Friday 30 November 2018

Chelsea vs Fulham Match Preview (02/12/18): Blues Must Regroup to Avoid Capital Banana Skin

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Thursday was a night of overwhelming positivity for Chelsea.

The 4-0 win over PAOK Salonika in the Europa League secured top spot in Group L, which should see us enjoy a comfier draw in the last 32, and there were some top performances from players knocking on the first team door.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek was awarded the Man of the Match award for his guile in the middle of the park, while Maurizio Sarri was full of praise for Cesc Fabregas as the Spaniard once again showcased his craft in midfield.

“Cesc Fabregas played very, very well, especially in the first half. I said that in the central position of the three midfielders I prefer a very technical player like Jorginho or Cesc but N'Golo Kante has never played with me in this position, he has always played on the right of centre, he can do very well in that position,” he said.

There was a brace of goals for Olivier Giroud, and that’s four in his last three in a Chelsea shirt for the burly frontman to go with recent strikes for France. Is he set to become the first-choice striker ahead of Alvaro Morata, who himself bagged (hopefully) a confidence-boosting goal against the Greeks?

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And finally, a word for Callum Hudson-Odoi, who notched his first Blues goal and created another for Morata. The 18-year-old has been linked with move to Bayern Munich – this is a proper talent we’re talking about here, but given the way he played against PAOK he clearly has a bright future at Stamford Bridge.

Attention now turns to Sunday’s game against Fulham at the Bridge, where the Blues are expected to get back to winning ways on the domestic front. Sarri has some interesting decisions to make regarding his team selection against the Cottagers.

Chelsea Team News

Reports suggest that Eden Hazard will be fit to take to the field against Fulham.

In his press conference on Wednesday, Sarri said: “He [Hazard] will not be able to play [in the UEL], but I think he will be able to recover for the Fulham match.”

The Italian split the wing workload between Pedro and Willian on Thursday night, with Sarri perhaps hedging his bets that that the Belgian won’t recover in time. But knowing Hazard, he will be chomping at the bit to get back on the field.

Will the manager deploy any of the players who shone so brightly on Thursday evening? You would think the normal back four would return, while in midfield you suspect that Jorginho and N’Golo Kante are inked onto the teamsheet. But could Ross Barkley or Loftus-Cheek get the nod ahead of Mateo Kovacic? It’s quite possible.

This, surely, is the time to start Giroud through the middle as well. On paper he doesn’t fit our possession-based system, but they say that quality strikers will score goals in any team, and right now the Frenchman has to be the better option than Morata, who is savagely short of confidence.

Chelsea vs Fulham Head to Head

This will be the first time that the two sides have met since the 2013/14 campaign, when Fulham were last in the Premier League.

The Cottagers won’t have fond memories of playing against Chelsea, indeed their supporters will need excellent recall to remember the last time they beat us: March 2006!

That was 18 meetings ago, in which time the Blues have compiled a handsome W10 D7 L0 record since.

And here’s a fun pub quiz question: the last time Fulham won at Stamford Bridge? October 27, 1979!

How the Match Will Be Won

Nothing has been easy on their return to the top flight for Fulham, who sit bottom of the Premier League table having compiled just eight points from thirteen starts. To make matters worse, they have the worst defensive record in the division.

The Cottagers did secure a morale-boosting 3-2 win over Southampton last time out, and with Claudio Ranieri now at the helm – a manager that players simply love playing for – our capital neighbours should not be underestimated.

The power of Aleksandar Mitrovic up front will need to be well marshalled, while the pace of Ryan Sessegnon down the left flank needs to be managed too.

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And of course, we already know about Andre Schurrle’s gift for the game.

This is one of those matches where we must play on the front foot. Sideways passing is fine to recycle possession, but we need to attack incisively and in vertical lines too; feeding the ball into Hazard and Willian as quickly as possible.

Fulham are a side who can’t defend, really, as evidenced by their goals conceded column, and so hopefully Maurizio Sarri will instruct his players to grasp the nettle and go and make things happen on Sunday.

