Thursday 22 February 2018

Manchester United vs Chelsea Match Preview (25/02/18): Don’t Expect Fireworks from Typically Cagey Mourinho

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How do you analyse a 1-1 draw with Barcelona? It’s a result which probably makes the Spaniards favourites to progress to the quarter finals of the Champions League at our expense, but we can take so many positives from the game that the players will head to Catalonia for the second leg in high spirits.

On a night when a galaxy of stars were on display, who shone the most? You would have to say Willian, with the Brazilian delivering a real coming-of-age style performance. He was twice denied by the woodwork, before finally breaking his and the game’s deadlock on the hour mark.

We were cruising, coasting, comfortable….any such adjective you want to use, as time and time again the Barca attacking players ran down cul-de-sacs and dead ends created by our excellent discipline and organisation.

But as is often the case against teams of this calibre, one mistake can be all it takes to get punished. And so it proved: Andreas Christensen’s wayward pass was intercepted by Andres Iniesta, who fed Lionel Messi. The rest, as they say, is history.

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It was a tactical masterclass from Antonio Conte, who decided to field Eden Hazard as a ‘false nine’ type striker with Willian and Pedro offering support from midfield. It was a system tat frustrated Barcelona, and ensures we head to the Nou Camp with plenty to be positive about.

“I think we were close to playing the perfect performance. We did one mistake, but we know very well against these opponents and players like Messi, Iniesta and Suarez, if you make a mistake you pay,” Conte said afterwards.

“It is a pity and we are disappointed with the final result. I think we played a really good game, and I must be pleased because my players gave a great effort and they followed the plan we prepared.”

There is no rest for the wicked however, and on Sunday we must put the Barcelona tie behind us and focus on a different type of challenge.

Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United won’t play on the front foot like Messi and co, and as we know first hand they will instead look to grind out a result in the ‘Special One’s’ inimitable style. It won’t be pretty, put it that way.

Chelsea Team News

There are three confirmed absentees from our squad for the time being – Tiemoue Bakayoko (probably), David Luiz and Ross Barkley, and from here Conte must work out the best way to break down this United rearguard.

We would expect a slightly more expansive Chelsea system, and the boss will surely be tempted to recall Alvaro Morata, whose superb header won the reverse fixture back in November.

The Spaniard, along with Hazard and the dazzling Willian, offers plenty of attacking threat, and Conte may choose to balance that by picking the more metronomic Danny Drinkwater over the mercurial Cesc Fabregas in midfield.

The first choice back three of Rudiger, Christensen and Azpilicueta will be restored you would think, with the former’s physical battle with Romelu Lukaku set to be a bruising affair. Conte will surely stick with Christensen, who has barely put a foot wrong all season until that error on Tuesday.

Manchester United vs Chelsea Head to Head

Clashes between these two sides are notoriously tepid, with ten of the last twelve encounters between the pair yielding two goals or fewer.

Neutral spectators can thank Jose Mourinho’s influence for that. The Portuguese manager’s ego is so large that he would rather grind the life out of a game and take a dull draw to save himself the personal anguish of losing to a former employer.

The good news is that the Blues have profited from United’s lack of adventure under Mourinho and his predecessors Louis van Gaal and David Moyes. We have lost just one of our last 12 clashes against the Red Devils, with a run of W1 D3 L1 indicating our ability to pick up points at Old Trafford.

How the Match Will Be Won

The good news is that Mourinho is nothing if predictable. He will play four at the back, two defence-minded midfielders, one slightly more advanced central midfielder and two attacking options starting from wide areas to support Lukaku.

So how do we stop Manchester United? Maybe we don’t have to. They have scored just eight goals in their last seven league games; the enterprising play of the Mancunians now a distant memory under Sir Alex Ferguson.

If we can limit the supply to Lukaku by marking Alexis Sanchez effectively – he will start left and drift inside (perhaps even Azpilicueta will do a man-marking job on the Chilean) – we should be fine.

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As has been the case before, Ander Herrera will be tasked with his own man-marking mission, presumably on Eden Hazard. That’s fine: the Belgian has a habit of shaking off tight markers, and besides which that will deflect attention away from Willian, assuming he starts.

