Saturday 25 February 2017

Chelsea v Swansea Match Preview (25/02/17): Blues to Take One Step Closer to Title Glory

Into the quarter finals of the FA Cup and eight points clear at the top of the Premier League; things are going rather swimmingly for Antonio Conte and his team at present!

Such is the Italian’s confidence in the ability of his squad to cope with the modern football schedule that he decided to name a strong game for the FA Cup game at Wolves last time out, with the likes of Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Victor Moses all getting the nod.

The result was a comfortable enough 2-0 victory that sends the Blues roaring into the quarter-finals of the competition and a date with Manchester United. Don’t expect Conte to take things easy against the Red Devils either.

It was another first team regular, Pedro, that broke the deadlock for Chelsea just after an hour, and that came after some spirited Wolves attacking play; it was reassuring to see the likes of John Terry and Kurt Zouma up to the task physically after spells of injury and inactivity.

Costa secured victory in the dying embers of the match and what was another satisfactory victory for the Blues against an up-for-it Wolves side. This was a potential banana-skin, and the Chelsea boys stepped over it with poise and grace.

Onto this week then and a return to league matters with the visit of Swansea to the Bridge. The Welsh outfit has been in good form of late and will have been cursing the interruption last week; the Swans long since departing the FA Cup.

Paul Clement will be hoping to nick another point as he guides his team towards Premier League survival, but can his players get the job done against the best side in the land?

Chelsea Team News

In what has been a feature of Chelsea’s campaign, Conte has no fresh injury worries ahead of the weekend and can name pretty much any starting eleven he likes.

Thibaut Courtois is suffering with illness and might not be well enough to don the gloves, but in Asmir Begovic the club boasts a more-than-adequate replacement. In this match, we don’t expect him to be too busy anyway.

All of the senior starters from the Wolves match came through unscathed, and so what has become the traditional Chelsea starting eleven in the league will once again take to the turf.

Chelsea v Swansea Head to Head

Bizarrely, Chelsea haven’t beaten Swansea in three meetings now (two draws, one defeat), and while that is a miniscule data set there is something slightly befuddling about that.

Prior to that the Blues had won five on the spin between April 2013 and January 2015, so at least there isn’t some kind of Welsh hex hanging over encounters between these two.

Remarkably, the visitors haven’t won a league match at Stamford Bridge since they were called Swansea Town way back in 1925!

In the last five league encounters between the two teams at the Bridge, Chelsea’s record reads W4 D1 L0 GF13 GA5.

How the Match Will Be Won

Clearly, the renaissance at Swansea under Clemet’s stewardship has to be referenced. Other than a 0-4 shellacking at the hands of Arsenal on his debut, the Welsh outfit have since won three of their four outings; victories over Liverpool, Southampton and Leicester backed by a narrow defeat at Manchester City.

There are caveats to that, however. Liverpool couldn’t defend for toffee on the day the two met, while we know how poor the Saints and the Foxes have been in recent times. Renaissance at Swansea? Yes, absolutely. But how they will fare against a Chelsea side for whom confidence is not a problem remains to be seen.

The Swans’ strength is in attack, where the clever Gylfi Sigurdsson links up well with powerhouse Fernando Llorente. The Icelander tends to be at the heart of all the good things that Swansea do, and so he will need to be monitored closely by the midfield pairing of Matic and Kante.

Thy will also deploy a pair of quick and tricky wingers, but nothing that Alonso and Moses aren’t up to marking out of the game.

The real boiling point of this game will come in Swansea’s half of the pitch. They just can’t defend; keeping one clean sheet since Christmas and just four all season. Has Alfie Mawson been thrown in a little bit at the deep end? Probably, and if Swansea’s plan for the rest of the season is to outscore their opponents – noble as that is – then it is a strategy presumably doomed to failure at the Bridge on Saturday.

The visitors may well find the net, they always seem to tend to, but we fancy a fresh and firing Chelsea attacking line to put the Swans to the sword.

