Friday, 14 December 2018

Brighton vs Chelsea Match Preview (16/12/18): Blues Hoping to Swim Not Sink on Seaside Trip

Embed from Getty Images
Thursday’s game against MOL Vidi was one of those annoying fixtures that come along every once in a while.

Already assured of a place in the knockout round of the Europa League, we travelled to Hungary with the sole aim of giving fringe players a run out.

What followed was a catalogue of grievances. An injury to Gary Cahill in the build-up to the game meant David Luiz had to travel to Hungary as a substitute, when ideally the Brazilian could have been at home putting his feet up ahead of the hectic festive fixture list.

And an injury to Alvaro Morata, who hurt his knee, meant that Olivier Giroud – now our only fit out-and-out striker – had to enter the field of play for the second half.

In fairness, at least it allowed us to witness the unlikely scenario of the brutish Frenchman, known for his robust leading of the line, curling home a free-kick with all the finesse of a Parisian artiste. Many an eye was rubbed in disbelief!

Giroud’s goal provided the equaliser in a 2-2 draw in which Willian – another who ideally would not have been involved, opened the scoring before the Hungarians pegged us back with two goals of their own.

Embed from Getty Images
There were starts for youngsters Ethan Ampadu and Callum Hudson-Odoi, but those were the only bright spots on a night that we really could have done without.

Nevertheless, the ten changes to his starting eleven that Maurizio Sarri made at least ensures we have some fresh legs in the camp for the trip to the south coast to take on Brighton on Sunday.

It’s imperative that we take all three points there; chiefly to build on the excellent win over Manchester City last time out, and also to ensure we remain in contention with the leading pack in the Premier League title race. You suspect there may be plenty more twists and turns to come!

Chelsea Team News

As mentioned, Morata picked up an unspecified knee injury in Hungary and now could face a spell on the sidelines.

Will Sarri go with Giroud, who played 45 minutes against MOL Vidi, or play Eden Hazard through the middle again? You’d like to think the former option, given how prolific the Frenchman has been lately, would be the one he opts for.

Otherwise it will surely be business as usual. Kepa will come back in goal, and Azpilicueta, Rudiger, Luiz and Alonso will return to defence from right to left.

Jorginho and N’Golo Kante will make up two of the midfield three, but there are still question marks regarding the fitness of Mateo Kovacic, who has a thigh injury. Either Ross Barkley or Ruben Loftus-Cheek will deputise, depending on who recovers the quickest from Thursday evening.

Brighton vs Chelsea Head to Head

When Chelsea and Brighton met on Boxing Day last year, it was the first collision between the two teams since they inhabited the old Division Two back in the late 1980s.

The Blues took the spoils that day 2-0 thanks to goals from Morata ad Alonso, and they followed up later in the 2017/18 campaign with a 4-0 victory at the AMEX courtesy of a brace from Hazard and strikes from Willian and Victor Moses.

That extended our stranglehold on the Seagulls to eight wins, one draw and a solitary defeat.

How the Match Will Be Won

Brighton are one again having a fantastic season, primarily thanks to the shrew leadership of Chris Hughton, and they continue to exceed expectations with a comfortable mid-table spot.

That is built upon a foundation of defensive stability, with his 4-4-1-1 formation devised to ensure the maximum solidity is achieved.

They play with a traditional back four, although Lewis Dunk’s usual centre half partner, Shane Duffy, is suspended and misses out.

Embed from Getty Images
Then it’s your usual pair of holding midfielders, with Pascal Gross playing slightly further forward and in behind either Glenn Murray or Florin Andone.

The good news is that their weakness comes down their right flank, where Anthony Knockaert is not known for his endeavour. If he leaves Bruno exposed at right back, Hazard and Alonso will have a field day.

The danger will come from set pieces. Brighton have scored the third most goals from headers this season (six), with all 19 of their goals coming from inside the box.