This will be tight, testing and tough, but you have to fancy that Chelsea are one-goal better than United right now.

Monday 19 February 2018

Chelsea vs Barcelona Match Preview (20/02/18): Blues Will Hope That History Repeats Itself Against Barca

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Friday night’s 4-0 win over Hull in the FA Cup fifth round was the perfect embodiment of how these encounters should go.

Antonio Conte rested a number of key players ahead of Tuesday’s clash with Barcelona in the Champions League, and yet his ‘second string’, if we can call them that, did him proud.

Willian was once again superb and bagged a brace, Olivier Giroud opened his Chelsea account with the fourth just before half-time courtesy of a cross from debutant Emerson Palmieri, Ethan Ampadu confirmed he is a player of supreme promise after another assured display at the heart of the back three, and many Blues fans got their first glimpse of another pair of talented youngsters in Callum Hudson-Odoi and Kyle Scott.

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It could not have gone any better for Conte, who hinted that he has been given something of a selection headache by his reshuffled side’s efforts. “It was a positive night, Olivier Giroud got his first goal and Willian had an impressive performance,” he told BBC Sport.

“For sure when I go home, I have many good doubts because I have to try to make the best decision for Tuesday and to have many options is good for me and good for the team.”

So there are plenty of good vibes around the camp at the present, and supporters with decent memories will know we have nothing to fear from the visit of the Catalan outfit. We haven’t lost in seven games against the Spaniards, with two wins and five draws, and you suspect that Conte – and many Blues fans for that matter – would be delighted to take a 0-0 to the Nou Camp for the second leg in a few weeks’ time.

Chelsea Team News

As he alluded too, Conte has something of a selection headache following the fine performance of his troops on Friday evening.

That said, you suspect he already knew his starting eleven for the Barcelona game BEFORE the Hull encounter, and it is doubtful that he will have swayed from that thought-process since Friday.

Conte suggested in his press conference for the Hull match that he didn’t think Tiemoue Bakayoko would be ready for Tuesday night, which does slightly alter his thinking especially as one admittedly left-field replacement in midfield, David Luiz, is also suffering with injury.

Marcos Alonso will surely return at left wing-back, with Moses on the right flank, ahead of a back three that features Cesar Azpilicueta, Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger; Gary Cahill was dropped for the must-win game against West Brom, you may recall.

N’Golo Kante will presumably be partnered by Cesc Fabregas in midfield, and in attack Conte has two important decisions to make: does Pedro or Willian get the nod? And will Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata lead the line?

Despite his brilliant showing against Hull, it appears as though Willian might miss out. Pedro was hooked off at half-time against the Tigers – essentially to rest his legs, and his greater work rate and ability to muck in defensively will probably see him get the nod.

Apparently Alvaro Morata has been training like a wild animal let off the leash in the past few days, and the former Real Madrid man will surely be chomping at the bit to renew rivalries with the Catalonians. Giroud, as ever, will provide a sizeable Plan B if required.

Chelsea v Barcelona Head to Head

As mentioned earlier in the piece, Chelsea boast a pretty good record against Barcelona.

We beat them at the Bridge 1-0 in the 2006/07 Champions League campaign before gaining a 2-2 draw at the Nou Camp, and in 2008/09 we were knocked out of the same competition by them despite drawing both legs.

The best memories were served up in the 2011/12 campaign, where after a fine 1-0 win on home soil we went to the Nou Camp and sealed the deal with a 2-2 draw: the scene of the late Fernando Torres goal that gave Gary Neville in the commentary box his ‘When Harry Met Sally’ moment.

How the Match Will Be Won

This Barcelona starting eleven is a different animal to those vintages, however, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Andres Iniesta isn’t quite the influential figure he once was, and his contribution has been partly taken over by Paulinho, the Tottenham flop who went to China and has now become a player reborn in Spain. Philippe Coutinho, of course, requires no introduction.

The way that Barca set up under Ernesto Valverde is slightly different too; especially away from home. Their three away group games in the Champions League ended 0-0, 0-0 and 0-1 respectively against Olympiakos, Juventus and Sporting Lisbon respectively, so perhaps these days they are happier to play on the counter on their travels.

