English football’s ultimate curtain-raiser returns this weekend as FA Cup winners Chelsea and Premier League champions Manchester City return to Wembley for the Community Shield.
This game is always a tough one to anticipate, because it’s never quite clear how much importance each manager will attach to it. But throw in the ramafications of the World Cup, changes in the dugout at Stamford Bridge and big-money signings for both sides, and the 2018 edition particularly falls into the category of not quite knowing what to expect.
Giving it their best efforts though are this week’s experts, Football FanCast’s very own Manchester City fan Chris McMullan and former editor of The Shed Ender Geroge Blake, who share their thoughts and predictions ahead of Sunday’s 3pm showdown at Wembley.
As already alluded to, the significance of the Community Shield is a rather ambiguous, non-binary concept. The importance deviates each year, depending on the teams involved, how their respective summers have panned out and whether the managers are prioritising fitness or performance. For Maurizio Sarri and Pep Guardiola, then, this game could mean completely different things.
How does this game best serve City?
Chris: “I think this is nothing but a glorified friendly, and so the result isn’t something I’d be taking too seriously. On the other hand, recent history tells us that when City win a Premier League title, they switch off with frustrating consequences. Guardiola’s famous intensity and drive means Blues fans can be quietly confident that this won’t happen over the coming season, but even in a fairly meaningless game I’d still expect the boss to be barking orders from the technical area. Whether or not they respond to it – even in what is essentially a pre-season friendly – could be a barometer for the season ahead.”
And how much importance should Chelsea be attaching to it?
George: “I think I would be speaking for most football fans if I said that a win would cement us as the first major trophy winners of the season, but a loss would push the game far closer to meaningless friendly territory. The reality, though, is that it’s probably somewhere in the middle. It’s more important than a pre-season against Perth Glory in Australia, but it’s hardly a Super Sunday clash either. A win would certainly give us a good boost heading into the season, though, whilst it will also offer Sarri an opportunity to see how his first few weeks at the club have translated onto the pitch against a competitive opponent. On a scale of Danny Drinkwater to Eden Hazard, let’s say it’s about an Antonio Rudiger on the importance-meter.”
From a neutral perspective though, Chelsea’s involvement in Sunday’s showdown feels more significant than Manchester City’s, simply because of the change in management at Stamford Bridge. While Antonio Conte delivered two trophies in two seasons, Sarri is seen as the man to transition this team closer towards the Guardiola philosophy of exciting offensive football rather than pragmatic efficiency.
Of course, the Italian’s only been in the job a few weeks and he’s still yet to work with the full squad – Thibaut Courtois, Willian, N’Golo Kante and Eden Hazard all look set to miss this weekend’s game – but the City clash represents Sarri’s chance to lay down a marker and separate himself from the direction Conte took the team in.
Have you been impressed with Chelsea’s football so far this summer and what have been the noticeable differences from Conte’s style of play?
George: “I was expecting a bit more of a change, to be honest, but then again, it is still early days. We’re moving the ball a lot faster, of course, and the change of shape back to a four-man defence has been refreshing, but Sarri has only had just over a couple of weeks to work with the players, and he’s not a miracle worker. Given how similar Sarri’s style is to Guardiola’s, I think this game will offer us our first real glimpse at how far along in the process we are. I’m expecting us to come out and attack from minute one – which would be about 89 minutes too early for Conte’s team.”
While pre-season is first and foremost the chance for first-team stars to regain their fitness and, perhaps more importantly, match sharpness ahead of the Premier League’s opening weekend, neither manager has enjoyed the luxury of working with their full squad just yet, due to the number of players that were involved in the latter stages of the World Cup. Instead, City and Chelsea have both given chances to young players in pre-season to make up the numbers, and a few gems for the future have really stood out.
Are there any youngsters from pre-season you’d like to see get another chance at Wembley on Sunday?
Chris: “This pre-season the limelight that Phil Foden and Brahim Diaz were basking in was stolen by another unfathomably young starlet, the La Masia graduate Eric Garcia. The centre back – represented by Carles Puyol, showing his pedigree – shone on the US tour this summer and deserves his chance to get some elite-level minutes under his belt. Just like the other two, though, Garcia is too young to be a given regular starting role when the season begins.
George: “The one name that sticks out here is undoubtedly Callum Hudson-Odoi. It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to suggest that he’s been Chelsea’s player of the summer so far. Despite being just 17 years old, he’s come into the team and outshone relative veterans like Alvaro Morata and Pedro. Against Arsenal on Wednesday, Hector Bellerin simply couldn’t handle him, and if anyone deserves a chance, it’s him – especially with Eden Hazard unavailable.
“Another perhaps less likely shout is Ethan Ampadu. I’m half expecting him to be loaned out this season, and with Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen and David Luiz all available, it seems unlikely that he’ll get the nod on Sunday. That said, based on form alone, he’s more than earned a starting berth – having impressed throughout the summer, often alongside Luiz.”
The Community Shield always provides the opportunity to showcase new signings, but Jorginho’s expected involvement on Sunday will be particularly relevant. The Italy international’s semi-competitive debut for the Blues will come against the club that pushed so hard to sign him earlier in the summer, only to be beaten to his services by the west Londoners.
Are you disappointed City didn’t land Jorginho, and how important a signing will he be for the Blues?
Chris: “Hugely – I think he’s a fabulous player with a skillset City could have used this season and for years to come. I’m not convinced it’s a huge deal in the short-term, however. The Italian international appears to have been in City minds as a Fernandinho replacement – there to give the 33-year-old a break every once in a while and allow Guardiola to phase him out over the next few years. This weekend – and for the rest of the season – he’ll be a threat: he’s the midfield fulcrum that will be so vital for Sarri to turn a Conte side into his own.”
With so many potential absentees, who do you see as the biggest danger men this weekend?
George: “Like us, City are obviously missing a number of players, and so it’s unclear as to how exactly they’ll line-up. That said, everyone knows the quality that Pep Guardiola has available, and there will be a ton of it on show. I’d probably look at both Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez as two players that the Blues should be particularly concerned with. Sane wasn’t selected at the World Cup, and so he’ll be wanting to prove a point, which is concerning given how good he was last year. Mahrez is another one that will want to make an impression, having only moved from Leicester City earlier this summer. I think there are gaps to be exploited, particularly in defence, but going forward, City are a real threat.”
Chris: “It’s incredibly hard to tell. Chelsea have acted strangely this summer – at least to my eyes. Palace intrigue doesn’t seem too far away from the club at the moment and the short amount of time that Sarri and the players have had together makes them that most dangerous of beasts: an unpredictable one. Without Kevin De Bruyne, there is the potential for Man City to be overrun by a re-energised Chelsea midfield who could be given a new lease of life under Sarri. The likely trio of Jorginho, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Cesc Fabregas took no part in the World Cup, meaning Guardiola’s men could find this a tough work-out before Arsenal next week.”
And finally chaps, lets hear your score predictions…
Chris: “I think Chelsea will win this one. It’s tough to predict what is essentially a friendly, but from a City point of view, evidence of the fierce hunger we saw last season is more important than the result. I think 2-1 to Sarri’s men, and a nice quote from Guardiola about how his Italian friend and counterpart is one of the best in the business.”
George: “I’m expecting an exciting game with lots of free-flowing attacks, and so I think that it wouldn’t be wise to bet on a low-scoring bore draw. Let’s go for a 3-2 Chelsea win.”