Wednesday 28 March 2018

Chelsea vs Tottenham Match Preview (01/04/18): Blues to Show They Are No Fools on April 1

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The international break is a time of much nervousness for managers of elite sides who have global stars jetting off here, there and everywhere during the enforced lay-off.

And Antonio Conte can be forgiven for chewing his nails down to the quick as he sits by the phone hoping it doesn’t ring to inform him of any injuries.

Andreas Christensen returned home early from the Denmark squad complaining of tiredness – he’s been able to put his feet up for a few days since.

Thibaut Courtois wasn’t fit enough to make the squad against Leicester in the FA Cup last time out, and he withdrew from the Belgium squad with the same hamstring strain. The good news is that he should be fit to start against Spurs on Sunday.

Elsewhere David Luiz, Ross Barkley and Ethan Ampadu are definitely out, but otherwise the early signs are that there are no new injury worries for Conte to concern himself with.

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And that’s refreshing ahead of Sunday’s clash with our London rivals, who themselves have been hampered by the injury to Harry Kane. His absence makes our job much easier, let’s be honest, and knowing that Tottenham haven’t won at Stamford Bridge since 1990 is also a handy confidence booster.

Victory for the Blues here will close the gap to Spurs in fourth to just two points, and in a day-and-age where finishing fifth is finishing nowhere, there can be no greater motivation for a side seeking a timely boost heading into the business end of the campaign.

Chelsea Team News

We’ve already identified the key injury concerns, and assuming that both Courtois and Christensen are fit to start we will be at full strength on Sunday.

And so the main decisions for Conte will be tactical, and on that front he has been given a boost by an interview that Eden Hazard gave Sky Sports News.

When asked if he minded being played out of position – Conte has opted to start the Belgian in a false nine role in big matches – he replied: “Number 9, 10, I can play left-back if the manager wants, no problem. I just want to be on the pitch and try to give everything like I do every time.

“I'm happy with Chelsea. I am just thinking about the end of the season and the World Cup. I have got two years left on my contract, so I am just happy.”

That’s a well-timed interview as far as Conte is concerned, because he will surely pack the midfield to cope with Tottenham’s main threat. That may mean, once again, that Hazard is handed an assignment to lead the line for the Blues.

Chelsea vs Tottenham Head to Head

The head-to-head stats between Chelsea and Tottenham really do make for pleasant reading….if you are a Blues fan, that is!

Spurs have won just two of the last eighteen encounters with us, and indeed Chelsea have won three of the last four including an FA Cup semi-final and that all-important fixture in May 2016, where we ended their hopes of winning the Premier League title.

And the history buffs among you will know that Tottenham haven’t won at Stamford Bridge in 29 attempts!

How the Match Will Be Won

That last stat is incredible really, and while it can only be treated with a pinch of salt given the fast-moving world of football and the turnover of players and staff, and yet it covers such a long period of time that it really does have to be given some credence.

Also important is Harry Kane’s absence. Let’s not beat about the bush here: the England man is a world-class talent, and more pressing for Spurs is that he has netted a whopping 41% of their goals this term. Mauricio Pochettino can play Fernando Llorente in attack or press Son Heung-Min or Lucas Moura into action through the middle; none of those options are particularly worrying for us.

Really, given the stats and the assumption that our squad returns fit and healthy from international duty, there is absolutely no doubt that we are a strong and worthy favourite at the Bridge.

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How do you beat Spurs? You have to compete with them in midfield. They can have Victor Wanyama/Eric Dier, Mousa Dembele, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli all operating in central areas, which you would think would contribute to Conte’s own team selection.

Tottenham aren’t invincible by any stretch, and the fact they have won ‘just’ 8/15 of their matches on the road in the Premier League this term tells its own story. We have beaten them countless times in the past few seasons, and there’s no reason why we can’t add to that tally on Sunday.

Thursday 15 March 2018

Leicester City vs Chelsea Match Preview (18/03/18): Blues Need to Recapture Magic of the Cup

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Now that we’re out of the Champions League and struggling for a top four finish in the Premier League, the FA Cup takes on added significance for Chelsea and principally Antonio Conte.

Of course, it is important to remain positive, and there is still every chance of us finishing inside the top four with a number of definitive matches – including the contest with Tottenham on April 1 – still to come.