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They remain a class act, that’s for sure, with the attacking talent to beat anybody: Messi, Suarez and Coutinho is an almost Football Manager esque set-up.

But if the Blues can deliver a performance similar to that of Olympiakos and Juventus above and secure a 0-0 draw at the Bridge, there is absolutely no reason why we can’t snatch an away goal or two at the Nou Camp and make like very difficult indeed for our opponents.

Thursday 15 February 2018

Chelsea vs Hull City Match Preview (16/02/18): Much-Changed Blues to Stand Up for Conte

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Not for the first time this season, the Chelsea boys turned on the style when Antonio Conte needed it most.

With speculation mounting about the Italian’s future at the club, the players showed their support in the best way possible: routing West Brom 3-0 on Monday night, making a clear statement that they are fully behind the manager.

And the fans were unequivocal too: chanting Conte’s name from the first minute, the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge was as impassioned as it has been for quite some time.

An early goal from Eden Hazard settled any lingering nerves, and the Belgian added his second after half-time to go with a strike from Victor Moses. It was as comprehensive a win as it gets.

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So the mood around the camp will have been much more positive this week, and that bodes well ahead of a run of two games in the space of five days at the Bridge.

The first, Friday’s FA Cup fifth round clash with Hull City, borders on the insignificant given what will follow on Tuesday evening: the first leg of our Champions League last 16 clash with Barcelona!

It would be easy to overlook the Hull match as a consequence, but keeping the momentum moving forward is essential for Conte and his players right now: winning breeds confidence, which is a commodity we have been lacking in lately. Let’s hope Friday night provides the players a platform to amend that.

Chelsea Team News

The temptation from Conte would surely be to pick the same side as that which served him so well on Monday evening. But with the Barcelona game looming large, we have to expect the Italian to tinker with his side against Hull.

One player who will definitely be absent is Ross Barkley, who remains sidelined with a hamstring strain. Given it was the old hammy that caused him to miss the start of the season, caution is the watchword for the midfielder.

Thinking ahead to the Barcelona game, we suspect Conte will play his 3-5-1-1 system that sees Hazard tuck in behind a lone frontman. We suspect Alvaro Morata will audition for the role against the Tigers on Friday, given that Olivier Giroud left the pitch battered and bruised on Monday.

Willian and Pedro quite possibly won’t feature against Barca, so are free to play here, and they will probably be joined by Tiemoue Bakayoko: given a chance to shake off the hurt caused by his woeful performance against Watford.

Marcos Alonso, who has been struggling with an ankle injury of late, will surely be saved for the visit of the Catalan outfit on Tuesday. As such, new man Emerson Palmieri may just come in for his first start.

Chelsea v Hull City Head to Head

These two teams have met 46 times in a rivalry dating back to September 1905!

Chelsea won 5-1 that day, and that’s a theme that has followed ever since. The Blues have triumphed on 32 occasions, with Hull taking the spoils just four times.

In modern times the results have been staggering. Chelsea are unbeaten in fourteen against the Tigers, winning twelve of those including the last six on the bounce. Our last meetings came during the 2016/17 campaign, with both games ending 2-0 in the Blues’ favour.

How the Match Will Be Won

Hull have improved under new boss Nigel Adkins, conceding just four goals in their last seven games and avoiding defeat in five of those (W3 D2 L2).

So the Tigers will be looking to roar at the Bridge in what is, essentially, a free hit for them.

They are a young side too, which means there won’t be many nerves around in the camp, and so the Blues really must be on their mettle here.

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The players can – and must – use this game as an audition for Tuesday’s contest with Barcelona. A good performance here and who knows? Perhaps they can force their way into Conte’s selection plans.

The key when playing lower-league sides in cup contests like this is to start well. If we can score early then all of the pressure that reverberates amongst the supporters, creating an unmissable frisson, evaporates. Then Hull will need to chase the game….and the Blues will be able to pick them off at will.

There’s absolutely no reason why Chelsea won’t win this match, but they will need to apply maximum effort to ensure an upset is avoided.