And that aerial challenge can come from all angles, with the Seagulls playing some 1,122 long passes, as defined by the Premier League’s official stats, this season; the third highest tally in the division.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

MOL Vidi vs Chelsea Match Preview (13/12/18): Dead Rubber But No Let Up from Hungry Blues

Embed from Getty Images
As a parting shot to our Manchester City preview, we asked the slightly rhetorical question ‘can we beat them?’.

Our own response was yes of course, but we would ‘need to produce both a defensive masterclass and a performance of tactical precision to get the job done’.

Well, we’re happy to report we were right on both counts!

It wasn’t the perfect performance by any means, and in that first half we did ride our luck a few times, but that’s to be expected against a City side as good as this.

Maurizio Sarri pulled off a tactical coup in playing Eden Hazard as a false nine striker. It’s a role that the Belgian doesn’t particularly enjoy, but it does allow him to get on the ball more and it was his pass that N’Golo Kante raced onto to put us ahead on the stroke of half-time.

David Luiz scored sealed the deal after 78 minutes with a header, and the second period was one we marshalled with much greater effect.

Embed from Getty Images
Did we deserve to take all three points? Sarri certainly believes so. “I am very happy with the win because it is not very easy to win against Manchester City or Pep Guardiola. I am happy with the mentality of the team in this match,” he said.

“It is difficult for us to find motivation but when we have it, we are a very strong team. Today we played with a very good level of application, determination and the right level of aggression.

“My players have to continue like this. We started well in the second half and in the end we deserved to win.”

We return to domestic action on Sunday with a trip to Brighton, but first we have what is in essence a dead rubber in the Europa League against MOL Vidi.

We have already won Group L come what may, while the Hungarians can still sneak second place if they better BATE Borisov’s result. There’s the old football code that says you can never take it easy while there’s something to play for, and so we can expect a committed showing from Chelsea’s second string on Thursday.

Chelsea Team News

The starting eleven in these Europa League matches has picked itself of late.

Sarri seems to prefer Kepa in goal for all matches, rather than giving him a rest for these low-key outings, so we can expect the Spaniard between the sticks here.

The rotational back four – Zappacosta, Cahill, Christensen and Emerson – comes in, while in midfield we would expect Cesc Fabregas, Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to start.

The only question marks are in attack. Pedro played 90 minutes against Manchester City but may still get the nod here, while on the left flank there’s a chance that Callum Hudson-Odoi could be brought in to showcase his skills.

Then it’s a straight choice between Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata through the middle. The latter – not even in the squad against City – desperately needs a goal, so perhaps he will be given the chance of a morale-boosting run-out.

MOL Vidi vs Chelsea Head to Head

Our only previous meeting with MOL Vidi came in the reverse fixture back in October, which we won 1-0 courtesy of an Alvaro Morata goal.

Since then the Hungarians have done alright, winning home and away against PAOK but losing both clashes with BATE Borisov.

They have only scored three times and conceded five in a quintet of Europa League outings, so they will be looking to keep it tight on Thursday before sneaking a winner.

How the Match Will Be Won

It’s an intriguing match up this, with MOL Vidi desperate to get the win and Chelsea’s fringe players enjoying another start in the competition.

There are ways and means of getting three points, of course, and just because the hosts need the win don’t expect them to change their normal style. They will defend deep and in numbers, before looking to grab the all-important goal. Remember, you get the same number of points for a 1-0 win as you do a 3-0 hammering!

Embed from Getty Images
The good thing with this Chelsea reserve side, as we can loosely call it, is that a) it features some outstanding players, and b) there’s a nice balance to it, with everyone playing in their best position and no obvious weaknesses.

So fans making the trip to Eastern Europe, or those watching on from the armchair, can expect a disciplined, high quality performance from a set of players who will want to give Sarri a nudge ahead of a hectic festive fixture list.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Chelsea vs Manchester City Match Preview (08/12/18): Blues Must Bounce Back Quickly….or Face Potential Humiliation

Embed from Getty Images
“I am really worried” are not the words you want to hear coming from your manager’s mouth.