Tuesday 27 November 2018

Chelsea vs PAOK Match Preview (29/11/18): Blues to Bounce Back from Spurs Debacle in Style

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There were many different words used on social media to describe Chelsea’s performance against Tottenham on Saturday, ranging from the salty to the downright extreme.

It’s hugely frustrating when you go down to a local rival and a side who you are clearly competing with for a top four finish. But there’s ways of losing well and ways of losing badly….and the Blues’ effort was firmly in the latter camp.

When you go 0-2 down to a side of Tottenham’s class after just 16 minutes you are always up against it, and in truth we never really looked like getting back into the game.

We can point the finger of blame at individuals, and it’s true there were some abject displays at Wembley, but the reality is that Spurs’ high press stifled our possession game and simply didn’t allow us any time on the ball to settle.

The fact we could only muster two shots on target – and just one up to the point when Olivier Giroud netted an 85th minute consolation – speaks volumes.

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“I am disappointed because we played very badly. I think we played very badly in all directions - physically, mentally, technically and tactically,” was Sarri’s post-match reflection.

“I knew we had some problems and with this performance today it was clear to everybody we have problems to solve. I think in the last three or four matches we have started not really very well.

“Today I did not like anybody.”

There must be some temptation on Sarri’s part to field a strong side against PAOK in the Europa League on Thursday then. It would certainly be an apt ‘punishment’ for Saturday’s efforts.

But then again he might want to have a look at some of his squad players with an eye on making changes to his normal starting eleven against Fulham on Sunday.

Chelsea Team News

As if the performance and the scoreline against Spurs weren’t bad enough, there was also the sight of Eden Hazard limping around the Wembley turf.

Happily, the prognosis isn’t too concerning. “My injury I think is not something bad,” the Belgian said. “I think I just twisted my ankle, but it’s like every game, it’s the same. I am used to [it] and I will be back soon.”

It is unlikely that Hazard will be risked against PAOK, with Pedro deputising, and we anticipate changes elsewhere too.

Kepa was excellent in goal against Spurs, and he might just be treated to the night off given how many games he has already played this term. Willy Caballero stands by to deputise.

Sarri can and possibly will change the whole back four too: Zappacosta, Christensen, Cahill and Emerson Palmieri all possibly coming into the side.

There could be a new look in midfield too, with Ross Barkley and Mateo Kovacic possibly being joined by Cesc Fabregas, with Willian given a rest and Ruben Loftus-Cheek – knocking on the door of the first team – coming in.

And Olivier Giroud is back amongst the goals for club and country; he will be given a chance to stake his claim for a regular starting berth.

Chelsea vs PAOK Head to Head

The first meeting between these sides in the Europa League, which the Blues won 1-0, is the only encounter we have had with the Greek outfit.

Since then their campaign has been in tatters, with home and away defeats against MOL Vidi quite possibly ending their hopes of qualification for the next phase of the competition.

How the Match Will Be Won

This match is a distraction, nothing more, but Maurizio Sarri will be expecting much more than a distracted performance from his players.

There are, quite possibly, places up for grabs ahead of Sunday’s tie with Fulham, and if the boss impresses that upon the starting eleven here we can expect a dedicated and lively performance.

We may field a side featuring players with plenty to prove and lots to gain: Giroud, Pedro, Barkley, Loftus-Cheek and co. As such, we’re expecting a commanding Chelsea display.

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We don’t know a huge amount about PAOK, and while they were stubborn enough in the reverse fixture a trip to Stamford Bridge is a whole different kettle of fish.

As such, Chelsea will surely win this game and win it well. Even if wholesale changes are made to the starting eleven, our fringe players have proven already in this competition that they are up for it and ready to produce a committed, disciplined performance.

Expect them to provide plenty of food for thought to Sarri on Thursday.

