Monday 30 January 2017

Liverpool v Chelsea Match Preview (31/01/17): Blues Can Secure Positive Result at Anfield

They say that in life, timing is everything. If that is true, then Chelsea could not have picked a better time to travel north to take on a rather beleaguered Liverpool side in Tuesday’s season-defining Premier League clash.

We must beware the wounded animal of course, but a glimpse of the Reds’ most recent results suggests that we can have complete confidence:

  • Sunderland 2 vs 2 Liverpool
  • Manchester United 1 vs 1 Liverpool
  • Liverpool 2 vs 3 Swansea
  • Liverpool 0 vs 0 Plymouth
  • Plymouth 0 vs 1 Liverpool
  • Southampton 1 vs 0 Liverpool
  • Liverpool 0 vs 1 Southampton

Because we’re all guilty of that at times, aren’t we? Overcomplicating situations that are clear as day, as black-and-white as it gets. Yes, Liverpool are an excellent side on their day, and yes Jurgen Klopp has rotated his team for some of the fixtures listed above, but so have Chelsea in the FA Cup and yet we are still walking tall.

All of the results listed above have taken place in the last month or so, and so like we were saying there could not be a better time to take on the Reds.

They are struggling defensively, and the question we asked is how will Trent Alexander-Arnold and James Milner, a newcomer to top-fight football and a midfielder respectively, cope with the attacking forays of Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses? How will a backline that has shipped two against Sunderland and three against Swansea be able to keep out a Chelsea side that has scored two or more goals in 11 of their last 16 league starts?

Before we are accused of over confidence, let us make one thing clear: Liverpool are an excellent side. But we simply have to head to Merseyside with confidence; all of the stars have aligned in the Blues’ favour.

Chelsea Team News

Happily we have nothing to report! All of the squad has reported into training fit and firing on Monday.

Cesar Azpilicueta, Pedro and Willian all played more than an hour in the win over Brentford but none of them suffered any ill effects from what was a straightforward workout, and other than that it is as you were for Antonio Conte as far as team selection is concerned.

The great thing about this fixture is that he can select his preferred starting eleven, and play in the same style, as he has done for the past three months or so. You suspect that Liverpool will change their system to try and nullify the Blues; and that hands the psychological advantage straight to us.

The toughest decision Conte has to make is whether to pick Pedro or Willian in the inside right position; the Spaniard appears to have nudged his way in front of the Brazilian in the heart and mind of the Italian, so expect him to get the nod.

Liverpool v Chelsea Head to Head

It’s been six head-to-head matches since Chelsea last tasted victory over Liverpool, which would make a win on Tuesday evening all the more satisfying.

Of all the sides in English football, the Reds have perhaps a better record against us than any other side, and since 2010 our return reads W5 D5 L7. They might not have the domestic silverware to speak of, but they seem to turn it on when the blue boys are in town.

The good news is that we have fared rather better at Anfield than most do. We are unbeaten in five trips to the red half of Merseyside, and a return of W4 D3 L2 in recent times speaks for itself. We have nothing to fear – and everything to gain – on Tuesday night.

How the Match Will Be Won

The one real lowlight of Chelsea’s recent run of form – the 0-2 defeat at Spurs – identified a weakness in our system that has largely been untroubled before and since: crosses swung into the back post. Dele Alli bagged both of his goals by swooping on the far post ahead of Victor Moses, and the crumb of comfort we can take is that few sides have fathomed this out. Liverpool certainly don’t have the physicality to hurt us in terms of balls into the box.

Antonio Conte has spoken in the press of his desire to deliver a ‘hard hit’ on Liverpool’s season, and the sweetest thing is that he won’t have to tweak his set-up to achieve it.

He will be content for Liverpool to dominate possession, safe in the knowledge that without Sadio Mane – rated as ‘50/50’ to start’ - they lack the directness to get in behind. They will try intricate movements in front of us, and given how solid our back seven (the five defenders and Kante and Matic in front) are, that is unlikely to yield results. Going forward, remember how devastating we were against Manchester City on the counter? Expect a similar theme here.