But that’s exactly how Maurizio Sarri summed up the devastating 1-2 defeat at Wolves on Wednesday evening.

After taking an early lead from the red-hot Ruben Loftus-Cheek, we dominated the first half and could have extended our dominance but for some wasteful finishing and excellent defending.

As you tend to fear in these cases, the Wolves players may have been given something of an earache by manager Nuno Espirito Santo during the break, and they responded by netting twice in a second period full of frustration for the Blues.

Embed from Getty Images
The stats may look nice: 70% possession, 17 shots, a 5-1 ‘win’ in the corner count, but they don’t explain a team willing to bend over backwards to let a lead slip. That also means we’ve lost in back-to-back away outings.

“I am really worried not for the result, but for the fact that we didn’t react to the first goal of the opponent,” Sarri said afterwards.

“After the first [Wolves] goal – that was an accident because we were in full control of the match – we were suddenly another team, without the right distances, without our football. I don’t know why.”

What nicer way could we lead-in to Saturday’s game with leaders Manchester City at the Bridge, then. Immediate improvement is not ideal but imperative.

Chelsea Team News

With such a busy schedule, it wasn’t surprising to see Sarri make changes to his starting eleven against Wolves.

Mind you, the changes he did make arguably gave us near-enough our strongest eleven right now. Cesc Fabregas and Loftus-Cheek started – both are not far from being first-choice picks given their form, while Willian came in for Pedro on the right flank. Andreas Christensen in for David Luiz was the only real eyebrow-raiser.

Up front, Alvaro Morata came in for Olivier Giroud – we’re not sure even Sarri knows who his best option is up top at present, and so rotation can not be used as an excuse for a night of misery in the West Midlands.

Of course, nothing but the best will be good enough against Manchester City. We would expect Luiz and Jorginho to return, with the manager facing a tough choice between Loftus-Cheek and Mateo Kovacic for the third midfield spot. Ross Barkley continues to struggle with an ankle injury.

At this moment in time, the physicality of Giroud will surely be more unsettling to the City defenders than the perennially-offside Morata.

Chelsea vs Manchester City Head to Head

This is a fixture indelibly linked to money.

For decades both us and City were brassic, but at the turn of the millennium things changed when big money was pumped into both clubs by cash-rich owners.

So from a head-to-head perspective, let’s focus on games played since September 2008: the Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour years.

On that front our record against them reads W9 D3 L13, which can be broken down into W7 D1 L3 for matches played at Stamford Bridge.

Last season we lost 0-1 home and away, and also suffered a 0-2 loss in the Community Shield back in August.

How the Match Will Be Won

How do you tame a beast like Manchester City? It’s a good question, and one that nobody in the Premier League has been able to answer so far this term.

Even without the injured Sergio Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne, they still ooze quality. We expect a front three of Sane, Sterling and Mahrez to take to the turf at the Bridge on Saturday, with a midfield three of David Silva, Bernardo Silva and Fernandinho. It’s mouth-watering stuff.

But we have to remain positive, and take solace in the fact that they have also conceded in four of their last five Premier League outings.

One area in which we can profit is down our right flank. Benjamin Mendy is out injured, and so Pep Guardiola will presumably either play Fabian Delph at left back or shuffle Aymeric Laporte across.

Embed from Getty Images
Neither is ideal, and you would really fancy Willian or even Pedro to get the better of Delph in particular. With Azpilicueta sitting deep to prevent the pace of Sane getting in behind, we need a big shift from the Brazilian.

N’Golo Kante may play in a more defence-minded role we became accustomed to last season to help Jorginho in dealing with the midfield runners. That will put an onus on the third midfielder to break clear and join Giroud in attack, and by that token perhaps the legs and energy of Loftus-Cheek might be preferable to the more prosaic Kovacic.

