Thursday 25 May 2017

Chelsea vs Arsenal Match Preview (27/05/17): Blues to Bow Out with a Bang

It seems like an eternity ago that Chelsea brought the curtain down on their Premier League title-winning campaign with victory against Sunderland, and with lots happening in the world since then – including the horrific events in Manchester – it’s no surprise that football has taken a bit of a backseat.

Perspective alters everything in the aftermath of an atrocity like the Manchester Arena bombing, and we remember that football is just a game played by multi-millionaires kicking a leather bag of wind around for an hour and a half.

But football can be redemptive too, and as Manchester United lifted the Europa League trophy on Wednesday night you hope that somebody, somewhere in the city found some solace amidst the darkness.

The sight of Antonio Conte hoisting another trophy aloft would be a fitting conclusion to a brilliant campaign masterminded by the Italian, and he’ll have the perfect opportunity in the FA Cup final against Arsenal on Saturday. Without the switch to the 3-4-3 system, you do wonder where the Blues would be languishing right now.

It was a formation that proved too hot for Sunderland to handle anyway, despite the Black Cats taking a third minute lead through Javier Manquillo. Willian equalised shortly afterwards, Eden Hazard and Pedro edged us in front and a late brace from Michy Batshuayi added some gloss to the scoreline.

So now the campaign boils down to one final 90 minute stretch against the Gunners. They will be high in confidence after ending the campaign with a flourish, but with injuries to key defenders – Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel are definitely out, Shkodran Mustafi and Kieran Gibbs likely to follow suit – clearly there is a huge opportunity here for the Blues.

What a treat it would be to see John Terry lift another trophy in his final game in a blue shirt.

Chelsea Team News

There can be nothing better for a manager than heading into a cup final with no injury worries. While Arsene Wenger scrabbles around to find defensive personnel – he’s had to call up untested Marcus McGuane to his first team squad – Conte can sit back and relax: his side picks itself.

So it will be his usual favoured eleven that takes to the field, and while we can expect a late cameo from John Terry – particularly if Chelsea hold a comfortable lead – there will surely be no surprises from the gaffer.

Chelsea vs Arsenal Head to Head

These two teams have met more than 180 times in the past in a rivalry that dates back to the early 1900s, and the proximity between them is confirmed by the slender head-to-head lead that Arsenal hold of 73 wins to 62.

But there has been a general shift in momentum in the Blues’ favour in the past few years. They have gone W6 D2 L2 against Arsenal in their most recent meetings, winning three of their last four.

We have won each of the last three cup ties too, and let’s not forget we’ve gone on to lift the trophy in each of our last four FA Cup finals!

How the Match Will Be Won

It could well be the case that Arsenal line up with Rob Holding and Per Mertesacker in defence. Now, that pairing offers plenty of physical presence but neither is the quickest off the mark. To combat that the Gunners might play with a deep defensive line, but that will offer Chelsea plenty of room to exploit in front of them. It’s a double-edged sword for Arsene Wenger.

Finding the net hasn’t been a problem for this Chelsea outfit anyway, so there’s no doubting our firepower to win this game.

Defensively, clearly the biggest threat will be Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean has had another fine campaign and will lead the line for the Gunners, and cutting off his supply line will be key.

Fortunately, Mesut Ozil has been at this inconsistent best/worst this term so he may not pose any problems, while willing support runner Danny Welbeck is also struggling with injury.

Cup finals are generally even affairs on paper heading into the contest, and yet all of the aces are surely in Antonio Conte’s deck for this one. Yes, Arsenal have a fine record in FA Cup finals, but they have simply been struck with the dreaded injury curse at the worst possible time.

Chelsea, confidence flowing freely, have passed every gut check on their way to the Premier League title, and there’s no reason to suggest they are going to fail this last one of the campaign.

Thursday 18 May 2017

Chelsea vs Sunderland Match Preview (21/05/17): Another Day of Celebration at the Bridge

Monday night served up the perfect opportunity for all inside Stamford Bridge to celebrate the wonderful achievements of Antonio Conte, his staff and of course the players. It was an evening of pure theatre….and the game with Watford wholly lived up to the billing.

With Conte serenaded by the crowd within minutes of the game starting, the carnival atmosphere lent itself to a lively game rather than a borefest. And with the Italian boss deciding to rest a number of players with one eye on next week’s FA Cup final, it was little surprise that the match panned out with excellence and mediocrity in equal measure.

It was John Terry who opened the scoring for the Blues, and what a fitting swansong that was for the legendary defender. Okay, so he mucked up a couple of minutes later to allow Etienne Capoue equalise for the Hornets, but the roar that greeted Terry’s goal was as loud as you will hear anywhere.