The pace of Victor Moses will terrorise James Milner down Liverpool’s left, while Marco Alonso showed against Leicester what an attacking force he can be. Young Liverpool right back Trent Alexander-Arnold will have a tough time dealing with the marauding Spaniard.

And Eden Hazard and Pedro will do what they do best: drop into pockets of space either side of Jordan Henderson and create shooting chances for themselves or Diego Costa. That could be all it takes for Chelsea to end Liverpool’s title hopes tomorrow night.

Friday 27 January 2017

Chelsea v Brentford Match Preview (28/01/17): Blues to March into FA Cup Fifth Round

Panic over. Following the controversy surrounding Diego Costa’s ‘back injury’ which saw him miss the trip to Leicester, it was great to see the Spaniard back in the starting eleven, looking happy and scoring as Chelsea eased to a 2-0 win over Hull City.

Whether Costa had had his head turned by a move to China, whether he had had a row with Antonio Conte and/or the fitness coach, or whether he was genuinely injured, it appears as though a line has been drawn under the matter and the boys in blue can get on with their mission this term: recapturing the Premier League crown.

Hull were game and as determined as expected, with Harry Maguire outstanding at centre half, but once Costa had given us the lead on the stroke of half time it felt like there was only ever going to be one winner. And so it proved when Gary Cahill notched the second in the 81st minute.

There’s a break from Premier League action on Saturday as we welcome Barnet to Stamford Bridge for an FA Cup fourth round tie, but you can bet your bottom dollar that Conte and his management team will have laser-like focus on Tuesday night’s trip to Anfield, which won’t make or break the campaign by any means; although victory would all but knock the Reds out of the title race.

So we expect a much-changed side to take to the hallowed turf at the weekend; will it be enough to get past Brentford?

Chelsea Team News

This fixture offers a chance for weary legs to be rested and fringe players to be given a chance to shine, and we expect Conte to make full use of the opportunity with league games against Liverpool and Arsenal in the space of four days next week.

He has already confirmed that Gary Cahill, ever present this term, will probably sit this one out, and with an abundance of options in his squad more changes are likely.

The Brentford tie offers the likes of Michy Batshuayi, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Nathaniel Chalobah the chance to continue their footballing education, while Nathan Ake may get to pull on the blue shirt for the first time in a long time.

Chelsea v Brentford Head to Head

These two sides have met on 13 different occasions in the past, and as recently as 2013 – almost four years to the day of this fixture in fact - in the FA Cup.

A 2-2 at Griffin Park took the game into a replay, and at Stamford Bridge the Blues made their home advantage count with a dominant 4-0 victory.

All in all, Chelsea lead the head-to-head 7-4 with two draws; our last defeat against the Bees coming back in 1939!

How the Match Will Be Won

In a bizarre echo of the Diego Costa situation, Brentford look set to once again be without their key frontman, Scott Hogan. Brentford boss Dean Smith suggested a tight hamstring was the reason for the striker’s ongoing absence although he also alluded to a trio of reported bids from West Ham for the 24-year-old.

"With what he's been told is on offer for him, it's very hard for him to go out and play," he told the BBC. "It's very difficult when I think a player is getting starved of football when he wants to play, but speculation and phone calls are turning his head."

Without Hogan, Brentford look less of a force going forward; his pace and ability to run the channels is paramount to their counter-attacking style. Assuming he doesn’t play on Saturday, the life of Chelsea’s back three will be that bit easier. Is it coincidence that they have lost their last two without him?

The Bees will pack the midfield with at least five bodies – one of whom will be former blue Josh McEachran, and look to spring lively counters courtesy of Romain Sawyers and Lasse Vibe. They are a youthful, pacey side that does appear vulnerable to sides that get in amongst them; as Wigan did in their 2-1 victory last time out.

Chelsea’s biggest issue will be a lack of continuity amongst what is set to be an unusual starting eleven, but if they can hit the ground running then there will be plenty of opportunities to open up this Brentford backline. The Bees have conceded in 10 of their last 12 Championship outings – including 2+ in seven of those so it is clear where their weakness lies.