But as far as silverware goes, the FA Cup is clearly our only opportunity to get our hands on a trophy, and we suspect that Conte will not take that lightly.

It was at roughly this point in the competition 12 months ago that he jettisoned the fringe players and kids that had gotten him to the latter stages and started fielding the big boys instead, and ultimately that was an approach that got us to the final.

You just hope that there isn’t a hangover from our Barcelona jaunt in midweek, both physically and mentally. With an extra 24 hours to recover ahead of Sunday’s game, you would hope that the physical condition of the players was good.

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Mentally, well, there may be some scars. The 0-3 scoreline in Catalonia was a little harsh, and we certainly weren’t overwhelmed by Messi and co. Indeed, the three goals conceded came from individual errors rather than being outclassed, with Courtois, Azpilicueta and Fabregas all guilty to a great or lesser extent.

Hopefully, Conte can refocus the players on the matter in hand: a top four finish, and winning the FA Cup, would not be a disaster of a season by any means.

Chelsea Team News

Sunday’s clash with Leicester is the last time we will see the boys in blue for a while due to the international break, and for that reason we hope that Conte fields as strong a side as possible here.

He will presumably go with the usual back five, with Antonio Rudiger’s extra pace compared to Gary Cahill essential in combatting Jamie Vardy.

In midfield it’s possible Tiemoue Bakayoko will partner Leicester old boy N’Golo Kante. Bakayoko won’t feature for France during the internationals and badly needs game time, and so a start here ticks many boxes. Another former Foxes man, Danny Drinkwater, is on hand if necessary.

Willian is in fine form, Eden Hazard is undroppable, and so the only question left for Conte to answer is the identity of who plays through the middle. Olivier Giroud was a tad disappointing in Barcelona, being subbed off after an hour or so, and so perhaps the manager will unleash Alvaro Morata on Sunday. He has a lot to prove in a blue shirt.

Leicester City vs Chelsea Head to Head

Chelsea and Leicester have been meeting on and off since the early 1900s, and many older fans will remember some of the pulsating clashes of the 1960s and 70s.

In the modern era, it’s only really since the 2014/15 campaign that we have been meeting regularly. In that time, our record against the Foxes has been excellent: W6 D2 L1.

Other than a defeat in Leicester’s title winning campaign, we have a decent record at the King Power Stadium too: W4 D0 L1, including three wins on the spin. The last came courtesy of a 2-1 victory in the East Midlands back in September.

How the Match Will Be Won

It’s not a criticism as such, but it’s fair to say that Leicester are one of the more predictable teams in the Premier League.

They will look to ping balls into the channels for Jamie Vardy to chase, and the good news from our perspective is that playing three centre halves helps to combat that somewhat.

The Foxes’ other outlet comes in the form of Riyad Mahrez, the fleet-footed winger who has made a career out of cutting inside from the right flank onto his stronger left foot. Just because its predictable, doesn’t means it’s easy to stop.

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Otherwise, Leicester will defend deep with two sitting midfielders in front of the back four, and that makes them hard to break down.

Another factor is their home support, which whips up a frenzied atmosphere in the right conditions. They will do so here, and it will be up to us to pop their optimism by squeezing the life out of the game in the first 15 minutes.

If we can keep things tight early on, our greater quality will surely show over the course of 90 minutes.

Tuesday 13 March 2018

Barcelona vs Chelsea Match Preview (14/03/18): Can the Blues Serve Up Another Miracle in Catalonia?

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We’ve been here before, of course. Twice Chelsea have overcome the odds and got a result at the Nou Camp to knock Barcelona, perennial Champions League favourites, out of the competition.

And so we head to Catalonia on Wednesday with visions of the ghost of football past, and all we can hope now is that Antonio Conte is at his Scrooge-like best to minimise the damage caused by Barca’s galaxy of stars, which includes Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.

We do at least have positivity to take into the encounter following Saturday’s 2-1 win over Crystal Palace. That bore all the hallmarks of your classic banana-skin fixture – particularly as Palace have a decent record against us at the Bridge in recent years – but a strike from Willian and an own goal from Martin Kelly secured all three points for the Blues despite old boy Patrick van Aanholt’s last minute consolation.

