Nearly, but not quite. That’s the message to Chelsea fans from Antonio Conte after he saw his side go seven points clear at the summit of the Premier League with as many games left to play.
“There are seven games to go and in England it is not easy, there is a lot of pressure,” the Italian said. “When you have this type of opponent, Tottenham, who is in good form and wants to catch you, it is important to have a good answer.”
His Chelsea charges delivered the very best ‘answer’ imaginable in seeing off a dangerous opponent in Bournemouth last time out. The lead had been cut to four at this point with Spurs defeating Watford earlier in the day, so the pressure was elevated somewhat on the Blues.
But they really couldn’t have responded any better. An Adam Smith own goal got us in front and an Eden Hazard strike doubled the lead just three minutes later; the Blues were in cruise control.
Back came Bournemouth, who hit the post before Josh King’s strike halved the deficit going into the half-time break.
Whatever Conte said to his players during the interval worked. They wrestled back control of the game in the second period, and finally got the reward their endeavour deserved thanks to Marcos Alonso’s sublime free-kick after 68 minutes.
It was a much-needed three points of course, but just as importantly another potentially-dangerous obstacle was overcome.
This being the Premier League, the next challenge is never far away. So on Sunday we travel to Old Trafford to take on Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United. That comes with its own sub-plots and narrative, but beyond all that represents another tough assignment against a diligent side lacking in goal-power but not endeavour.
Chelsea Team NewsThe surprise return of Victor Moses against Bournemouth was a slice of excellent and timely news for Conte. The right wing back has been in fine form this term, and is crucial to the mechanics of this 3-4-3 system. Without him, there isn’t a natural talent on that right-hand side that can offer as much forward motion as the Nigerian.
Moses’ return means that Cesar Azpilicueta can return to the back three, and as a result Chelsea look a far more balanced outfit.
With no new injury worries to concern him, Conte can instead look to the tactical battle ahead with Mourinho as a guide for his team selection. United will play three strong midfielders – the ‘Special One’ is not averse to sticking the pointy elbows of Marouane Fellaini into his side for matches where doggedness is a welcome attribute – and so Chelsea will need to front up in this area. As such, expect Nemanja Matic to start ahead of Cesc Fabregas.
Other than that, it is likely to be business as usual. Pedro will surely continue ahead of Willian – the Spaniard has been in glorious form of late – and all other tenets of this 3-4-3 will remain in place.
Manchester United vs Chelsea Head to HeadNobody really knows how much attention the players and coaching staff of the two teams involved pay to head-to-head stats, but if Conte wanted to add a little extra confidence to his players ahead of this clash then he may reveal the fact that Chelsea re unbeaten in 12 games against United.
That run features seven wins and five draws, with both of the most recent meetings going the Blues’ way: 4-0 in the league game back in October, and 1-0 in the FA Cup quarter final back in March.
The consequence of such a run is that Chelsea have no fear of a trip to Old Trafford, and they are unbeaten in four trips to the former fortress.
How the Match Will Be WonRealistically, this match will play out on one key principle: can Mourinho stop Chelsea? He won’t try and win the game – that’s not his nature in these big matches – as anybody that has witnessed his bus parking antics while in charge of the Red Devils and the Blues previously will testify.
We suspect he will create a midfield barrier to cut out the supply to Chelsea’s front three. The likes of Fellaini, Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera will be asked to stay goal-side of Kante and Matic to cut off the supply, with his wide men – probably Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard – tasked with tracking Moses and Alonso’s runs down the flanks.
That will leave Zlatan Ibrahimovic isolated in attack – United’s best hope of scoring will surely come from set pieces, and so perhaps Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta, bizarrely, will be key to launching Chelsea’s attacking platform. They can step out with possession and look to draw in a red shirt, which will free up a more advanced player in turn.
Two battles we particularly like, and both should go in Chelsea’s favour, are Eden Hazard up against Matteo Darmian and on the other side Pedro versus Luke Shaw. Are either of United’s full backs good enough – or playing well enough – to keep this in-form pair at bay?
Our answer, biased perhaps but based on logic regardless, is no, and so Chelsea should be able to eventually break down the red wall in front of them. A 1-0 win is a win all the same on this march to the Premier League title.