Thursday 8 February 2018

Chelsea vs West Brom Match Preview (12/02/18): Blues to Show True Worth….And Save Conte’s Job?

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The rumour mill is suggesting that Antonio Conte has 90 minutes to save his job as Chelsea manager….let’s hope the players show him the commitment and character he deserves against West Brom on Monday night.

The 1-4 defeat to Watford was abject, dire, abysmal, shocking….any negative way you wish to describe it would be accurate. There is no legislating for just how bad we were; particularly Tiemoue Bakayoko, who can’t have put in a worse half-hour performance than that in his career.

He was sent off after 30 minutes, and while it is always tough to play with ten men against anybody you do request a certain level of effort – after all, the rest of the team has to make up for the deficit.

But the Blues played like they were a man light against the Hornets, and they paid the ultimate price.

It isn’t hard to draw parallels between this season and that of 2015/16, where after the celebrations of the title win the previous campaign a return to abject normality was painfully played out, costing Jose Mourinho his job.

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The similarities will not have escaped Roman Abramovich either, of course, and the newspaper reports linking Jose Enrique to the manager’s job are rather cruel given that Conte is still in the hotseat.

This week’s clash with West Brom will be a true test. Will the Italian show the passion that was so beloved by Blues fans last term? Will the players stand up and be counted in the wake of their mentor’s criticism? We shall have to wait and see, and perhaps the Baggies are the worst possible opponent at this time. They will be aggressive and up for it, putting more pressure on the Chelsea players.

Nothing less than three points will be tolerated here….will the players have the ability and belief to make it happen?

Chelsea Team News

There is something of a mini injury crisis sweeping through the club at present, and that certainly won’t help Conte in what is the most important game of our season so far.

Andreas Christensen and Marcos Alonso, both mainstays of this side, are struggling with strains and tweaks, and while the latter is expected to be fit for the contest with the Baggies it seems Christensen is fighting a losing battle.

Pedro hurt his ankle against Watford and was substituted, while Ross Barkley tweaked a hamstring in training and, given his injury record, is naturally being wrapped in cotton wool at the moment.

And then we come to Alvaro Morata, who’s back problem appears to be a chronic concern, rather than a one off. The only cure for such an ailment is rest, so who knows when we will see the Spaniard back in a blue shirt.

Chelsea v West Brom Head to Head

Chelsea have a reliably good record against the Baggies, so let’s hope the history books stay true and we earn a much-needed three points here.

We’ve lost just one of our last ten meetings with the West Midlanders (W6 D3 L1), and we’ve gone sixteen unbeaten against them at Stamford Bridge (W13 D3 L0). Their trip south on Monday could not be better timed from our perspective.

Our last meeting in November ended in a 4-0 victory at the Hawthorns, with goals coming from Eden Hazard (x2), Marcos Alonso and Alvaro Morata.

How the Match Will Be Won

West Brom’s bold new era under Alan Pardew isn’t quite going as planned. The Baggies are playing better now than they were under Tony Pulis, and their brand of football is certainly more eye-catching, just one win in twelve in the league (W1 D5 L6) under the silver fox’s guidance tells its own tale.

The Baggies have a few injury problems at the moment and none more important than that of Jonny Evans, who has apparently trapped a nerve in his back. The centre half is key to West Brom’s rigid shape, and his absence is a huge blow.

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Pardew signalled his intent to play a more attacking game than Pulis did by signing Daniel Sturridge on loan during the transfer window, and not just that he paired him with Salomon Rondon in a two-man attack against Southampton – almost unheard of these days. The Baggies, however, were still undone in a 2-3 defeat.

If they play the same flat 4-4-2 formation against us at Stamford Bridge we will make them pay; especially with Hazard and Willian dropping into those pockets between midfield and defence. They will, presumably, switch to something more reminiscent of a 4-5-1 and look to stifle us.

The good thing is that, these days, we have a Plan B. We all want to see the Blues playing attractive, stylish football, and certainly with the likes of Hazard and Cesc Fabregas that is what we are expected to do. But, if necessary, we can go direct to Olivier Giroud, and that may be a winning formula against a West Brom side who are likely to defend deep and in numbers.

