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.