Thursday, 30 March 2017

Chelsea v Crystal Palace Match Preview (01/04/17): Blues Ready to Shoot Down the Eagles

One down, seven more to go: that will be the attitude of Antonio Conte after he earmarked 24 more points for the Blues to secure the Premier League title in his first season in charge.

"I think we need 24 points to win the league. For us it's important to go game by game without looking forward,” the Italian said prior to his side’s last outing. "It is important to beat Stoke and it won't be easy.”

Conte was right on that count. Chelsea did beat Stoke thanks to goals from Willian and Gary Cahill, but not before Jon Walters had netted a penalty for the Potteries outfit. It led to a fraught last half-hour or so for the boys, and we were very grateful for Cahill’s late strike that secured the three points.

Then the international break came; an excellent opportunity for those not involved to recharge their batteries. Those that were selected have, by and large, come through unscathed.

If Chelsea do require 21 more points to claim the Premier League crown then they will be hopeful that they can pick up three more towards their tally at the Bridge on Saturday. Opponents Crystal Palace have improved of late with three straight wins, but those all came against sides outside of the league’s top six. How will the Eagles fare against an elite outfit?

Their cause certainly won’t be helped by the likely absences of former Chelsea man Patrick van Aanholt, Mathieu Flamini and James McArthur for a trip across London that, historically, they haven’t enjoyed making.

Chelsea Team News

All of the above being said, Chelsea have not been without their own injury worries this week. Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois all sat out their respective international matches as they nursed injuries, but the good news is that all three of them should be fit enough to take to the field on Saturday.

Costa suffered an ankle injury in training with Spain, but thankful subsequent X-rays showed nothing untoward. He was left on the bench in Tuesday’s friendly with France, and should be fit to pull on the blue shirt on Saturday.

The same goes for Hazard and Courtois. Hazard missed Belgium’s double header and returned to London to seek treatment on the calf strain that caused him to miss the game with Stoke. Courtois, meanwhile, hurt his hip in Belgium’s 1-1 draw with Greece, but is expected to make a full recovery in time for the trip of the Eagles.

Victor Moses picked up a calf injury in the FA Cup clash with Manchester United a couple of weeks ago and was expected to face a spell on the sidelines. But he showed the recovery time of peak Bruce Willis in Unbreakable to take to the field against Stoke, and so Conte should be able to name a full strength side on Saturday.

Chelsea vs Crystal Palace Head to Head

Let’s assume that Palace’s win at Stamford Bridge in August 2015 – as part of the beginning of the end for Jose Mourinho - was an anomaly. We have to, because otherwise we note the Eagles have soared in only two of their last twenty outings against Chelsea.

Palace’s record on our patch dating back 15 years reads W1 D1 L3, but obviously there has been a lot of water under the Bridge since then (boom boom).

Chelsea won twice at Selhurst Park in 2016: 3-0 in January and then 1-0 in this season’s encounter, when Diego Costa’s goal on the stroke of half-time sealed the deal.

How the Match Will Be Won

Sam Allardyce is the master at setting his teams up to play antagonistic football, and despite the Eagles winning three games on the bounce – and not conceding a goal – just prior to the international break, we suspect he will look to upset Chelsea’s rhythm as much as possible here by getting plenty of bodies behind the ball.

Chelsea’s joy will likely come down the flanks as Allardyce tries his upmost to close down the middle of the park. Down the left Palace will greatly miss Van Aanholt, who is a far better player than his CV would suggest (his formative years at Chelsea apart, of course!). Handy defensively, he’s one of those defenders who is probably better going forward, and Moses plus Pedro/Willian will have a field day in his absence.

And on the other wing Palace deploy Wilfried Zaha, an outstanding talent who can be more than a handful to mark on his day. But the Ivorian simply does not defend or work back, and that could leave Marcos Alonso and Eden Hazard doubling up on the Eagles’ right back. That would be catastrophic for them.