We’re expecting Willian or Pedro to start, probably the former, and he will be crucial in linking up with Michy Batshuayi and providing the main goal threat. If we can get Cesc Fabregas on the ball in the middle of the park then we can capitalise on the Spaniard’s unerring ability to pick a pass by bypassing the packed middle third of the pitch.

We’re expecting a Chelsea win here, primarily because we don’t see them conceding and Brentford are rocky at the back. A victory inside 90 minutes here would be a huge fillip for Conte’s B team!

Friday 20 January 2017

Chelsea v Hull City Match Preview (22/01/17): Easy Win Expected for Vibrant Blues

Well, what a difference a week makes. We fancied Chelsea to triumph against Leicester last Saturday, but what we hadn’t anticipated was the dramatic fallout of the Diego Costa vs Antonio Conte situation. These scenarios often play out with plenty of ‘smoke and mirrors’, so whether there is a back injury – as Conte claimed – or a potential move to Chelsea has turned Costa’s head, which is the media view, it was refreshing to see the elven players that did make it onto the pitch in the Midlands produce a fine performance.

As West Ham found in their first outing since the Dimitri Payet debacle, these situations can often have a galvanizing effect on a squad of players, and from their efforts on the pitch you certainly wouldn’t know that these Blue boys had experienced a trying end to the week.

They were magnificent against Leicester, and while a debt of gratitude goes to unlikely goal here Marcos Alonso – the Spaniard could have had a hat-trick but in the end settled for a brace, in truth all eleven were outstanding. Pedro, enjoying the freedom of a false nine role in the absence of Costa, was sensational.

Much of the speculation this week will centre around Costa’s future and whether he will return to the squad against Hull, but let’s take a moment to commend last week’s starting eleven and say that, on the balance of things, they should start against Hull City on Sunday afternoon.

Chelsea Team News

Will he or won’t he? Our understanding is that Diego Costa WILL return to the Chelsea squad this weekend having undergone clear the air talks with the gaffer on Tuesday, although he is likely to have to take a watching brief from the bench as Conte stays loyal to the starting eleven that performed so admirably against Leicester last time out.

Media reports of £300k wage demands and £185k fines are clearly wide of the mark, and having to watch on from the dugout will surely be considered punishment enough for the Spaniard.

With that situation resolved, the great news for Conte is that he has an otherwise clean bill of health to call upon, and as such there will be no desire to deviate from last week’s starting eleven.

Chelsea v Hull City Head to Head

There has been just ten prior meetings between these two sides, and unsurprisingly it is Chelsea that have more often than not come out on top with eight wins and two draws.

The Blues have won five on the bounce since August 2013, scoring at least two goals in each and keeping four clean sheets. We really do seem to have the wood on the Tigers, although obviously that’s not a huge surprise given the relative status of the two clubs

Al in all, Chelsea’s goal difference in ten encounters with Hull is +17, and that is the best indicator of all of their dominance. With the Northerners struggling for form and the fitness of their players, a similarly comfortable Chelsea win is expected.

How the Match Will Be Won

What do we know about Hull City? We expect them to line up in a similar 3-4-3 style to us, with their midfield line dropping deep to prevent Pedro and Eden Hazard picking up those little pockets of space.

Sam Clucas and Andrew Robertson will be one on one against Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, and with the Chelsea wing backs pushed high up the pitch this could offer a genuine opportunity for the Blues to ‘get round the back’, as John Barnes used to love rapping. The Hull pair are unlikely to get much cover from Robert Snodgrass and Adama Diomande.

Hull’s best attacking outlet will be set pieces, with Robert Snodgrass’ devilish left-footed delivery creating chances for the Tigers’ three big centre backs: Michael Dawson, Curtis Davies and Harry Maguire. Chelsea will need to be on their mettle at corners and free kicks.

But in truth we expect Chelsea to have lots of the ball, and that will aid us in creating smart triangular movements to help break through the stubborn Hull rearguard. Both Costa and Cesc Fabregas may be called for off the subs bench; Costa to provide a more physical presence and Fabregas to orchestrate attacks from deeper positions in an attempt to draw the Tigers out from their deep lying positions.