Thursday 22 November 2018

Tottenham vs Chelsea Match Preview (24/11/18): Blues Poised to Inflict More Misery on Injury-Hit Spurs

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Once again, Chelsea have proven the benefit of relying on European players over their South American or African counterparts.

While the latter groups have been off to all corners of the globe during the international break, the Europeans have been plying their trade close enough to our London base.

Indeed, our only South American on international duty, Willian, played for Brazil against Cameroon not at the Maracanã, oh no, but at the home of sexy football: Milton Keynes’ Stadium: MK!

It really is an advantage to have the majority of your squad on the continent in what feels like an increasing number of international breaks. No jet lag, no hours lost sat on planes, and more time spent on the training ground working on tactics for the game ahead.

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And what a match we have in store: a trip to Wembley to take on Tottenham on Saturday evening.

Spurs are beset by injury problems, with Jan Vertonghen and Mousa Dembele definitely out and Davinson Sanchez, Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose all struggling to some extent to be fit in time.

That’s great news for us, naturally, and the thought of playing a top-four rival without a quartet of key defenders and their midfield general is pleasing indeed!

Chelsea Team News

As mentioned, it was a good international break from Maurizio Sarri’s perspective.

Kepa, Cesar Azpilicueta and Alvaro Morata all played less than 90 minutes in Spain’s 1-0 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina on Sunday, while Marcos Alonso didn’t even get the call-up.

David Luiz is also being overlooked by Brazil at present, with Willian barely leaving the capital while representing his country.

Antonio Rudiger played a full part for Germany as their Nations League campaign ended in disappointing fashion, but he should hopefully have recovered fully from Monday’s 2-2 draw with Holland come Saturday.

N’Golo Kante and Olivier Giroud were both involved for France, but the extent of their travel is getting back from Paris, so again no headaches there.

Jorginho played for Italy in the 0-0 draw with Portugal on Saturday, but was subsequently rested for the friendly victory over the USA on Tuesday.

Ross Barkley was subbed off after an hour of England’s triumph over Croatia, and the only other worry is Eden Hazard, who played 90 minutes in Belgium’s shock 2-5 defeat at Switzerland on Sunday.

All of the above could start against Spurs, with the only confirmed absentee being Mateo Kovacic. He picked up a muscle strain in training while on Croatia duty, and will miss out on the Wembley trip.

Tottenham vs Chelsea Head to Head

Fixtures in English football don’t come much more storied than Chelsea vs Tottenham.

It’s a rivalry that extends beyond mere geography to pride and prestige; our 2-2 draw with Spurs back in May 2016 ultimately costing them a chance of winning the Premier League title.

Our formline against our London rivals is a mixed bag, although we do still come out on the positive side of a W5 D2 L3 run.

There are no real trends or patterns to be observed in our encounters, although one thing we might expect from Saturday’s game is goals: the last six clashes have ended 1-3, 2-1, 4-2, 0-2, 2-1 and 2-2.

How the Match Will Be Won

It could be a case of two attacks getting the better of their opposition’s defence here.

The historical data shows that goals tend to follow when these two teams meet, and given Spurs’ defensive injury woes we have no reason to suggest that the Blues won’t flourish in the final third.

Particularly interesting is Eden Hazard’s record against our capital rivals: in 13 matches against Tottenham, the Belgium has scored five times, assisted four more and enjoyed a win ratio of 46%.

Mind you, the naysayers will point to our record against the other ‘big six’ teams this term and be lining up to criticise our defensive record. We shipped two each against Arsenal and Manchester United, and another against Liverpool.

That means that 63% of the goals we have conceded in the Premier League have come in that trio of games; we’ve shipped just three in nine against non-elite sides.

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The takeaway point is that we have tended to struggle defensively against the best operators, and if Kane, Eriksen and Alli are fit then we can put Spurs in that bracket.

So how will Saturday’s game unfold? You might see two teams trying to outscore each other, if the stats are to be believed. Given Tottenham’s injury woes, we’d certainly like to think that Chelsea can nick all three points.