It won’t be a pretty sight – Allardyce will see to that, but we expect Chelsea to edge one step closer to the Premier League title with a one or two goal victory to nil.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Stoke City v Chelsea Match Preview (18/03/17): Blues Able to Navigate Tricky Away Day

When Ander Herrera got sent off in the first half of Monday’s FA Cup quarter final with Manchester United, it was fairly obvious from that point on that Chelsea were going to win the match.

An even contest prior to the Spaniard’s dismissal, his absence required a shape-shift from Jose Mourinho and, in time-honoured fashion, he attempted to park the bus by dropping human wrecking machine Marouane Fellaini in the middle of the park.

Happily, this Chelsea side is far too canny to be simply stopped from playing, and N’Golo Kante’s second half goal was just desserts for our dominance. In truth, but for an outstanding display from David de Gea in the United goal, the scoreline could have been a lot wider. If this was a boxing match the Red Devils corner would have thrown in the towel in the second period.

The reward for Chelsea’s excellence is a Wembley semi-final against none other than Tottenham; what a mouth-watering prospect that is.

But before then the Blues have a Premier League title to win, and that quest continues – as all good adventures do – in Stoke-on-Trent, and a trip to the bet365 Stadium to take on the Potteries outfit.

Mark Hughes’ men are one of only a handful of teams to truly cause us problems since switching to 3-4-3, and our 4-2 win at the Bridge back in December was genuinely hard fought. Peter Crouch caused the defence no end of problems – getting on the scoresheet himself and creating his side’s opener- and so the beanpole frontman will need to be better marshalled this time. Expect Gary Cahill to follow him around the pitch like an amorous dog on heat.

Stoke are a strange side, capable of resilience (0-0 with Manchester City) and mediocrity (0-4 at Tottenham) seemingly at will, so the Chelsea boys will need to be on their toes in what is yet another potential banana-skin on route to the Premier League crown.

Chelsea Team News

The only new injury worry for Antonio Conte is Victor Moses, who limped off late against Manchester United with a calf injury. The Daily Express is reporting that he faces three weeks on the sidelines, and how much truth there is in that remains to be seen, although we expect he won’t be pulling on a blue shirt this week regardless.

That’s a huge shame as Moses has been outstanding in his reinvented role at right wing back, and now Conte has two ways to cover for the Nigerian’s absence: the attacking way or the defensive.

He could opt to revert Pedro to right wing back and bring Willian in to the inside right role; that would be the attacking stance.

Or he could combat the threat of Crouch by bringing in either Kurt Zouma or John Terry to man-mark the 6ft 7in striker, and then shift Cesar Azpilicueta out to wing back. That is clearly the more defensive option.

It will be interesting to see which angle Conte takes, and while we suspect Zouma will come into the side there is every chance it could be Terry or Willian that deputises.

Stoke City v Chelsea Head to Head

The bet365 Stadium, or the Britannia as it used to be known, has not been a happy hunting ground for Chelsea. Three of their last four visits there in all competitions have ended in defeat, and their form in the past decade in Stoke reads W4 D2 L3. It’s not disastrous from the Blues’ perspective, although it is rather surprising.

But this is Chelsea 2.0 under Antonio Conte, with the boys playing as good as they have done in decades under the canny Italian. In some respects, we can discount all that has gone before, because Stoke won’t have confronted anything like this beast in blue this season (apart from the revers fixture, naturally!).

How the Match Will Be Won

Chelsea’s tactics rather speak for themselves these days; get the ball to Eden Hazard and let him do the rest.

That is an over-simplification of course, but the Belgian is in such scintillating form that he is more likely than anyone to be Chelsea’s match winner on Saturday.

Stoke are perennially strong at set pieces, so eliminating needless fouls in dangerous areas will be top of Conte’s checklist this week, and their main mode of attack will be aerial, diagonal balls into Crouch, who will look to bring Marko Arnautovic into the game as often as possible. With Azpilicueta perhaps moving to wing back, at least the Blues have the extra security of a natural defender to tackle the tricky Austrian winger.