It could be an afternoon where patience is required, as Hull will work hard to stifle our build-up play. But we simply don’t expect them to be able to hold us out for 90 minutes, and so a Chelsea victory to nil is anticipated.

Sunday 15 January 2017

Leicester City v Chelsea Match Preview (14/01/17): Blues to Get Back to Winning Ways in the Midlands

The monumentally frustrating 0-2 loss to Tottenham feels like a lifetime ago now, and with the hype and furore surrounding the win streak and the chance to beat Arsenal’s record now over, the Blues can focus on what they do best: winning football matches.

A home FA Cup tie with Peterborough was the perfect antidote for the White Hart Lane debacle, and gave Antonio Conte an opportunity to blood fringe players and our talented young guns, while giving those burdened by the extra workload over the festive period a much-needed rest.

The second-string certainly did not disappoint. Kurt Zouma looked assured at the back on his return from injury, while in midfield the youthful pairing of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Nathaniel Chalobah was full of running. Alongside them the majestic Cesc Fabregas purred in the middle of the pitch, spraying passes around like a quarterback.

Most pleasing was Chelsea’s attacking intent, with Willian and Pedro continuing their scrap for the inside right position by netting three goals between them; the fourth falling to the impressive Michy Batshuayi. Conte will have enjoyed his glass of wine after that 4-1 win.

Onto this week and Saturday’s tea time kick off against Leicester City. The champions are in a tough spot at the moment, and the absence of Riyad Mahrez, Islam Slimani and Daniel Amartey (all at the African Cup of Nations) is unlikely to help. They have only won two league games since the end of October, although their home record (W5 D3 L2) does stand up to scrutiny. Even with their absent trio, it will be a tough evening’s work for Chelsea.

Chelsea Team News

This section has been pretty easy to write all season to be honest, and this week is no different. Antonio Conte has an almost clean bill of health to work with: no injuries, no players lost to the African Nations Cup, and just one suspension: John Terry, who received his marching orders against Peterborough.

David Luiz and Marcos Alonso have missed a couple of days of training; the former with a knock to the knee, and the latter to help see off the ankle injury that has been pestering him of late. Nathan Ake has been recalled from his loan stint at Bournemouth to prove cover, but the likelihood is that both will be in the starting eleven at the King Power Stadium on Saturday.

The impressive Cesc Fabregas is likely to miss out, while Conte has a choice to make between Willian and Pedro to play in that inside right channel. We suspect he will opt for the Brazilian, but the Spaniard certainly won’t let anybody down if selected.

Leicester City v Chelsea Head to Head

he recent history of these two teams has been dominated by Chelsea, and since October 2001 they have trousered ten wins in twelve starts.

The two anomalies came last season, with the Foxes claiming a 2-1 victory in the December 2015 clash. Mahrez was the difference-maker that day, and so it is a relief he will be absent here. And then the last game of the 2015/16 campaign ended in a 1-1 stalemate between the two sides.

How the Match Will Be Won

We expect this to be an old school Leicester performance; the kind of set-up that led them to the title last season. They will defend deep and get plenty of bodies in the ball, allowing Chelsea to have possession. Then they will spring forward quickly on the counter attack, with long balls into the channels for Jamie Vardy to chase.

That is good news for Chelsea. Firstly, both David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta boast adequate levels of pace to deal with the threat of Vardy. Without Mahrez and Slimani, the Leicester attacking unit looks rather one-dimensional.

The other tactical titbit worth acknowledging is that letting this Chelsea side dominate possession is a bad move. Such is the confidence of our attacking players that we will be able to fashion plenty of chances even with a blue wall in front of us, and while we expect Diego Costa to be well shackled by the no-nonsense pairing of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, that will leave the likes of Eden Hazard and Willian with little pockets of space to work with.

This will be a tight game; 90 minutes of footballing cat-and-mouse. But if either side is likely to make the breakthrough then it is Chelsea, and we expect them to win to nil here.