Friday 17 February 2017

Wolves v Chelsea Match Preview (18/02/17): Much-Changed Chelsea to Prosper in the West Midlands

Sitting pretty; that’s the only way to describe Chelsea at the moment. Top of the Premier League by eight clear points, everything is rosy in the garden of Antonio Conte.

After a week in which we took four points from a Liverpool-Arsenal double header, the trip to Burnley offered up its own challenges. The Clarets have been in sensational form all season at Turf Moor, and the Blues had to be on their guard against Sean Dyche’s side.

In the end, a 1-1 draw – earned after Robbie Brady had cancelled out Pedro’s early opener – was probably a fair result for both.

We can enjoy a mini-break from Premier League action now with our next fixture being a home date with resurgent Swansea a week on Saturday. This week, it’s the fifth round of the FA Cup and the trip to Molineux to take on Wolves.

As you are probably already aware, Conte has used the FA Cup as a vehicle for fielding fringe players and the next generation of Blues stars, and it will be interesting to see if he sticks with that theme on Saturday.

Given that our schedule is reasonably kind at present, there must be a temptation to play a strong side with another piece of silverware in the offing – doing the double in your first season in charge? Very nice.

But then there is that sense of loyalty to the players that have driven the Blues through the two previous rounds of the competition with a pair of fine displays.

So which way will Conte go?

Chelsea Team News

Our conclusion as to the whole ‘stick or twist’ debate is that he will probably do a bit of both.

Anybody who follows David Luiz on Instagram will know that he underwent a pretty serious-looking treatment on Sunday for the knee injury he suffered, and is still suffering with, following that brutal foul that earned Sergio Aguero a red card in the game against Manchester City. The Brazilian is unlikely to be risked against Wolves, with John Terry deputising as he has for most of this FA Cup campaign.

Gary Cahill has played in all but one of Chelsea’s Premier League outings, while the likes of Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso have also been well-used. While progress in the FA Cup would be nice, any payers needing a rest will take this opportunity to do so.

So Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante will surely put their feet up, as will Diego Costa and Pedro.

But otherwise, a strong Chelsea side is expected as Conte seeks double success in 2017.

Wolves v Chelsea Head to Head

Naturally, the paths of Wolves and Chelsea cross less often these days, and in fact they haven’t played each other since 2012; so any usual inferences that can be drawn from head-to-head stats are mostly redundant here.

It will perhaps come as no surprise to learn that the Blues have won nine of their last ten encounters with the West Midlanders, and that record at Molineux reads W3 D0 L1 since the year 2000.

How the Match Will Be Won

The key thing to note here is that Wolves are only six points off the relegation places in the Championship, and so that gives an oversight into how they are struggling at present. They’ve lost four of their last five league outings and are in trouble of being sucked into a survival battle in the coming weeks.

Their major malfunction is their home form: they have taken just 15 points at Molineux this season; only Wigan have taken fewer on home soil in the Championship. Whatever the reasons for that, they are likely to be exacerbated by the visit of a young and hungry Chelsea side.

Wolves have conceded 24 in 15 on home soil this term, and their last appearance – the 0-1 defeat to relegation-threatened Wigan at the weekend – was a real sickener. They may have dominated possession, but they failed to create any glorious chances in front of goal. They have now won just twice in their last ten appearances at home.

They were impressive in seeing off Liverpool in the fourth round of course, but that was a much-changed Reds side. Wolves went up to Merseyside in the eye of the perfect storm, and came away victorious.

The heavy investment made in the summer on largely underwhelming players, plus the bizarre appointment of Walter Zenga as manager, has derailed Wolves’ season beyond reproach. They are good enough to stay up this season, and the Blues must be wary as this fixture is their cup final. But, frankly, they are lacking in the quality to really trouble even a second-string Chelsea side; one that is still packed with huge talent.

