In a fixture that will have a huge impact on the fate of this season’s Premier League title, table-toppers Chelsea play hosts to Manchester City at Stamford Bridge this weekend. By now, we all know what to expect from Jose Mourinho’s side in the big games; a double, triple or even quadruple bus-parking of anti-football delight, where keeping it tight at the back and capitalising on opposition errors are the primary concerns.
There’s nothing the Portuguese hates more than losing, especially to an old rival like Manuel Pellegrini and an overtly attacking, top-quality side like Manchester City, and already boasting a rather comfortable five-point margin at the Premier League’s summit, Chelsea will be more than happy with a draw on Saturday, even if it means 90 minutes’ worth of very forgettable, attritional football.
That will leave the Citizens with the tough task of closing the deficit with just 15 games remaining; defeat, on the other hand, will open up the title race once again, with the psychological edge and momentum shifting in City’s favour.
Resultantly, one assumes that Chelsea won’t offer too many surprises against the Sky Blues. Eking out important results in such a professional and methodical fashion is what they’re best at – so why deviate from a proven formula?
Yet, claiming all three points on Saturday would be a knock-out blow to the English champions’ title retention hopes – a Mike Tyson haymaker, an Eric Cantona Scissor Kick, a Rock Bottom followed by a People’s Elbow – and in my opinion, one that Chelsea should go for.
That may seem like a rather audacious suggestion, but the Blues’ 1-0 win at the Etihad last season provides the perfect case-in-point.
After accusing Sam Allardyce’s West Ham of borrowing tactics from the 19th century, many expected Mourinho to hypocritically deploy the same methods and drag out a scoreless draw on City’s turf. Instead, we were treated to one of the most entertaining 1-0’s in Premier League history, where it seemed every mistake – an inaccurate pass, a mistimed tackle, a wasted shot – truly mattered, in an incredible double-bluff from the Stamford Bridge boss.
Chelsea set up with all the defensive solidarity one would expect, a suffocation of space in the middle of the park being their predominant concern, but they approached the match with a front-footed mentality, the ambition and commitment to punish the home side on the break, and resultantly caught City, expecting a considerably more conservative display, off guard.
It wasn’t a performance chasms away from Chelsea’s usual blueprint in such encounters, but them taking the game to the opposition for the majority of the 90 minutes, despite City entering the match as undoubted favourites due to their world-class firepower, was the intrinsic difference to their less ambitious displays prior and since – take the 2-0 at Liverpool, for example.
With City considerably more in need of the win and everybody anticipating Chelsea to sit deep, shut up shop and play for the draw, in classic Mourinho style, the potential is there to surprise the visitors once again.
That may seem difficult without Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa, the former injured and the latter suspended, two of Chelsea’s three most prolific attacking threats this season alongside winger Eden Hazard. Once again however, it’s a situation that plays into Chelsea’s hands, the expected inclusions of Didier Drogba and John Obi Mikel, two masters of attritional, kill-a-game football, providing the perfect smokescreen to the Blues’ more attacking intentions. Likewise, Chelsea beat the Citizens twice without the £55million Spanish duo last season – so why can’t they do it again?
It’s a risky strategy and Jose Mourinho isn’t a manager known for taking unnecessary gambles – in fact, quite the opposite.
Yet a win for Chelsea on Saturday ends everything; City will then be dependent on the Blues dropping at least one point every two games to close the eight-point gap, providing they win all of their 15 remaining fixtures. With the full force of the Stamford Bridge faithful behind them, Chelsea are more than capable of claiming the win, should they approach the match with the ambition to do so.
Whether Mourinho is prepared to install that belief and mentality in his players however, instead persisting that defensive responsibilities must come first, remains to be seen.