Mark Hughes’ side are much in the same mould as their manager; gritty, determined and tough to beat. The Blues will have to be on their mettle, but if they show the form they have done of late then they should, realistically, get over the line.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Chelsea v Manchester United Match Preview (13/03/17): Blues Ready for Wembley March

Make no bones about it, Monday night’s trip to West Ham was a potential banana-skin in the making. The Hammers are a decent side on their day, and clearly would be up for the fight against their London neighbours.

But Chelsea played like….well, champions really. They soaked up the best that West Ham had to throw at them before scoring a classic counter-attacking goal in the 25th minute via Eden Hazard. The Blues’ second was less visually appealing – Diego Costa nudging in with his thigh from a Hazard corner – but 2-0 up after an hour and the job was almost done.

Manuel Lanzini did manage to grab an injury time consolation for the Iron, but it was too little, too late for Slaven Bilic’s outfit and Chelsea extended their lead at the summit of the Premier League table to a nice round ten points.

It’s another Monday night affair for the boys this week, this time in the FA Cup against that old foe Manchester United. Antonio Conte will be eager to secure the double in his first season in charge – not a bad way to introduce yourself to the Chelsea faithful, and standing in his way will be one Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese gaffer will be desperate to get one over on his former employer here, and is sure to put out his strongest possible eleven in an attempt to derail the Blues’ ambitions of securing silverware.

Conte, meanwhile, has been content with using the FA Cup as an avenue to field his fringe players, and we can’t see that changing dramatically on Monday. But in front of a packed Bridge – and on the back of the 4-0 win in the league fixture between the two – Chelsea will be confident of booking their place in the semi-finals of the competition and a trip to Wembley Stadium.

Chelsea Team News

As is usually the case for Chelsea this season, there are no fresh injury concerns going into this game. Eden Hazard left the field against West Ham clutching his hamstring, although that is thought to be a twinge more than anything sinister. Whether Conte decides to risk him against the Red Devils is another matter.

Other than the Belgian it is once again a clean bill of health for the Italian to choose from, and so far in this FA Cup run he has opted to rest a few weary legs where possible.

We suspect though that the first choice back three will start in order to deal with the threat posed by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with Diego Costa continuing up front in lieu of any obvious replacement; it is obvious that Conte is not pleased with the progress – or lack of – made by Michy Batshuayi. Likewise for the wing backs, it just makes sense to pick them.

Chelsea v Manchester United Head to Head

You can’t really fault Chelsea’s head-to-head record with the Red Devils; they are unbeaten in eleven against their old foe. That run features six wins and five draws, including an FA Cup triumph in 2013, where the original tie at Old Trafford was drawn 2-2 prior to a Blues 1-0 success at the Bridge.

Chelsea have also won five of their last six encounters with United at Stamford Bridge in all competitions, and with a healthy goal difference of +9.

The most memorable recent clash between the two teams also happens to be the last time they met; Chelsea’s crushing 4-0 win at the Bridge back in October. Two goals in each half did the damage then, and how Conte would love a repeat against Mourinho, who had plenty to say for himself after the final whistle of that particular game.

How the Match Will Be Won

One tabloid journalist suggested recently that if you stop Zlatan Ibrahimovic you stop Manchester United, and while that was no doubt penned with tongue firmly in cheek there is actually a semblance of truth to it.

Without the Swede’s 26 goals this term you do wonder where they would be, and while it is okay to have a talisman relying on him so heavily is not a strategy for long-term success. You look at his sidekicks – Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Henrik Mkhitaryan, Paul Pogba – and you think okay, this United side can be stopped quite easily.

They are strong defensively but there are still question marks over the likes of Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones, while Antonio Valencia – excellent going forward, appears vulnerable when facing wingers with a bit of knowhow. He will have his hands full on Monday night.

We’re anticipating a low-scoring affair that might even be settled by the odd goal, but if you can mark Zlatan out of the game then where does United’s inspiration come from? Chelsea have more attacking players in form and ready to produce a moment of magic to send their side to yet another Wembley showpiece.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

West Ham v Chelsea Match Preview (06/03/17): Blues Ready for Battle of London Honours

Blues fans will have to wait until Monday night to get their Chelsea fix – and what a cracking match we have in store.