Can we beat Manchester City? Absolutely. But we will need to produce both a defensive masterclass and a performance of tactical precision to get the job done.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs Chelsea Match Preview (05/12/18): Blues Hoping to Profit from Wounded Wolves

Embed from Getty Images
After the disappointment of the result and the performance against Tottenham, what we needed was a routine victory over bottom club Fulham last time out to steady the ship.

And that’s exactly what we got, fortunately, with a comfortable 2-0 success at the Bridge on Sunday.

An early goal from Pedro was the perfect settler, and in truth from that point on we were never really pushed despite a spirited showing from the Cottagers.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek added the gloss late on, and as Maurizio Sarri would say afterwards ‘today was about the result’.

“We gave more attention to the defensive phase to get the win. Now we have to start to improve and play our football in a better way,” he said.

Embed from Getty Images
That defensive outlook resulted in a fairly meandering performance in attack, where despite some bright moments from the likes of Olivier Giroud we never quite hit the heights expected.

Nevertheless, the win’s the thing, and that enabled us to hang onto the coattails of a Manchester City side whom we meet on Saturday.

But first we go dancing with Wolves on Wednesday evening in the West Midlands. Nuno Espirito Santo’s side are currently in the doldrums with five defeats in their last six Premier League starts, and while they will be awkward opponents a lack of confidence on their part certainly plays into our hands.

Chelsea Team News

That clash with Manchester City is certainly something that Sarri will have in mind when making his team selection here.

But defeat at Molineux would be catastrophic for our title chances, and would render Saturday’s clash with the league leaders a must-win game.

So we cannot afford to take chances on Wednesday, and as such we don’t expect wholesale changes to the starting eleven.

Having played a lot of football from Thursday to Sunday, it’s quite possible that Giroud and Pedro will be given the night off against the boys in gold.

There may be one change in midfield, with Cesc Fabregas for Jorginho one option, although we expect Mateo Kovacic to start after having the final half-hour off against Fulham.

Marcos Alonso was subbed off against the Cottagers after a difficult afternoon, but he will surely be restored to the side on Wednesday.

Ross Barkley wasn’t left out of the squad against Fulham; he had picked up a niggle in his ankle against PAOK and it was considered best not to risk him at the weekend. He may return to the fold here, or be held back for the clash with City on Saturday.

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs Chelsea Head to Head

Given Wolves’ lengthy hiatus from the Premier League, it’s been a while since we locked horns.

There was an FA Cup tie in February 2017, which we won 2-0 courtesy of goals from Pedro and Diego Costa, but then you have to go back to the 2011/12 campaign for the last league meetings.

Overall, we’ve just about got a winning head-to-head record against the Midlands – 41 wins to 38, with 26 draws, although most of Wolves’ victories came during their golden period between 1930-1960.

We’ve since won ten of our last eleven meetings with them, including five of the last six at Molineux.

How the Match Will Be Won

Wolves will presumably line up in their now traditional 3-4-3 formation, with Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho the key figures in the centre of midfield.

They have pace to burn on the flanks, with two of either Adama Traore, Ivan Cavaleiro and Helder Costa starting, but none of that trio naturally revels in their defensive duties. That means we could double up in wider areas, with the full backs supporting our wingers nicely.

Embed from Getty Images
With a numerical advantage in midfield, too, there should be plenty of space for the Blues to exploit, and just recently Wolves have shown defensive fragility; shipping two or more goals in four of their last six outings.

They have talented players going forward, but there seems no reason why we can’t go to Molineux and produce our best attacking football.

The positioning of Eden Hazard will be key. There will be pockets of space for him to exploit, both in behind Wolves’ right wing back Matt Doherty and in the inside left channel where the Midlanders’ midfielders will have a hell of a job keeping tabs on all those in a blue shirt.

The Belgian may well prove to be the match winner then in a game Chelsea will be expecting to triumph in.