Friday 9 November 2018

Chelsea vs Everton Match Preview (08/11/18): Blues to Spit Out Homesick Toffees

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We got exactly what we wanted from Group L of the Europa League.

Progression to the knockout phase of the competition was the bare minimum of course, but to achieve that with two rounds of matches to spare is the ultimate reward for Maurizio Sarri taking the tournament seriously.

Now, he can rest players and get some game-time into squad members against PAOK (home) and MOL Vidi (away).

Early qualification was secured with a 1-0 win over BATE Borisov, who once again proved themselves to be game but limited opposition.

On the mark was Olivier Giroud, who rose to head home Emerson’s cross and give himself a real bolt of confidence heading into the second third of the campaign.

“I'm pleased for him,” Sarri said afterwards. “I know strikers want to score. And so for his confidence, I think it's very important.

“I don't want him to be worried about scoring, because for us he's very important, a very, very useful player for the team.”

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The Frenchman took the headlines then, but the bigger story was the return of Eden Hazard to the starting line-up.

The Belgian had missed the last three games, by and large, with a back injury, and so it was a relief to see him get through an hour or so against BATE. That little sharpener should stand him in good stead for a domestic return on Sunday.

Everton are the visitors to the Bridge on Remembrance Sunday, and while the Toffees are certainly a capable outfit they do seem to struggle somewhat on their travels, with only one win in five on the road this term.

As such, we are hoping that the Blues can land yet another win to maintain the pressure on Manchester City at the summit of the division.

Chelsea Team News

The good news with the approach that Maurizio Sarri has taken in the Europa League means that we always head into Premier League games in decent shape.

The first choice back four all got a rest on Thursday, and so messrs Azpilicueta, Luiz, Rudiger and Alonso will all come back into the side in front of the impressive Kepa between the sticks.

Cesc Fabregas has been ill this week, and that kept him out of the BATE Borisov game with Jorginho deputising.

Whether the Spaniard is fit for Sunday is touch and go, so we expect Ross Barkley, who was voted Man of the Match against the Belarussians, to continue alongside N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic.

Hazard and Willian were both given lighter duties in midweek, so they will surely start on the flanks, while even the temptation to start Giroud, back among the goals, must be tempered to enable the flourishing Alvaro Morata to come into the side once more.

Chelsea vs Everton Head to Head

These two sides have been almost perennial top flight outfits in the past century or so, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that this will be the 180th competitive meeting between them.

We have the upper hand with 72 wins to 54 defeats (and 53 draws), and that’s a theme that tends to preside in the modern era, with Chelsea winning 11 of the last 17 encounters with the Toffees (W11 D2 L4).

Everton haven’t won at Stamford Bridge since 2011, and last season they lost twice in the space of eight weeks at our home ground; 0-2 in the Premier League followed by 1-2 in the Carabao Cup.

How the Match Will Be Won

There won’t be any surprises from Chelsea here; why change a winning formula?

We will pass the ball, dominate possession and look to create openings in wide areas courtesy of Hazard, Willian and the overlapping full backs.

Marco Silva hailed Everton’s 3-1 win over Brighton last weekend as their ‘best performance of the season), and yet these soft Toffees could only muster three shots on target during the game.

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They will play with a fairly traditional 4-2-3-1 formation, with Seamus Coleman and Lucas Digne offering width from full back and Michael Keane and Yerry Mina, making his first start for the club with Kurt Zouma barred from playing against his parent club, in the middle.

The midfield will be anchored by Andre Gomes and Idrissa Gana Gueye, with Gylfi Sigurdsson as the old-fashioned number ten in front of them.

Theo Walcott and Bernard will probe down the wings, while Richarlison – assuming he shakes off an ankle injury – will lead the line.

That’s all well and good, but with one win five away from home Silva clearly hasn’t found a working strategy for his side on their travels.

They lost 0-2 at Arsenal and 1-2 at Manchester United, in addition to dropping points at Wolves and Bournemouth.

