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.