Saturday 11 February 2017

Burnley v Chelsea Match Preview (12/02/17): Can Blues Survive Fortress Turf Moor?

As week’s go, the one that has just flown by was up there with the very best from Chelsea’s perspective. A point at Anfield followed by victory over Arsenal has – are we allowed to whisper it yet? – gotten one hand on the Premier League trophy for Antonio Conte and his men.

It wasn’t just the three points gained by the Blues against the Gunners; it was the domination of their performance and the complete and utter ease with which they brushed aside one of the great retenders to their crown.

Goals from Marcos Alonso, Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas, against his old club, sealed the deal, and while an Olivier Giroud consolation goal took some of the gloss off, even that wasn’t enough to remove the smile from Conte’s face in the post-match interviews.

So, we sit nine points clear with fourteen games to go. The door is ajar, but there’s still much work to be done.

And that work starts on Sunday with the trip to Burnley. The Clarets have been excellent at home this term (W9 D1 L3), which is in stark contrast to their away record (W0 D1 L10), and so the Blues must be on their guard.

But then both Arsenal and Manchester City have done the double over Burnley already this term, so can Chelsea join the club?

Chelsea Team News

It has been a feature of Chelsea’s season that they have remained largely injury-free all campaign, and that trend continues this week.

Antonio Conte admitted that Eden Hazard and David Luiz have been struggling with little knocks of late, although the Italian will be aware that this is a tough trip, no matter what Burnley’s league position or away form would suggest.

We don’t expect them to be rested, especially with the FA Cup next weekend meaning they could have a prolonged breather, and so the same side that dismantled Arsenal will surely be deployed in Lancashire.

Burnley v Chelsea Head to Head

It won’t come as any surprise to learn that Chelsea have had the better of their matches with Burnley in the past decade or so.

The Blues are unbeaten in five since 2009, with four wins (and eleven goals) plus a draw. Prior to that they had lost two on the bounce to the Clarets – in 2008 and 1983!

But this is a whole new Burnley side, perhaps the best they have been in two decades or more, and so Chelsea cannot look into the history books for any signs of dominance.

How the Match Will Be Won

So how do we assess Burnley, who since the start of December are W5 D0 L0 at home and W0 D0 L6 away! The key, perhaps, is in the detail: the five teams that the Clarets have beaten on home soil have all been bottom-half of the table fodder (Bournemouth, Middlesbrough, Southampton, Sunderland and Leicester). That’s not to diminish their achievements, but a simple fact that they can be described as ‘flat track bullies’.

How does their record against teams in the top six stack up at home? That’s W1 D0 L2, and so perhaps that puts to bed any assertion that the Clarets are somehow unbeatable at home. When tested by elite level opposition, they are vulnerable.

So what has been the secret to their success at Turf Moor? Firstly, they are happy enough NOT having the ball; a tactic which worked supremely well for Leicester in 2015/16, lest we forget. They will defend with a rigid four across the back and a tight four in midfield, with Andre Gray dropping in alongside them to help out.

When they spring forward, Burnley have a number of options on the counter attack. They can hit the ball long to the muscular Sam Vokes, pump balls into the channels for Gray to utilise his pace, or if Sean Dyche opts for Ashley Barnes then he has the guile to drop deep and link up the lines.

So this will be a slightly different kind of challenge to the one that the Blues are used to, but what is in their favour is that fluid 3-4-3 systems, like that they have adopted, tend to do well against flat formations where two banks of four are utilised. This will allow Hazard and Pedro to drift in-between the lines, while the back three will be able to go man-for-man against Burnley’s front two with David Luiz lying spare as an auxiliary sweeper.

The only concern would be in wide areas, where the Clarets could have an overload situation on Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses, but their full backs are not the kind to get forward and cause mayhem, so no worries there.

Both Arsenal and Manchester City have won at Turf Moor this season; and Chelsea could be set to join the club.