Everton are a functional yet hardly life-affirming football team in their present guise, and you would have to back Chelsea to find a way past them on Sunday.

Tuesday 6 November 2018

BATE Borisov vs Chelsea Match Preview (08/11/18): Blues to Advance in Style in Belarus

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We had wondered in last week’s preview of the Crystal Palace game just how long it would take us to make the all-important breakthrough.

Half an hour or so, all told, when Alvaro Morata – confidence seemingly returning – slotted home from Pedro’s pass.

But as we predicted, this was not an easy game, with the Eagles making life plenty difficult for us despite our overwhelming occupation of the ball.

Roy Hodgson’s side drew level in the second half when Andros Townsend got clear and fired home impressively, and at that point we really did need some divine intervention to find that second goal.

It came from the garden of Eden – well, his right foot actually, as Hazard’s introduction from the substitute’s bench brought an instant return. His free kick eventually found its way to Morata, who drilled home.

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We managed to complete the scoring when Pedro finished so emphatically from Marcos Alonso’s pass, and while it was tremendously hard work we still found a way to claim all three points against a stubborn Palace side. Victory took us above Liverpool on goal difference, and two points adrift of leaders Manchester City.

Our next Premier League outing comes on Sunday when we entertain Everton in the last game before the next international break, but prior to that there’s the matter of a trip to Belarus on Thursday to take care of.

A point or better against BATE Borisov will secure our passage into the knockout phase of the Europa League, and you sense that Maurizio Sarri will be desperate to clear that particular bridge at the first available opportunity.

Chelsea Team News

The manager has continued to field strong sides in this competition, and while he will surely take it easy with some there will still be game time for others.

Kepa has typically been the first choice keeper in the Europa League, so he may well start behind the rotated back four of, from right to left, Zappacosta, Christensen, Cahill and Emerson.

Getting the balance right in midfield will be key, and the fact that Ross Barkley was subbed off after 64 minutes suggests that either he or replacement Mateo Kovacic will join Cesc Fabregas and Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the middle of the park.

Will Sarri treat Hazard with kid gloves? There’s no real reason for him to start against BATE, and while he is likely to travel with the squad you would wager that Pedro and Willian are better options unless the Belgian’s skills are needed to break the deadlock late on.

Up front, the manager has a tough decision to make. Does he continue with Morata, who is starting to get among the goals again and who will want to keep his hot run going, or bring in the fit-again Olivier Giroud?

BATE Borisov vs Chelsea Head to Head

Chelsea’s 3-1 win over BATE Borisov a fortnight ago was the first meeting between the two sides.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s hat-trick did the damage in a match in which we won the shots on target count by a commanding 9-1.

How the Match Will Be Won

There wasn’t a huge amount about BATE Borisov at the Bridge the other week that suggests we need to be fearful ahead of the meeting in Belarus on Thursday.

They tried to pass the ball around, but lacked the class to really make any inroads into our defence, and but for a bit of luck and some tigerish defending our 3-1 margin of victory would surely have been greater.

The boys from Belarus lined up in a compact 4-3-3, with former Arsenal man Aleksandr Hleb the focal point in the middle of the park.

In truth, they were simply trying to limit the damage by going man for man in the middle of the park, and it remains to be seen if they adopt a more progressive, front foot approach on home soil.

They were stuffed 1-4 by PAOK in their other home match in Group L so far, and so perhaps we need to focus less on them and more on what we do!

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The great thing about this Chelsea squad is that even with rotation, it’s still a tremendously strong set of players.

The back four is strong, and a midfield three of Kovacic, Fabregas and Loftus-Cheek is strong enough to grace any side in the Europa League.

Goals are not in short supply regardless of the front three Sarri names, and so the only conclusion we can draw is that Chelsea should win this game with the same level of comfort with which they triumphed in the reverse fixture.

Thursday 1 November 2018

Chelsea vs Crystal Palace Match Preview (04/11/18): Eagles Preyed Upon By Bloodthirsty Blues

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It’s been a pretty good week for Chelsea FC by all accounts!

