and the Italy national side, and it is the latter which seems the more viable option. That will include two sitting midfield players and a pair of wingers playing high up the pitch, which would work quite nicely for the personnel at his disposal.

So in goal we will have Thibaut Courtois, the hugely promising young talent who fell away a bit last season. Let’s hope a fresh start under a new manager will do him good.

The back four, from right to left, will surely be Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta. A few different options have been auditioned in pre-season, but none really made a statement of intent, and this was the quartet that took to the field for the final friendly against Werder Bremen.

The two midfielders that sit just in front of the defence will presumably be N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic, with one eye on the attacking prowess of West Ham and also the abrasive nature of the likes of Cheick Kouyate and Mark Noble in the midfield battleground. That would mean a spot on the bench for Cesc Fabregas.

Out wide, Willian and Eden Hazard will be asked to provide attacking impetus while tracking back under Conte’s more pragmatic style. The role of Hazard in particular in dealing with Michail Antonio’s forays forward will be crucial, but the Belgian impressed at the latter end of the season and looked somewhere back to his best for his country at Euro 2016. Let’s hope a glittering campaign follows.

There will be times this season when Conte will pair Diego Costa and Batshuayi straight through the middle in an old-fashioned centre forward partnership, but for the visit of the Hammers expect Oscar, who has looked in fine shape during pre-season, to play as a contemporary number ten.

Chelsea vs West Ham Head to Head

The Blues have the upper hand in the historical head-to-head stakes, but only just: they hold a 47 win lead to 38, with 20 draws.

Happily, the Hammers haven’t won at the Bridge since 2002, with Chelsea winning eight of the subsequent eleven meetings.

We will be looking for revenge this term after the events of 2015/16, of course. At the Boleyn Ground, in the middle of the ‘Mourinho meltdown’ vintage, West Ham took the spoils 2-1 in a match in which both Nemanja Matic and Mourinho himself were sent off. At the Bridge, we were perhaps fortunate to secure a 2-2 draw after a late Fabregas penalty equaliser.

How the Match Will Be Won

If our defending doesn’t improve this term than we are bang in trouble once again, with the Hammers bagging four in two against us and Andy Carroll netting in both games last season.

Hopefully Conte is the man for the job – Italians are known for their love of defending – and he will help to oversee a sea change from the 53 league goals shipped last season. Theoretically Terry and Cahill are well placed physically to nullify the threat of Carroll; not that that’s how it panned out when we met last term, and then out wide we will need Willian and Hazard to support their full backs in dealing with the Hammers wide threat, with two of Dimitri Payet, Andre Ayew and Sofiane Feghouli tasked with putting plenty of crosses in.

If we can cut out Carroll’s supply from wide areas, then the prospects of breaching their defence looks strong. The Hammers conceded eight goals in their last three games of 2015/16, and lost 2-1 to NK Domzale in Europa League qualifying – and let’s face it, they are hardly the strongest side in the world – so clearly goalscoring opportunities are in the offing.

We all know what a fit, hungry and happy Diego Costa can achieve, and if he is supported by the rejuvenated pairing of Oscar and Hazard then we could run in two or three goals.

Expect goals then….let’s just hope the team in blue net more than their claret opponents.

Thursday 4 August 2016

Blues on the Up: Notes from a Hectic Pre-Season

We can never read too much into pre-season, but any improvement on the disastrous summer of 2015, which served as a mere aperitif for what was to come during the campaign itself, is welcome.

Happily, we have shown signs of life in the bizarrely constructed International Champions Cup, and now the squad can return to the UK from the other side of the pond with their heads held high.

There are still defensive kinks that need ironing out, but from an attacking perspective Antonio Conte has already got his men playing some outstanding football.

The International Champions Cup Report

Defeated Liverpool 1-0 in California

Against Liverpool we showcased some fantastic one-touch attacking play, with the two wingers playing high up on the pitch and Oscar dictating the game from the middle of the park. Ironically, despite our progressive attacking style, it was a rather old fashioned route to goal that did the business: a Gary Cahill header from a Cesc Fabregas corner doing the business.

It was a match full of positives for the Blues, not discounting Fabregas’ rather crude challenge on Ragnar Klavan that earnt him a straight red, with the defence looking solid in their work and Victor Moses’ pace and trickery suggesting he could play more of a role in Antonio Conte’s first team plans this time around.

In a game of few chances anyway, to restrict an attacking Liverpool starting line-up to just a single shot on target will have pleased Conte tremendously.

Lost 2-3 to Real Madrid in Michigan

This was a bit of a blip in progress. Three-nil down at half-time to a Real Madrid outfit far from full strength was something of a disappointment for the Blues, although winning’ the second half 2-0 is a measure of a dominant 45 minutes.

There were caveats to consider too: Marcelo’s opener took a huge deflection before nestling in the back of the net, and Mariano Diaz’s strike was simply unstoppable. But there is still much to work on defensively for Conte and his coaching team.

There were positives to take, however. Eden Hazard looked hungry after coming on as a second half substitute and bagged a brace, while Michy Batshuayi looked lively on his Chelsea debut: he had a decent penalty shout turned down before assisting Hazard’s second. His pace and quick feet look ideally suited to baffling Premier League defenders.

Beat AC Milan 3-1 in Minnesota

This was a much better display from Conte’s men, and in breaking down a Milan outfit set up to defend in numbers will have been very pleasing for the Italian.

Bertrand Traore, who has stood out in pre-season with his direct style, notched the first, while Oscar – who looks right at home in a slightly deeper central midfield role – pulled the strings and fond time to get on the scoresheet twice himself.

There were many positives to take once again, and it is the precision and guile in the attacking third that is most eye-catching. The Blues have now scored six in their last three games, while against Milan they registered some 17 shots on goal: 11 of which were from inside the penalty area. This stat highlights how well we are carving open opponents at the moment. A pass accuracy success rate of 86% suggests our retention of the ball is improving all the time too.

Question marks defensively remain, and while Ola Aina looks a fine prospect a new left back must be sought by Conte, particularly as he has allowed Baba Rahman to leave the club on loan. Of course, it is likely that Cesar Azpilicueta will switch to the left once Branislav Ivanovic has returned, but a progressive, dynamic full back who offers as much going forward as he does defensively will not go amiss.

Also, how Conte’s 4-2-4 formation will work in the rapid pace of the Premier League remains to be seen. He could probably get away with in Italy where the pace of the game is slower (allowing wingers to track back and take their shape), but in England, where counter attacking football is prevalent, that could pose a problem.

Chelsea Transfer Rumours

The Premier League campaign may be a week away but there is still plenty of time for Conte and his recruitment team to source new faces. As we’ve seen, defensively there are still a few things to consider, and while Kurt Zouma will return soon his lack of football recently dictates that a lengthy period of fitness finding will be required.

A general lack of pace at the back is a concern, and the continued rumour surrounding a £38 million bid for Napoli centre half Khalidou Koulibaly seems legitimate. The football press are renowned for ‘hawking’ in this country, but often there is no smoke without fire. Koulibaly, a strong and fast defender who Conte will have witnessed first hand in Serie A last season, ticks a lot of boxes.

Attempts to re-sign Romelu Lukaku are, apparently, at an advanced stage, and if that deal does get the green light then expect Diego Costa to exit stage left. It is believed that the Spaniard hankers after a return to his homeland.