Friday 3 February 2017

Chelsea v Arsenal Match Preview (04/02/17): Blues to Take One Step Closer to the Title?

If this is to be the defining week in Chelsea’s campaign, then it has started in excellent fashion.

Okay, so the more pessimistic Blues supporters will label the 1-1 draw with Liverpool on Tuesday as two points dropped, rather than one gained, after Diego Costa’s penalty miss which could have sealed the game.

But let’s be honest: it was an excellent save from Simon Mignolet, and with both Spurs and Arsenal dropping points in their midweek fixtures to come away from Anfield with a point is a fine result.

So if that is part one of the ‘Week of Destiny’ ticked off, then how about part two? Well, we welcome Arsenal to the Bridge for the Saturday lunchtime kick off, and they will be absolutely seething after going down 1-2 to Watford on Tuesday evening.

The Gunners have often been accused of self-sabotaging their title ambitions by losing silly games like the one against the Hornets, and while we have to be wary of the ‘wounded animal’ syndrome, you would imagine that their confidence has taken quite a battering. They are now nine points behind the Blues.

With 15 Premier League games to go, there are stacks of points to be played for. But victory for Chelsea on Saturday would certainly drive the second nail of the week into Arsenal’s title coffin.

Chelsea Team News

Antonio Conte once again has the luxury of a full-strength squad to choose from. Branislav Ivanovic has departed for Zenit in a deadline day move – and what an excellent servant he has been to the club – and we were unsure if the likes of Lionel Zouma, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Nathaniel Chalobah might have left on loan. But the Italian boss has kept as many of his cards in hand as possible, as a testing final third of the campaign awaits.

And so an unchanged team is expected. There’s no real tactical reasons for changing that set-up, and really the only question Conte has, as ever, is who to pick out of Pedro and Willian in the insight right position. Typically he’s gone for Pedro, although Willian got the nod on Tuesday, so we’ll back the Brazilian to be selected once again.

Chelsea v Arsenal Head to Head

One of the most celebrated fixtures in the English football calendar, there have been some 188 meetings between the two sides dating back to 1907….with Arsenal just having the upper hand in the head-to-head rankings.

The better news is that the Blues have enjoyed the bulk of the more recent success. They have lost just two of the last twelve; one of which was an inconsequential Community Shield game, the second was the 0-3 drubbing earlier in the season. That result drove Conte to switch to his preferred 3-4-3 formation….and the rest is history!

The Blues have won the last four meetings at the Bridge with a goal difference of +11.

How the Match Will Be Won

The main problem for Arsenal is that they simply cannot defend; three clean sheets in fourteen starts is simply not good enough for a side with title aspirations.

So we’re expecting Chelsea to score once, maybe twice, maybe more times, and the question then is can the Blues keep out the Gunners at the other end.

With six clean sheets in eight league starts on our own patch, the omens are certainly good, and historically that has been the case on home soil against the Gunners, who haven’t scored at the Bridge in 270 minutes of football.

It will require discipline though, with Arsenal looking to play those pretty little triangles in front of our back three. As long as we defend with organisation – e.g. Hazard and Willian dropping in to marshal the Gunners’ defensive midfield pairing, we should be able to cramp them for space.

Arsenal’s Plan B is to launch diagonal balls aerially to Olivier Giroud, although we suspect that Luiz and Cahill will have the measure of the Frenchman in the air.

Arsenal look particularly vulnerable down their right flank, where Mesut Ozil and Alex Iwobi provide in sufficient cover for Gabriel, Arsenal’s stand-in right back in the absence of Hector Bellerin. If Alonso, Matic and Hazard can play in pockets of space on the left-most third of the pitch, handy overloads could be created.

For most pundits, Arsenal are there to be shot at. They can be unsettled by breaking up their passages of play, and by preventing the likes of Alexis Sanchez drifting in-between the lines. If we can do that, there is no doubting our ability to score the goal(s) required to win this match.