Chelsea host reigning Premier League champions Manchester City at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. Maurizio Sarri’s side will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing midweek defeat to Wolves, but the Cityzens are a seriously tough opponent to have to face.
This week’s experts, Manchester City fan and Fixture in Focus podcast regular Chris McMullan and The TT’s resident Chelsea apologist George Blake, share their thoughts and predictions ahead of the 17:30 kick-off…
After a long unbeaten run at the start of the season, recent defeats to Tottenham Hotspur and Wolves have halted Chelsea’s progress under new boss Sarri.
With the race for the top four – and consequent Champions League qualification – looking so tight this year, Chelsea can scarcely afford to drop points, especially against newly-promoted opposition.
After the failure at Molineux, how important is it for Sarri’s side to get a result on Saturday?
George: “It’s incredibly important. If we had got a decent result against Tottenham and won on Wednesday, this fixture wouldn’t be particularly significant, as we’re not looking to challenge for the title this season, and City are obviously so much better. However, given our recent form, we simply can’t afford to lose another game. If we have aspirations of finishing in the top-four, we desperately need a good result.
We’ll drop outside of the leading pack if we fail to win, and given the fine form of everyone around us, we may find it difficult to get back in. Of course, it’s also important to get a good result to start putting aside this sense of doubt that is quickly bubbling around Maurizio Sarri – and it’s the sort of game that could really kick our season back into fifth gear. Or, it could make this downward spiral even worse.”
After such a strong start to the campaign, it was easy to believe that Chelsea were already close to being back to their best. However, it must be remembered that Sarri took up the hot seat at Stamford Bridge this summer in trying circumstances.
The Italian coach arrived late in the summer, and therefore had only a truncated pre-season period with his new squad. He also had to negotiate plenty of disharmony amongst the ranks – a legacy of Antonio Conte’s divisive managerial style.
The introduction of a new style of play, and the bedding-in of several first team acquisitions on top of that, ensured that Sarri would have plenty of work to do in west London, and he will require time and patience to see his ideas bear fruit.
After such a good start, have the recent stumbles put the scale of the task facing Sarri – in terms of getting Chelsea back to competing for titles – into some perspective?
George: “This season has shades of Luis Felipe Scolari all over it. We were dominating for the first couple of months of the season under him, and then a couple of losses quickly made things fall apart. I don’t expect it to get that bad, but it certainly highlights that the honeymoon period is over for Maurizio Sarri. It was always clear that it would take Chelsea some time to adjust to this new system, and a good run at the start of the year really masked over that. The issue is that it’s no longer looking like just a mentality problem. It’s very worrying that so many players are simply not looking good enough, and Sarri has a real task as he looks to get things back running smoothly.”
Manchester City, on the other hand, have altogether different – and far fewer – issues to contend with.
Pep Guardiola’s side play scintillating football, are solid at the back and lethal up front, and boast enviable squad depth. Most wouldn’t bet against them retaining their Premier League title this season, but Guardiola will know that his side can’t afford to take their foot off the gas.
Given the quality of their squad and vast resources, is complacency the greatest hurdle this Manchester City side have to overcome this season?
But the narrative that City’s squad and resources are vastly superior to most of the rest of the top six doesn’t stand up to the evidence. Bear in mind that Chelsea (Kepa Arrizabalaga), Liverpool (Virgil van Dijk) and Manchester United (Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba) each have players in their squad signed for more money than City’s record signing Riyad Mahrez.
This time last year – on the 16th matchday – Pep Guardiola’s side traveled to play Manchester United at Old Trafford. By the end of the weekend, they were nine points clear and sat on 46 points. This time, City are just two points ahead of a Liverpool side who have improved massively on a squad which made the Champions League final last season. A win this weekend would put them on 44 points, two behind their own Super Mario Kart ghost from last season.
So the idea that City only have themselves to beat is a little misguided in my opinion.”
Saturday promises a clash of two very strong sides. Despite Chelsea’s recent struggles, Sarri has a wealth of top class players at his disposal.
The question is, does your opponent this weekend have any particular flaws that your side should look to exploit?
George: “Honestly? Probably not. They may be without Sergio Aguero, but when you consider that they’ve got so many goalscoring midfielders in the side, in addition to Gabriel Jesus, that just highlights how good this team are. The only thing you can hope for is that our midfield, which is likely to be Jorginho, N’Golo Kante and either Mateo Kovacic or Ruben Loftus-Cheek, are on their game. If those three work like they did earlier in the season, we could really control the game, but they’re probably better than us on every area of the pitch.”
Chris: “Received wisdom would tell you that in order to win this game, Chelsea will likely have to beat City at their own game. The Blues are second only to the Champions in average possession stats this season and these are the only two teams who average above 60% so far.
But given that City are further ahead in their progression under Guardiola than Chelsea are after only a few months under Sarri you’d imagine that it’s the Catalan’s team who will dominate the ball at Stamford Bridge this weekend.
So far, stopping Jorginho has been the cheat code for automatically stopping Chelsea, but that tactic might be null and void in a game where Sarri is able to call upon the counter-attacking nous of a squad who are more used to playing in that style anyway.”
City may well boast one of the best defensive records in the league, but Chelsea have attacking quality in their side that Guardiola would be wise not to underestimate.
Are there any particular threats that Chelsea pose that City must be wary of?
Chris: “This is a hard one because I think this is a test we haven’t seen Chelsea encounter yet under Sarri. There’s no question they’ll go out to try to dominate possession despite most likely failing in that task, but would they be better trying to play deeper than usual and springing a surprise on City?
Sure, few teams get anything against Guardiola’s team with that approach, but this is a collection of players who are used to playing that way in a Chelsea shirt and have won titles doing so.”
We could well be in for a match decided by fine margins this weekend. So, where will this game be lost and won?
Chris: “If Jorginho can get on the ball and dictate play – even in short spells – then City could be in a bit of trouble. They’ll be in for a rough ride, too, if Chelsea’s counter is on-form.”
George: “I think the midfield will be crucial, but the Chelsea defence was shocking against Tottenham, and they rightfully exploited that. If David Luiz has another off-day, it could be a very long night for Chelsea. At least Aguero might not be on the field, so hopefully he’ll be able to get through this one without being two-footed…”
And finally, let’s have your score predictions…
George: “My head tells me that it’ll be a dominant Man City win, but let’s say 1-0 to Chelsea – Alvaro Morata to score it.”
Chris: “I said it on this week’s Fixture in Focus podcast, so I’m going to have to stick with it: 2-1 City.”