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?
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.