After extending our unbeaten run to ten in the Premier League, victory over Derby in the Carabao Cup in midweek sends us into the quarter-finals of that competition as well. A win over Crystal Palace on Sunday would round things off rather nicely!

The 3-2 triumph over the Rams was a strange old affair, but a win is a win and when it keeps our unbeaten run going who are we to argue.

All five goals came in the first half, with two of those own goals contributed by Derby players: Richard Keogh and the on-loan Fikayo Tomori, who did not enjoy the happiest of returns to Stamford Bridge.

After an early strike from Jack Marriott, the Rams fought back again through Martyn Waghorn, but Cesc Fabregas settled the tie before half-time with a trademark cool finish.

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David Nugent hit the post late on for the visitors, and so there was a sense of relief when the referee blew the full time whistle shortly after.

Victory takes us into the last eight of the Carabao Cup, where we have been drawn at home against Bournemouth.

Attention turns back to league matters and the visit of Crystal Palace. Roy Hodgson’s men have actually beaten us in two of our last three meetings, and so we simply cannot afford to rest on our laurels when the Eagles come to town on Sunday.

Chelsea Team News

Maurizio Sarri fielded a surprisingly strong side against Derby on Wednesday, with Willian, Alvaro Morata, Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante all playing 90 minutes.

It hints that Eden Hazard will be fit to start on Sunday, and also that Ross Barkley will be given another 90 minutes as his development into an outstanding midfield player continues under Sarri.

Otherwise, Kepa will come in for Willy Caballero between the sticks and the traditional back four – Azpilicueta, Luiz, Rudiger and Alonso – will be reunited.

Barkley will join Jorginho and, presumably, Kante in midfield, with Hazard to the left and Willian, if his legs can handle a third game in a week, on the right.

Through the middle, Giroud might get the nod despite struggling with a niggling injury – unless Morata recovers well from the Derby outing.

Chelsea vs Crystal Palace Head to Head

As mentioned, Palace actually have a pretty good record against us.

They have won on two of their last three trips to the Bridge. The first came in August 2015, when a Radamel Falcao goal – remember him! – was cancelled out by strikes from Bakary Sako and Joel Ward.

Then, in April 2017, they triumphed by the same scoreline, with Zaha and Benteke doing the damage for the visitors.

We gained revenge back in March with a 2-1 win of our own, but those former defeats – allied to yet another 1-2 reverse at Selhurst Park in October 2017 – suggests we have reasons to go overboard in our confidence on Sunday.

How the Match Will Be Won

The thing about this Crystal Palace side is that, without Christian Benteke, they lack a genuine frontman to act as an ‘out ball’.

Wilf Zaha is a brilliant performer and a willing combatant when leading the line, but he tends to get isolated and that is reflected in Palace’s ‘goals for’ column so far this season: with just seven in ten, only Newcastle, Huddersfield and Southampton have notched fewer.

The challenge, as is the case against any Hodgson-led side, is to break down their well-drilled defensive lines, which starts with the back four and continues with the defence-orientated central midfielders in front of them.

That’s okay though, with Hazard returning and both Willian and Morata in sublime form at present. Kante will provide pace and directness from midfield, with Barkley joining him in albeit more technical fashion.

With Alonso and Azpilicueta marauding down their respective flanks, it will be something akin to the blue arrows when we spring forward.

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Our natural, possession-based style should also help to draw the Palace players out of their positions, and as long as we move the ball around quickly – rather than more pedestrianised, side to side football – we can get in behind them.

Zaha will be a nuisance in attack. He’s got such good feet, and a willingness to carry the ball, that Rudiger and Luiz cannot afford to rest for a single minute when the Ivorian is around. Happily, he won’t have too much support around him.

And so we’re expecting a Chelsea victory. It may take a while to fashion the necessary chances, but there’s no reason why our sublime passing won’t find a way through an admittedly well-organised Palace rearguard.