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And so onwards to Barcelona we go, looking to manage a 1-1 draw from the first leg. That hands the advantage to our hosts, of course, who have an away goal at their disposal. But lest we forget how the Blues dominated the first encounter, and as such have nothing to fear against a side we have gotten the better of a couple of times in recent memory.

Chelsea Team News

There was a rather alarming news article in The Guardian this week, which stated that Antonio Conte will consult with his players as to the tactics and formation he will deploy in Spain.

That comes after the criticism of the gaffer that followed the defeat at Manchester City, with the players looking less than thrilled with the parked bus they were asked to erect at the City of Manchester Stadium.

The likely resolution of that consultation will be that the Eden Hazard ‘false nine’ set-up, which has worked well at times this term, will be kicked to the kerb in order to pacify the stroppy Belgian.

The upshot is that the players’ wish to try and play on the front foot against elite-level opposition will be sworn in against Conte’s better judgement, and as we know teams who go to the Nou Camp and try to attack are typically torn to shreds.

That said, we have to score at least once at the Nou Camp, and so a small argument can be made that at least travelling with the intention of meeting fire with fire against Messi and co is the best way to conduct business.

And so we can expect the traditional 3-4-3 shape to be retained in Spain, with Antonio Rudiger coming into the side that took to the field against Palace in place of Gary Cahill.

It could be a huge night for Danny Drinkwater, who was left out of the squad against the Eagles but who will surely partner N’Golo Kante in midfield here. Tiemoue Bakayoko is still some way short of full fitness, and Cesc Fabregas’ lack of defensive discipline would surely see us come unstuck in the middle of the park.

Hazard and Willian will be restored to their customary positions but tasked defensively to drop deeper and help nullify Barca’s midfield diamond, while a possible out-ball when we are under pressure – and we will be – is Olivier Giroud, whose extra physicality could hand the Barcelona defenders a problem they are unused to facing in La Liga.

Barcelona vs Chelsea Head to Head

Chelsea have previous for doing the business at the Nou Camp.

You might recall the 2-2 draw there during the 2006/07 Champions League campaign. Goals from Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba secured a crucial point in the group phase that year.

And then there was the trip to Catalonia in April 2009, where we kept a clean sheet in a goalless draw of the semi-final, first leg. Ultimately it would not be enough as Barca would win the tie on away goals, but we showed once again they can be stopped in front of their own supporters.

And finally there was the 2-2 draw in the battle of 2011/12; the night Fernando Torres made Lionel Messi cry by scoring a late winner for the Blues and knocking Barca out of the competition at the semi-final stage.

How the Match Will Be Won

So how do you stop Lionel Messi? It’s a question managers around the globe have been asking for more than a decade, and the simple answer is who knows?

You know what he’s going to do: drift inside from the right wing onto his favoured left foot and cause havoc, and while there is a simplicity in his positioning actually stopping him is another matter altogether.

At least we will have bodies in his way, and indeed it is possible that Cesar Azpilicueta and Antonio Rudiger will swap sides so that the Spaniard tracks Messi as he slips inside. Drinkwater too will be tasked with blocking the Argentine’s progress.

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There are others to watch out for too, including Phillipe Coutinho, Andres Iniesta and the rejuvenated Paulinho – as well as Suarez of course, but if we can pin down Messi then there is every chance we can limit the supply line to the Uruguayan.

At the other end, Giroud will need to impose himself on Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti, while Hazard can be Chelsea’s match winner: Barcelona have never really replaced Dani Alves at right back properly, and our Belgian can get the better of either Sergi Roberto or Aleix Vidal. It could make all the difference.

Thursday 8 March 2018

Chelsea vs Crystal Palace Match Preview (10/03/18): Let Conte Entertain You in Free-Flowing Blues Victory

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How do you stop Manchester City from playing their stylish, bombastic and ultimately winning brand of football? Nobody really knows the answer, because despite defeat in a couple of dead rubber Champions League matches and the shock loss at Wigan, they remain unbeaten his term.

Some sides have tried to fight fire with fire – Arsenal attacked them in both the Carabao Cup and league matches, and were subsequently thrashed on both occasions.