Sunday 8 January 2017

Chelsea v Peterborough Match Preview (08/01/17): Comfortable Cup Win to Get the Blues Back on Track

Clearly, Wednesday night’s game with Spurs did not go as we wanted it to. Forget the stuff about the win streak record – sure, that would have been nice, but nobody remembers those kinds of stats. It was the manner of the performance, the complete lack of adventure going forward, and the ease with which Dele Alli found so much space at the back post for his two goals, that hurts the most.

Now is not the time to be pressing the panic button, obviously, and if we rewind 12 months then return to the present day we find a Chelsea side in rude health. Losing to your bitter rivals is a tough pill to swallow, but the bigger picture is one of overwhelming positivity for the Blues heading into 2017.

There’s a welcome break this weekend to gather our senses courtesy of the FA Cup, and we have been matched with League One outfit Peterborough at the Bridge on Sunday afternoon. The Posh are renowned for being a side that creates stacks of chances but who give plenty away at the other end of the pitch as well, and so we will certainly need to be on our guard. But what better time to get straight back in the saddle and return to winning ways.

Chelsea Team News

A clean bill of health affords Antonio Conte the opportunity to rest some weary legs, bring back some old favourites and blood some talented young players on the periphery of the starting eleven.

The likes of Asmir Begovic, Nathaniel Chalobah and Ola Aina have all featured in the EFL Cup this term, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them drafted in on Sunday. John Terry and Kurt Zouma have recently returned to full fitness after injury, and this might be an opportune time to blood them too. Other nearly men such as Cesc Fabregas, Branislav Ivanovic and Michy Batshuayi will also surely come under consideration.

Of course, second guessing a manager’s team selection for a cup competition is fraught with danger, and Conte may yet decide to play a full strength side in order to get back to winning ways immediately. We shall simply have to wait and see.

Chelsea v Peterborough Head to Head

Two previous meetings, two five-goal hammerings. In their pair of previous meetings – in 1965 and 2001 – the Blues of Chelsea have made rather light work of the blues of Peterborough with 5-0 and 5-1 winning scorelines.

Here’s a fun challenge for readers of a certain vintage: see if you can name the starting eleven that took to the field sixteen years ago. The answer is below:

Cudicini; Ferrer, Babayaro, Desailly, Terry; Poyet, Jokanovic, Wise, Harley; Hasselbaink, Zola.

How the Match Will Be Won

With all due respect, this is not a game against a side like Manchester City or Arsenal where Antonio Conte would be looking to make strategic decisions based on the strengths of his opponents.

Instead he comes up against a decent-on-their-day but unreliable Peterborough side at the Bridge, and as such it is the Italian holding all of the aces.

How the match will be won is based largely on the starting eleven he picks, but clearly he will be wanting to get his key players on the ball as often as possible. The Posh will do what all lower league opposition do against the big boys: defend deep and in numbers, and hope for a lucrative replay if they can hang on to a draw. Defensively, few questions will be asked of the Blues, so this seems as good an opportunity to blood the likes of Zouma and Terry.

Marcos Alonso had an ankle knock heading into the Spurs game and was substituted off, so we can assume he won’t take part. Possible replacement, Ola Aina, really caught the eye in pre-season and offers plenty of pace and trickery on the left flank.

But the key outlet for Chelsea will surely be Cesc Fabregas, who has been in fine form of late despite not being able to cement a permanent starting position. The Spaniard will pull the strings in the middle of the park, and assuming those in front of them are moving with authority it is likely that he will add to his assist tally here.

Should Michy Batshuayi start, then let’s hope he is given plenty of quality service. The Belgian has been starved of starting opportunities this term, and so his confidence will be boosted no end with a goal here. Given that Peterborough have conceded in 19 of 24 League One matches this term, he should be able to craft opportunities in front of goal.

Monday 2 January 2017

Tottenham v Chelsea Match Preview (04/01/17): Record May Go Unbroken... For Now

The carrot of winning the Premier League title after a derisory 2015/16 campaign is, frankly, more than enough for any Blues supporter, but the side-effect of such an outstanding run of form is that records can tumble along the way. The opportunity to beat Arsenal’s run of 13 straight league victories in 2001/02 – and at White Hart Lane no less – is a tantalising proposition come Wednesday evening.