A trip across the capital to West Ham lies in wait for Antonio Conte’s men, who go to the Olympic Stadium in good heart after a 3-1 triumph over revitalised Swansea last time out.

Cesc Fabregas marked his 300th Premier League game with a goal, and the Spaniard has been outstanding in his appearances of late. You would suggest he deserves to keep his place in the side here, having also hit the bar and forcing a great save from Lukasz Fabianski against the Swans.

Further goals from Pedro and Diego Costa confirmed the victory, and while the defending for Fernando Llorente’s consolation for the Swans was disappointing it was, pretty much, business as usual for the Blues.

So what can we expect from the Hammers on Monday? Their current form (W3 D2 L3) is indicative of their campaign as a whole really, and they are yet to beat a team from the top of the table this season; their record against sides from the top 10 reads W0 D4 L8, and that sums up their aspirations rather nicely. Their goal difference from 13 games in their new Olympic home is -13, which suggests they are still finding their feet in unfamiliar surroundings.

Understandably then Chelsea are favourites for the game, and it is potential banana skins like this one that they must not slip on.

Chelsea Team News

Once again, Chelsea boast a clean bill of health for a Premier League game, and that has been a feature of the campaign. Whether Antonio Conte’s training sessions are such that niggles are avoided or whether it is just darn good luck, the Blues have enjoyed a charmed season on the injury front.

And so once again the Italian’s decisions are tactical ones, rather than enforced. Both Andy Carroll and Michail Antonio look set to miss the game through injury and suspension respectively, and as such the Hammers’ aerial prowess is dimmed somewhat. If Conte had planned on making defensive alterations to combat that – perhaps John Terry coming in – then he no longer needs to worry.

The only things keeping Conte up at night are these two quibbles: should Fabregas or Nemanja Matic start alongside N’Golo Kante in midfield? And who does he want to start on the right-hand side: Pedro or Willian? For the moment at least, that is as tough as it gets for the manager.

You would assume he would stick with the present incumbents in their respective positions, Fabregas and Pedro. Both have been unbelievably good of late.

West Ham v Chelsea Head to Head

We had a dress rehearsal of sorts for this game back in October, when the Hammers triumphed in a 2-1 win in the League Cup on their own turf. But realistically that fixture is of little consequence given as it came prior to Conte’s switch to the infamous 3-4-3 system.

West Ham actually have a pretty good home record against the Blues, with victories in 2012 and 2015 in league games, but if you are into the head-to-head stats then it is worth noting that Chelsea’s record in matches in all competitions against the Iron reads W16 D5 L3 since 2004.

How the Match Will Be Won

Michail Antonio, Andy Carroll and Angela Ogbonna will all miss Monday’s encounter and that trio is crucial to the way the Hammers play. Without the aerial strength of the former pair in attack and the latter in defence, the Iron lack height and power and both ends of the pitch.

Going forward then West Ham will need to be a bit more circumspect in their build-up play, and it’s not really an angle that suits them. It plays into Chelsea’s hands – we’ve thought David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta are vulnerable in the air for some time – and that can only be a good thing.

The best way to describe West Ham’s midfield is hard-working, rather than outrageously talented. The likes of Mark Noble will make life difficult for Fabregas and Kante by closing down the space and minimising their time on the ball. It should prove to be a fantastic ding-dong battle.

It’s in wide areas where we really expect Chelsea to flourish. The Hammers also play with wing backs, so Alonso and Moses will find themselves one-on-one with (probably) Aaron Cresswell and Edimilson Fernandes; it’s a battle the Blues will expect to win, especially with Eden Hazard and Pedro dropping into the half spaces just inside.

Chelsea boast all of the tools to beat the Iron, and the absence of Antonio and Carroll blunts any hopes the Hammers had of getting anything from this game.