Antonio Conte went about stopping City in his own way: lining up two walls of blue in an attempt to limit the space available to Pep Guardiola’s galaxy of attacking stars. It worked, to some extent, and we left Manchester with a disappointing but at-least-not-demoralising 0-1 defeat.

As ever, the Sky Sports pundits proved why they are sat in the studio rather in the dugout with their easy criticisms of Conte’s tactics. Gary Neville, a laughing stock in management after being sacked by Valencia in a matter of weeks, labelled the performance ‘absolutely unacceptable’, and the ever non-insightful Jamie Redknapp described the efforts as ‘anti football’.

Would they have applauded Conte if we had gone there, attacked and lost 2-5? No, of course they wouldn’t; they would be calling for the Italians head having decried him of losing the plot. But then what do you expect given that the Sky Sports boys only answer to themselves with their lazy punditry.

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Conte, good for him, responded in kind. “I am not so stupid to play against Manchester City open and to lose 3-0 or 4-0,” he told the BBC.

“A few days ago, Arsenal played twice against them and then you criticised Wenger a lot because they conceded three goals in only 30 minutes.

“The pundit has to use the head to understand when you speak about tactics, because I think you must have knowledge to speak about tactics and not only to speak in a stupid way.”

Putting that debacle behind us, we can look ahead to a week which will so way to defining Chelsea’s season. We entertain Crystal Palace on Saturday, travel to Barcelona for the Champions League last 16 clash on Wednesday, before heading to Leicester for the FA Cup quarter final on Sunday.

In ten days’ time we could be reflecting on a fantastic week for the football club; the opposite does not bear thinking about.

Chelsea Team News

Conte will have one eye on the Barcelona trip in his selection for this Palace match, of course, and it might lead to a few surprising selections here.

We know that Palace operate a rigid 4-4-2 system, with two big lads up front in Christian Benteke and Alexander Sorloth, so we can expect Gary Cahill to come in to combat that, with possibly Cesar Azpilicueta being given the night off.

One or both of the wing backs could be rested – Zappacosta in for Moses is most likely, while a conundrum presents itself in midfield with both Tiemoue Bakayoko and Ross Barkley on the treatment table. One way to get through Palace’s midfield line is to play an advanced midfielder who holds his line; leaving the Eagles’ midfield duo unsure as to whether drop back or press higher onto the deeper midfield two.

With that in mind, don’t be surprised if Conte tweaks his system slightly, with N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater playing behind Cesc Fabregas, who adopts a more advanced position.

We will play the false nine system in Barcelona, surely, and so Conte could take the opportunity to hand messrs Hazard, Pedro and Willian a rest here by deploying Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata in a twin attack, with the latter pulling slightly wider. Will the manager take that chance though?

Chelsea vs Crystal Palace Head to Head

Palace have, curiously, become something of a bogey team for us, wining at Selhurst Park in October and at the Bridge last April. All in all, they have won three of the last five encounters with the Blues!

Even more surprising is that the Eagles have won both of their moth recent trips to Stamford Bridge by a scoreline of 2-1.

At least Saturday evening’s game shouldn’t peter out into a bore draw. The last stalemate between these two came back in 1995 – 13 meetings ago – with two or more goals being scored in 10/13.

How the Match Will Be Won

You’d expect Crystal Palace to be down in the dumps after throwing away a two-goal lead against Manchester United on Monday, and that – coupled with their crippling injury list – makes them vulnerable here.

Analysing how this match will pan out is difficult in that we don’t know what kind of starting eleven Conte will field here; will he rest key personnel ahead of the Barcelona clash, or will he look to get back to winning ways prior to that season-defining encounter?

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We can take comfort in the knowledge that the way Palace set up can be exploited. The two lads in midfield for them have to work like trojans to cut out the supply line to the frontmen, but you saw in the United game on Monday how Jose Mourinho’s men improved in the second half when they played higher up the pitch and at a higher tempo too.

The object is to ‘turn around’ Palace with straight line balls into the feet of the frontmen, and that’s a style of play we have employed successfully for a while now.

Thursday 1 March 2018

Manchester City vs Chelsea Match Preview (04/03/18): Conte’s Men to Take Heart from Old Trafford Defeat

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The finer details – Alvaro Morata hitting the woodwork with a fine effort and having a goal wrongly ruled out for offside – and the performance levels confirm that Chelsea were rather unfortunate to leave Old Trafford empty handed on Sunday.