Cesar Azpilicueta, one of only three Chelsea regulars to start the game alongside N’Golo Kante and Eden Hazard, restored the advantage heading into half time before the game burst into life in the second period – goals from Michy Batshuayi for the Blues and Daryl Janmaat for Watford setting up a grandstand finish.

Stefano Okaka drew the Hornets level with 15 minutes to play, and you would have been forgiven for thinking that would be it as far as the scoring was concerned. But as has been Chelsea’s way this season, they found a way of winning the match: substitute Cesc Fabregas firing home in the 88th minute to secure yet another home victory for his side.

So Conte’s target of 30 wins is still achievable….standing in his way are relegated Sunderland. The Black Cats should not rain on our parade given that they have won just one of their last thirteen and failed to score in 12/15. Chelsea will end the Premier League campaign in perfect fashion here, won’t they?

Chelsea Team News

After making nine changes to his starting eleven for the game with Watford, trying to second guess Conte’s team selection here is a tough old business!

You would imagine that he would want to give game time to those who will feature in the FA Cup final next week, and so a number of first team regulars will presumably return to the starting eleven. Perhaps Monday night’s team selection intimated that the likes of Azpilicueta, Hazard and maybe even Kante will be rested against Sunderland on Sunday.

There are no fresh injury concerns, so really it is up to Conte as to how he wants to shuffle his pack. We’ve published a possible line-up below, but knowing the Italian we could end up looking very silly come Sunday afternoon!

Chelsea vs Sunderland Head to Head

Like most other Premier League sides, the head-to-head stats for Chelsea against Sunderland can be split into two categories: pre-Abramovich and post-Abramovich money.

Before the oligarch pumped his considerable load into Chelsea’s coffers, the head-to-head record with Sunderland was a mixed bag, but since he took over things have gone routinely in the Blues’ favour. Since the turn of the Millennium the boys lost their first two games against the Black Cats, but since then the stats read W20 D1 L4 in the Londoners’ favour.

Sunderland actually won at the Bridge in 2014 you might recall, but that is their sole success in their last five trips here.

How the Match Will Be Won

Making any accurate analysis of how this match will pan out is difficult without knowing how Conte intends to set his side up.

After all, we predicted that a first-choice Chelsea eleven would roll over Watford without so much as a second thought. What actually panned out was that a disjointed Blues side – understandable given the number of changes – struggled to see off a game but low quality Watford outfit.

That familiarity was abundantly clear defensively in particular, so to suggest that Chelsea will run through this hapless Sunderland outfit would be churlish.

But on the face of it, the Black Cats really shouldn’t serve up any problems. Their only win since the start of February came against Hull (no offence), and failure to score in twelve of their last fifteen games of the campaign tells its own story.

Furthermore, their record this season against the top six teams in the Premier League reads W0 D2 L9, so there is little for their supporters to get excited about ahead of the trip south.

What will the final game of the season at Stamford Bridge bring? There will be emotion and tears as John Terry says his final goodbye, but the overriding sensation will be one of joy and celebration as we reflect on an outstanding campaign. Let’s hope the boys can round it off with victory.

Saturday 13 May 2017

Chelsea vs Watford Match Preview (15/05/17): Blues to Celebrate Title Win in Fine Style

They made us wait, but boy did it feel good when Michy Batshuayi steered the ball home in the 82nd minute to spark wild celebrations in the away end at the Hawthorns. After a year’s loaning of the Premier League trophy to Leicester, the silverware is back where it belongs in the Stamford Bridge collection.

It’s been a long old campaign but one that since November or so has been a delight to watch unfold. The switch to 3-4-3, perhaps over-emphasised upon but hugely important nonetheless, has been the catalyst, and so Antonio Conte deserves all the credit he will get in the coming days.

Surprisingly, West Brom offered stubborn resistance on Friday night – doing away with the notion that some of their players were already ‘on the beach’, as the late season cliché goes. They offered little going forward but were dogged in their defensive work and clearly relishing in their role of ‘spoilers’.

It was slightly strange, in some ways, that the player who would finally break the deadlock was the forgotten man in a blue shirt, Batshuayi. The lanky centre forward has made little impression in his first season in London, but what a fitting way to confirm your place in Chelsea folklore by netting the goal that ultimately secured the title.

There are two games of the campaign left to go, and you suspect Conte will not want his players to rest on their laurels – particularly on Monday night, where the party atmosphere should hopefully automatically drive a big performance from the boys in blue. This is the official sign off from the 2016/17 campaign at the Bridge….let’s hope the players do us proud.

Chelsea Team News

The only bit of team news of note to derive from Friday’s game was Conte keeping faith with Cesc Fabregas ahead of PFA Player of the Year N’Golo Kante. The manager was rewarded by a second consecutive Man of the Match performance from the Spaniard, who once again showed off his virtuoso range of passing.

