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.