Was the defeat disappointing? Yes. Was it deserved? No. Can we take any positives from it? Absolutely, and that is the mindset that Antonio Conte must carry into Sunday’s trip to take on United’s Mancunian rivals.

We’ve now outplayed Barcelona and gone toe-to-toe with Manchester United in the space of a week or so, and so there is absolutely no need for us to head north with any negativity in mind.

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We all know about Manchester City’s brilliance on home soil, and their ability to tear apart any opposition almost at will. But we have shown against Barcelona and Tottenham, admittedly a while ago now, that we can mix it with the best attacking sides.

That is partly down to Antonio Conte’s powers of organisation and discipline, and those will be needed in all their glory here. And it is also partly down to the concept that perhaps we are just better at playing the underdog role rather than leading from the front; certainly now that the finale embers of our title-winning season have burned out.

Each time we have been asked serious questions this term, with Conte’s job on the line a few times according to the press, the players have come up with a defiant answer. They will need to do so again on Sunday.

Chelsea Team News

There are two strategic options that Conte can take here. The first would revolve around the same system deployed against Barcelona, where we looked comfortable in defence and dangerous in attack. The ‘false nine’ system, with Eden Hazard playing through the middle flanked by Willian and Pedro in ‘defensive forward’ type roles, would certainly help to close down this outstanding Manchester City side.

Another option would be to start Olivier Giroud up front as some kind of human battering ram. If Pep decides to play any two from Stones, Otamendi and Laporte in defence, we’re not exactly convinced that they enjoy the kind of rough stuff typically deployed by the Frenchman.

The back five will remain as normal, you would think, with Azpilicueta, Rudiger and Christensen forming the central trio and Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso at wing backs.

Either of the systems touted above would need a dual defensive pivot, and photos this week of Tiemoue Bakayoko back in full training may just give this Frenchman a chance to secure redemption after a tough start to life in London.

As for the attacking array, that really is in Conte’s hands. You suspect that he might start with the false nine set-up and play it by ear, but undoubtedly Giroud’s physicality won’t be far from his thoughts f the need arises to rough City up somewhat.

Manchester City vs Chelsea Head to Head

We enjoyed a fine double over the Citizens last season – you may just recall the fractious 3-1 win at the City of Manchester Stadium where tempers flared and Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho were sent off, and we followed up with a 2-1 win at the Bridge in April.

Our paths crossed again in September when City gained revenge with a 1-0 win courtesy of Kevin de Bruyne.

The past ten meetings between these two sides have yielded four wins, two draws and four defeats for the Blues, and we have triumphed twice in four trips to City’s home stadium.

How the Match Will Be Won

As mentioned, we really do have to go to the City of Manchester Stadium with a positive mindset; if we are too defensive, then City will pick us off as they have done to pretty much everyone else this season.

So we can be responsible but still look to attack; and that has to be our game plan on Sunday.
The Citizens could be without Fernandinho and Raheem Sterling, with Fabian Delph suspended, and that affords us opportunities.

Fernandinho is a brilliantly underrated player who does all of the dirty work, which naturally lets Silva, De Bruyne, Sterling, Sane, Aguero and co to go about their business.

Delph, meanwhile, has asserted himself as a key figure at left back in Guardiola’s system; to the extent that he may even be a shock call-up to the England World Cup squad in support of Danny Rose. His absence means that Danilo will probably start at left back, and with Willian posted on the right hand side against him we can lick our lips in anticipation of that contest.

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How do you stop City scoring? It’s very difficult, but then Wigan Athletic achieved it! We need to use a high line – Aguero doesn’t have the pace to run in behind any more – and press Silva and De Bruyne quickly and effectively, forcing them sideways or backwards if possible.

Danger will come down the flanks with the full backs supporting Sane and Sterling (if he starts) or Bernardo (if Sterling doesn’t), and so Willian and Pedro will have key defensive roles to fulfil.

But there are options and opportunities for us to enjoy, and anyone thinking a Manchester City win here is a formality are sorely mistaken. We’ve upset the odds in the past, and can do so again.