Chelsea host West Ham on Monday night in another London derby which both sides will be hoping to win in order to establish themselves in the top four and climb into the top ten, respectively.
The Blues’ win over Brighton on Wednesday surely delighted fans who have been clamouring for the sight of Callum Hudson-Odoi in a Premier League starting XI, while the Hammers’ difficult period continued with a 2-0 loss at home to Everton.
While recent form tips heavily in the home side’s favour, the visitors have got the better of results in the last three meetings between the two; the Irons are unbeaten against the Stamford Bridge outfit since March 2017, when they lost 2-1 – they will be hoping to extend that run next time out.
This week’s expert fans, West Ham-mad former Football FanCast editor-in-chief James Jones and Transfer Tavern assistant editor and Chelsea nut George Blake, share their thoughts and predictions ahead of Matchweek 33’s standout fixture…
Wednesday night saw rare starts for Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, should Maurizio Sarri start one, both or neither on Monday?
George: “Both Hudson-Odoi and Loftus-Cheek looked good against Brighton, and objectively speaking, they should both play. Mateo Kovacic and Ross Barkley have both struggled lately, whilst Pedro and Willian also haven’t been great.
“That said, there’s no chance that Hudson-Odoi will play again, especially with the Europa League coming back next week, so it’s safe to rule him out from having a starting berth. Loftus-Cheek is an interesting one, as he seems to be perfectly suited for the system, and he’s been so much better than all his competitors of late. He should start, but with Sarri, you just never know.”
James: “I think he has to start both of them. They’re hungry, as we saw with their performances on Wednesday night, and Chelsea need players who are hungry and eager to impress if they’re to finish in the top four.
“The last few months have been difficult for them and they’re in danger of seeing their season end in bitter disappointment unless changes are made. Bringing both of these players in is a positive change and equally, why would you change a winning team if you don’t have to?”
Recently called-up England man Hudson-Odoi impressed greatly on his maiden start for the Blues in the league, assisting Olivier Giroud for the opener, while his international teammate Loftus-Cheek also laid on a goal and netted a beauty from outside of the box.
The pair haven’t featured nearly as frequently as they deserve to, with Sarri preferring experience in his starting XI regardless of the outstanding performances registered by the aforementioned duo in the European and cup competitions.
Hopefully, the pair’s sparkling showings at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night will finally leave Sarri with no excuse not to give them the nod ahead of the likes of Barkley and Willian more often in the future – they certainly have the quality to feature week-in, week-out for the Blues.
West Ham spent big last summer. Should they be looking at selling as much at the end of this season?
James: “The aftermath of such big and impressive investment last summer was that it has exaggerated the fact the squad is riddled with average players and dead wood, all of which should be shown the door this summer.
“Ninety per cent of West Ham’s summer additions have impressed and strengthened the squad and barring a handful of other players, the rest of the team have not done enough to suggest they deserve to remain at the club beyond the summer.
“Where Arnautovic is concerned, he is a special case. Had he not had his head turned by China in January, we would be talking about whether West Ham would be able to keep him this summer, but instead all the talk and expectation is of him sold as soon as possible.
“If Pellegrini is able to bring in some good money for the deadwood and reinvest well, then he’ll deserve a big pat on the back for transforming the quality of the squad in the space of just 12-18 months.”
George: “It’s clear that a bit of a clear-out is needed at the London Stadium this summer. Pellegrini has done well, but there’s a lot of deadwood in the squad that could be moved on in an effort to revamp the team.
“Going forward, especially, I think there’s a big job to be done, given that the trio of Javier Hernandez, Arnautovic and Andy Carroll are all approaching or are now beyond 30. An injection of youth is needed, and this is likely to be funded by sales.”
Indeed, West Ham’s summer recruitment, including the appointment of Pellegrini, has proved successful over the course of the season, with Felipe Anderson, Issa Diop and Lukasz Fabianski impressing in particular. For every Fabian Balbuena, though, there is a Jack Wilshere or a Lucas Perez, both of whom have been huge flops since signing from Arsenal.
James is spot on with his assessment of the Arnautovic situation, meanwhile – had he not tried to force an exit then surely the conversations regarding the possibility of a summer departure would be opposing, rather than supporting. The Austrian hasn’t been quite the same since he got a glimpse of the Chinese big bucks, and has hardly featured in recent months.
Where do you think the Hammers can hurt their hosts?
George: “A lot of Chelsea’s strength comes from the midfield – but so do a lot of our weaknesses. Namely, if West Ham are able to get a chokehold on Jorginho, that will severely limit our ability to move forward with any sort of fluidity, whilst he’s also an important player for us defensively.
“Add to that the fact that our left-sided midfielders are chopped and changed so often, with Ross Barkley and Mateo Kovacic both incredibly inconsistent this season, and there’s a lot of scope for exploitation in this area. If you stop the midfield, you stop the Blues.”
James: “By playing in the exact same way as they did when Chelsea visited Stratford earlier this season – the game plan was to allow Jorginho all the time on the ball and to concentrate on cutting off his options, man marking the likes of Eden Hazard, Pedro and Willian.
“It worked wonders as West Ham could’ve won the game, but had to settle for a very good 0-0 instead. Given that Chelsea and Sarri are still playing in the same way, logic says go there and try to do it again.”
The Hammers held their London neighbours to a stalemate at the London Stadium in September, with Pellegrini nailing his tactics and setting an example to the rest of the league as to how Chelsea can be stopped – the formula consists of nullifying Jorginho.
The Italian might get an earful from the Stamford Bridge faithful on an almost weekly basis but he remains the lynchpin in the side – he’s crucial to Chelsea playing the way Sarri wants.
The fact remains that if you can stop the Chelsea number 5 from getting on the ball or cut out his passing lines then your odds of getting a result skyrocket.
Is there one thing you think Chelsea must take from their midweek game into this one?
James: “Confidence and a winning mentality. They simply cannot afford to drop points at this stage of the season with a top four place at stake. With the advantage of being at home, Chelsea should be heading into this game with confidence, especially against a West Ham side that played so poorly last time out and whose season is essentially over.”
George: “I think Maurizio Sarri just needs to bring rotation into the fold at Chelsea. His lack of rotation has been laughable at points this season, with sub-par players being picked repeatedly.
“He changed that against Brighton, the likes of Olivier Giroud, Andreas Christensen and the aforementioned Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek all coming in. That changed the game for the Blues, and if the boss reverts back to the same system as he has previously, we could be in trouble.”
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The likes of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have shown this season that rotating – sometimes, in the former’s case, entire starting XIs – is a surefire way to ensuring that you have fresh legs each week and remain unpredictable. Sarri, on the other hand, has a very definitive idea of who his best XI is and he is very reluctant to adjust that, despite weekly outcry.
As George says, though, the surprise appearances of the aforementioned Three Lions duo, Giroud and Christensen proved effective; Sarri would be mad to bench them all. If there’s anyone that would, though, it’s the Neapolitan.
Finally, what are your score predictions?
George: “It’s never an easy fixture, and a lot of it depends on who plays on the day. That said, a win is vital, so let’s go for 3-1 Chelsea.”
James: “I wouldn’t be surprised to see West Ham take something from this game as they’ve had lots of success against top six opposition this season. A win may be a bit beyond them but a point is more than achievable, so I’ll go with a 1-1 draw.”