You would imagine that Conte will name an unchanged side here. You could argue that the catalysts for the win over West Brom were late substitutes Batshuayi and Willian – will that be enough to get them a start on Monday? Perhaps not, but they will presumably get a chance to shine from the substitutes’ bench once again.

Another who will be sent on in a final farewell at the Bridge will be John Terry. The Blues legend has confirmed he will leave the club at the end of the season, and he will be handed an emotional swansong in front of the supporters who have given him so much love over the past 15 years or so.

Chelsea vs Watford Head to Head

The overall head to head reads 15 wins to 9 in Chelsea’s favour, although those really are a game of two halves.

Between 1970 and 1987, it was Watford who enjoyed the bulk of the success, but since the turn of the Millennium things have switched in the Blues’ favour: since 2000, the form of Chelsea reads W8 D3 L0 against the Hornets.

There was a pair of draws between the sides last season – that 2015/16 campaign we don’t speak of – but Chelsea got back to winning ways earlier in the year with a 2-1 win at Vicarage Road courtesy of goals from Diego Costa and that man Batshuayi.

How the Match Will Be Won

Did you know that Watford can, mathematically, still go down? It would require all of the sides below them to win all of their games, but it could still happen. So the Hornets will still possess plenty of fire.

But the form simply isn’t there: four defeats on the bounce, plus five in six, and the fact that they have only scored one goal in their last half-a-dozen outings, suggests that they are way off the mark that saw them as high as eighth in the table earlier in the campaign.

Walter Mazzarri has been hamstrung by injuries this term, and that theme continues here. Defenders Younes Kaboul, Craig Cathcart, Miguel Britos and Christian Kabasele are all either definitely out or facing a late fitness test, and clearly if two or more of that quartet are absent it will greatly impact upon the Hornets’ ambition.

The stats would suggest that they can’t hurt Chelsea in an attacking sense, and if we ally that with their defensive personnel issues then you would suggest the Blues should win this game at a canter.

With the pressure off, we can expect a grandstand performance from the Chelsea players to go with the champagne atmosphere.

Wednesday 10 May 2017

West Brom vs Chelsea Match Preview (12/05/17): Blues to Clinch Historic Premier League Title

What a week that was. Tottenham’s defeat at West Ham on Friday night meant that Chelsea could extend their lead at the summit of the Premier League table to seven points with victory against Middlesbrough….and Antonio Conte’s boys showed no mercy or finish line nerves.

If there were any nerves around Stamford Bridge given the enhanced importance of the game then those were quickly extinguished as early as the 23rd minute when Diego Costa slotted home from Cesc Fabregas’ pass, and when Marcos Alonso slid home on the half hour mark the champagne was already on ice.

Fabregas created another in the second half for Nemanja Matic, and that was that: the Blues are one win way away from recapturing the Premier League title at the first time of asking under Conte’s leadership.

The only downside to the waltz against Boro was Costa appearing to wave goodbye to the home fans when he netted his goal; it was a bizarre, demonstrative celebration from a player who very rarely shows his emotions in any way other than anger and frustration. Will we be seeing the Spaniard in a blue shirt next season? It’s too early to say.

So the scene is set for Friday night, when Chelsea can mathematically be crowned champions with victory against West Brom at the Hawthorns. Tony Pulis’ side have won one of their last nine and failed to score in seven of those; cancel any plans you may have had on Saturday lads, you might be waking up with the mother of all hangovers.

Chelsea Team News

It’s testament to the resilience and strength of N’Golo Kante that he missed just his second game of the season against Boro on Monday. The French maestro was battling a thigh injury, and Conte decided not to risk him with potentially more important fixtures to come.

The difficulty for the manager now is that Cesc Fabregas was absolutely outstanding once again on Monday night, creating two goals and countless other attacking opportunities for the Blues; indeed, his performance was so good that it is almost impossible for Conte to leave him out of the starting eleven.

But Nemanja Matic has matured into such a calming presence in midfield, and with goals against Spurs in the FA Cup semi-final and another against the Boro, and as such he doesn’t deserve to be dropped. It’s a conundrum for Conte….admittedly a nice one to have!

It may well be that the fall guy is Pedro, a brilliant player but one whose great work generally goes under the radar. The Spaniard may be ‘rested’ to allow Fabregas to play in the inside right role, which he enjoys as it enables him to orchestrate matters higher up the pitch.

Conte is a good man and we suspect he will give John Terry a swansong in defence – although that is likely to come next time out against Watford if the title has been won.

West Brom vs Chelsea Head to Head

West Brom are the kind of side that you would assume Chelsea would enjoy a positive head-to-head record against, and in the more modern era that is certainly the case.

The Blues have lost just one of their last eight meetings with the Baggies, and that was a 0-3 defeat in May of 2015 after they had already won the title. Discounting that trip to the Hawthorns, Chelsea have won one and drew another in their last three visits to the West Midlands.