Thursday 1 February 2018

Watford vs Chelsea Match Preview (05/02/18): Blues Must Bounce Back Against the Hornets

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Occasionally, writing these match previews is easy. The words flow as we revel in another vintage Chelsea display capped with a couple of fine goals and a clean sheet at the other end of the pitch.

Other times, however, delivering these articles is a nightmare. The words simply dry out….and it would take William Shakespeare’s literary prowess to explain our capitulation against Bournemouth on Wednesday evening.

Let’s make one thing clear: the Cherries were outstanding. They hassled and harried our boys in possession, were quick on the counter and fully deserved their victory.
Why were so abject, on the other hand, is another matter. Fielding a makeshift front three without a recognised striker certainly didn’t help, and no matter how good Eden Hazard is he isn’t a forceful presence through the middle.

Individual mistakes proved costly too. Tiemoue Bakayoko senselessly gave the ball away for their first goal, while Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill were out to lunch when Junior Stanislas was granted the freedom of Stamford Bridge to convert the second.

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"[We struggled] for many reasons, but it's not important to speak about excuses, they deserve to win and we need to restart to work and to do our best. We have to accept it's a bad result and understand that we have to fight this season, if someone didn't understand this they don't understand football. Football is not simple,” were Antonio Conte’s words afterwards.

Timing also wasn’t on his side. The decision to release Michy Batshuayi on loan was taken, but the arrival of his replacement, Olivier Giroud, was delayed while Arsenal thrashed out the finer details with their new man Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. With Alvaro Morata still nursing his back, it meant we were without essential attacking resources.

The Spaniard should be fit for Monday’s trip to Watford, while Giroud should be able to take his place on the bench as he works back to full fitness. The Blues need them, and they need to bounce back with a win against the Hornets.

Chelsea Team News

Andreas Christensen limped off in the first half against Bournemouth clutching his hamstring, and while news updates on that have yet to come forth it’s unlikely to be a quick fix when a hammy is tweaked.

David Luiz is also on the treatment table at the moment, so a back three of Cahill, Azpilicueta and Rudiger picks itself.

Victor Moses was benched against the Cherries, and when Davide Zappacosta was subsitutued t was young Callum Hudson-Odoi who took the Italian’s place. Quite why Moses was left on the bench is anybody’s guess, but assuming he hasn’t had a fall-out with the manager he will surely come straight back in.

Presumably either Morata or Giroud will start up front….whoever’s the fittest! They will be joined by Hazard and possibly Willian, who is reportedly winning his battle with a thigh injury.

Watford vs Chelsea Head to Head

These two teams have only been colliding since 1980 onwards, hence why they have only met on 32 occasions.

Chelsea are unbeaten in the last 13 (W10 D3 L0), winning on three of their last four visits to Vicarage Road.

For those who enjoy a flutter or two, note that seven of the last eight meetings between Chelsea and Watford have gone over the 2.5 goal mark!

How the Match Will Be Won

New Watford boss Javi Gracia has strengthened his squad in the past week or so, and he had to given his side’s injury crisis. The players he has brought in are okay, with the most notable being former Everton winger Gerard Deulofeu.

But the Hornets still have six defence-minded players absent, plus possibly keeper Heurelho Gomes, and so perhaps it’s no surprise they have won just one of their last twelve outings.

The 0-0 draw at Stoke on Wednesday night saw their first clean sheet since November, although you wouldn’t expect the Blues to have any problem breaching a back five that leaks goals for fun – assuming we have a traditional centre forward in our starting eleven.

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Watford’s new front three of Deulofeu, Richarlison and Troy Deeney is a lively, slippery trio, and they will need to be watched closely. In midfield, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Etienne Capoue is a powerful and upwardly mobile pairing.

To the layman, this match appears to have goals in it. It was awkward watching Chelsea without Christensen acting as a stabilising force as sweeper, and the lack of agility shown by Rudiger and Cahill is an undoubted concern.

But Watford’s inability to keep clean sheets betrays them too, and so we have to expect a glut of goals at Vicarage Road on Monday night. Let’s hope that Chelsea net at least one more than their opponents!