Of course, Chelsea equalled the Gunners’ record on Saturday with a compelling, if slightly awkward at times, 4-2 win over Stoke City. The full-strength Blues made hard work of the victory and needed a late Diego Costa goal to add any gloss to the scoreline.

It had all started so well too, and after half-hour of domination the Blues finally made the breakthrough with a Gary Cahill header after 34 minutes. But a Bruno Martins Indi strike seconds after the restart was a bitter pill to swallow.

No matter. Willian gave the Blues the lead early in the second period, and from there we really should have kicked on and secured a handsome triumph. But Peter Crouch equalised soon after, and it took a fine effort from Willian again to put Chelsea back on the front foot. A late goal from Costa, who was outstanding throughout, took the pressure off.

There were positives and negatives to be taken from the game then, but the overriding impression is that Chelsea will need to be better – certainly defensively – if they are to extend their winning run at Tottenham on Wednesday.

Spurs have been in fine fettle of late with four straight wins and 13 goals scored, and we will need to be resolute in our own half of the field if we are to come away with a positive result. Liverpool, just six points behind in second, are snapping at our heels.

Chelsea Team News

The boat has been rocked somewhat with the possibility that Marcos Alonso, who has played every minute of the 13-game winning streak, could be missing. He posted on social media a rather cryptic image that suggests he has suffered an injury of some kind against Stoke. No official news has been released, but the absence of the Spaniard would be hard felt.

Other than Alonso, Chelsea should be at full strength with no other injuries reported and David Luiz and Nemanja Matic both avoiding the yellow cards that would have suspended them for the trip to White Hart Lane.

We would expect Matic to come in for Cesc Fabregas, even though the Spanish midfielder has been excellent in deputising for the Serb and N’Golo Kante of late, and otherwise Antonio Conte will name the same side that started the Stoke clash.

If Alonso isn’t fit to start the game, then Conte will have something of a headache. There isn’t a natural replacement in the left wing-back role, and yet he will be loathe to switch from this exciting 3-4-3 set-up. The most likely solution would be Cesar Azpilicueta shifting to the left-hand side and either John Terry or Branislav Ivanovic coming in at centre back.

Tottenham v Chelsea Head to Head

As two of English football’s most decorated sides, there is no surprise that they have met on some 138 occasions in the past. It is the Blues with the overall upper hand with 59 wins to 44.

In the modern age Chelsea have enjoyed rather the better of their encounters with Spurs, having suffered just one defeat in the last 15 meetings (seven wins, eight draws).

Results at White Hart Lane have been a bit more mixed, with four of the last six meetings there ending in stalemate.

How the Match Will Be Won

That’s an easy question to answer – although the actual specifics remain a mystery. In his pre-match press conference Conte referred to ‘work of the past’ in answer to how his side will beat Spurs on Wednesday; even if what he is referring to specifically is hard to fathom.

“Tottenham is another challenge, another type of football to face," the Italian said. "We have to prepare very well because this game will be very tough, for us and for them.

“We only have three days to prepare for this game, but we also have a lot of work we did in the past and we need that in this moment because we haven’t a lot of time to find a solution for this game.”

Answers on a postcard as to what that means, but we would expect the Blues to line up with the same strategies that have informed their progress in these past 13 games. More will be expected in a defensive sense from Eden Hazard and Willian however, who will look to support Moses and Alonso in dealing with the dangerous Spurs pair of Kyle Walker and Danny Rose. Both Matic and Kante will have to play deeper in an attempt to shackle the likes of Dele Alli and Heung-Min Son, too.

Spurs have conceded in each of their last three outings, however, and so Diego Costa will be hoping to feed off any scraps he may be given. This is one of the few matches in which Chelsea may not dominate possession, and so a counter-attacking proposition – backed by a high press to ensure Tottenham’s centre-halves aren’t overly comfortable with the ball at their feet – will be required.

This looks set to be a ding-dong battle with no quarter given and none asked. A moment of magic – or madness – could settle it.