The reverse fixture earlier in the campaign went the way of Chelsea by a scoreline of 1-0 after a late Diego Costa goal finally broke West Brom’s resolve. Judging by their most recent results and performances, we can expect a lot less fire and passion from them on Friday.

How the Match Will Be Won

If Chelsea have shown any vulnerability of late, it is generally when teams have played against us on the front foot: the defeats against Crystal Palace and Manchester United spring to mind, as to a certain extent does the FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham.

But the good news is that West Brom won’t do that. Instead, they will look to contain the Blues for as long as they possibly can, with the express intention of scoring from set pieces.

So it will be a familiar scenario for Antonio Conte in trying to find a way past a resolute rearguard action. The selection of Fabregas should certainly help with that – the Spaniard is a master at unpicking locks, and with Costa rediscovering his touch in front of goal there should be no real problems for Chelsea overcoming the Baggies’ dogged resistance.

There’s every chance that the boys will be celebrating the first part of what would be an incredible double this season come Friday night.

Thursday 4 May 2017

Chelsea vs Middlesbrough Match Preview (08/05/17): Complacency is Chelsea’s Hardest Opponent Here

If ever there was a sign that Chelsea are ready for coronation as Premier League champions, it was our 3-0 victory over Everton last time out.

If you read our preview of that game you would know that the Toffees had won their eight prior games at Goodison Park – yes, eight. So for Chelsea to roll into town and put three past them without reply is a marker of intent. These blue boys are ready to be anointed.

There’s still work to be done though, and in situations like these so often complacency can become an issue. A home game against Middlesbrough….that’s three points in the bag, isn’t it?

It probably should be, but the Boro are in dire straits at present and simply have to win this game to have any chance of avoiding relegation. That makes them a dangerous animal.

Ordinarily of course the North East outfit would come here, stick ten men behind the ball and make life very difficult for the Blues, but here they may just play a more expansive game; which could pose problems defensively as well as offering potential going forward.

But to be surgical and clinical about it, if Chelsea play as well as they did against Everton then they will win this game. The first half was a well contested affair with both sides creating half chances, before Chelsea put their foot down in the second half and strangled the life out of their hosts.

Goals from Pedro, Gary Cahill and Willian sealed the deal for Antonio Conte’s men, who know that three wins from their remaining four games will be enough to clinch the title. They will be looking to land one of those on Monday night against the Boro.

Chelsea Team News

Conte was able to field his full strength starting eleven against Everton last time out, and that has been a feature of the season as a whole: if you want to win silverware, you need to keep your best players fit.

There was a concerning moment on Merseyside when David Luiz limped off with a groin injury, ad while the prognosis is said to be positive it may well be the case that Conte simply doesn’t risk the Brazilian for this game.

Instead, we’re likely to face a trial by air against Middlesbrough should they go with one or both of Alvaro Negredo and Rudy Gestede in attack, so bringing in a physical presence like Kurt Zouma would not be the end of the world.

Chelsea vs Middlesbrough Head to Head

 Very few people will be surprised to learn that Chelsea enjoy a healthy head-to-head record against Middlesbrough, and historically that extends to 55 wins to 31 with 29 draws.

The modern day record is perhaps the most educating. Since the turn of the millennium, the two teams have met on 22 occasions; with Chelsea gaining the upper hand 15 times (three defeats, four draws).

And it’s pretty obvious that the Northerners hate making the trip down to London. Middlesbrough last won at Stamford Bridge in 1975 – some 24 visits ago! Since then, Chelsea’s record reads W18 D6 L0….so they should be winning this game, shouldn’t they?

How the Match Will Be Won

A feature of Middlesbrough’s game this season, it has to be said, is how little threat they have posed going forward. Their sole modus operandi appears to be diagonal balls into Negredo – not a bad tactic given how strong the Spaniard is in the air, but it’s a tactic that has failed pretty much across the board.

Their other outlet – the pace and trickery of Adama Traore down the right-hand side – is one that offers something of a juxtaposition. Traore is outstanding at taking on and beating his marker, however his end product leaves a lot to be desired. He has created moments of excitement for the Boro this term, but for somebody with his ability to go round the full back his actual output is rather disappointing.

All in all, Middlesbrough have failed to find the net in eight of their last ten away games, keeping two clean sheets in the same run. That does not bode well for the travelling supporters, who haven’t had a lot to celebrate this season.

So can Chelsea afford to rest on their laurels here? Of course not, and as we’ve already mentioned complacency would be our worst enemy here. Antonio Conte strikes us as the kind of manager that won’t allow for any let up in intensity though, so hopefully his players will be tuned into what should be a season-defining performance at the Bridge on Monday night.