Manchester City host Chelsea this weekend and will be hoping to continue their comeback from a 2-1 loss to Newcastle in January. Having won their last two, City are back on track and have capitalised on their title rivals, Liverpool, dropping seven points from their last five games, thus surrendering a seven-point lead they held at Christmas.
Now level on 62 points, City will be cheering on Bournemouth on Saturday, who visit Anfield. Then the onus is on the champions to get a win against the Blues – who inflicted their first defeat of the Premier League season in December – and keep their seat at the top of the table.
Chris: “I think City have lacked energy full stop in the last few games. Scoring early – arguably too early in hindsight – against Newcastle seemed to have a tranquilising effect on the team whilst against Arsenal and Everton, the Blues came through but without a certain verve.
“Would moving Bernardo back into the middle help in that regard? I’m not so sure – the fact that City are in a title race should focus minds, and De Bruyne’s slow return to form should help, too. Perhaps the more salient point is whether Bernardo’s lack of pace and directness in comparison with Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane is a factor in City’s overall lethargy.”
George: “I think you could argue that pushing Bernardo out wide does make life more difficult for City, in that they have less energy in the middle of the park, but the tradeoff is having De Bruyne in there instead. Nobody in the Premier League can pass quite like the Belgian, and let’s not forget, he was the heartbeat of this team prior to his recent run of injuries.
“In truth, it’s more of a win/win situation for Pep Guardiola, as though he may lose something in moving Silva out, he’s gaining a whole lot more by being able to include De Bruyne. And Bernardo isn’t ineffective on the flanks, either, so it’s still working for City. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the pair get better in the coming weeks with more time playing in their respective positions.”
An unlikely engine in the City side, the former Monaco man was used alongside the other Silva in Guardiola’s midfield as De Bruyne recovered from a knee injury and impressed, but since the Belgian’s return, he has been shifted back out to the wing.
De Bruyne can do things with a football that no other Premier League player can and, as indispensable as he and David Silva are, one wonders if they have missed Bernardo’s legs in the middle.
The 24-year-old broke the season record – previously held by himself – for ground covered in City’s 2-1 victory over Liverpool, clocking an incredible 13.7km. Chelsea have a similar workhorse in their midfield…
George: “A lot has been made about the positional change for N’Golo Kante, but as a Chelsea fan I just don’t see it. There’s been this strange discourse surrounding Kante’s importance to the team, and it flipflops on a week to week basis. If he plays poorly, suddenly Sarri is the devil, but if he plays well, it’s a bit of genius from the Italian.
“The reality is that Kante suits the position well. He’s still able to impact the game defensively, but he’s also able to make use of his other traits, like his great passing range, to make an impact going forward, as he did with Gonzalo Higuain’s first goal last weekend. I read somewhere that he’s got three goals in his last 25 games, whereas Mateo Kovacic has scored one in his last 95 games. I think that tells you all you need to know about which player is playing too far forward.”
Chris: “Jurgen Klopp used to claim his gegenpressing style was his best playmaker and winning the ball deep into the opposition’s half is about as dangerous an opportunity as you could wish for. The attacking team is turned on the back foot in an instant and the defenders who’d been set up to attack are now in no position to defend.
“While it’s true that Kante has a peculiar knack of dribbling the ball 20 yards without succumbing to a challenge and is particularly hard to knock off the ball when he has it thanks to his low centre of gravity, it’s his ball-winning abilities in City’s defensive third rather than his ball-carrying ones that Guardiola will have to worry about.”
Kante showed excellent vision to spot Higuain’s near-post run against Huddersfield and this was far from a one-off. The World Cup winning defensive midfielder has been ousted from that role by Sarri’s golden boy, Jorginho.
The Frenchman’s tireless running is hugely important to his side and the more he plays in his new position, the more he will improve. While what Sarri is doing with Kante might not please some Blues fans, it will make Kante far more well-rounded and who knows what kind of beast he could become in the next few years.
While the aforementioned midfield duo are shoe-ins in the Chelsea XI, it is far less certain as to who will occupy the right-wing slot…
If you’re Aymeric Laporte, playing left-back for City, who would you rather face out of Willian and Pedro?
Chris: “‘Would you rathers’ are rarely nice….
“This one, however, isn’t as horrible as it could’ve been thanks to the fact that Eden Hazard plays on the left for Chelsea. That doesn’t mean that he won’t drift, of course.
“If I were Laporte, I think i’d prefer to come up against Willian just because Pedro’s pace is a little greater and the Brazilian is less likely to want to beat you on the outside.
“Having said that, I do believe Willian is the player Guardiola will fear most because of his propensity to conjure something out of nothing, particularly from set pieces, and for the greater good you’d like to think Laporte would prefer to see Pedro lining up on the opposite side of the halfway line at kick-off.”
George: “I know I’d rather be facing Willian. I think he is unfairly criticised for his contributions, as he’s a crucial part of the team and is very underrated – but as a defender you know exactly what to expect from him. He’s either going to pass it sideways or he’s going to go on the outside and cross the ball.
“Pedro, meanwhile, is more dynamic and can cut in or go out or pass around you. I think Pedro’s been a bit of a secret weapon for the Blues this season, and he’s always a goal threat.”
Sarri, though, seems to prefer the Brazilian to Pedro – former Shakhtar man Willian has made 21 league starts to the Spaniard’s 14. Both got the nod last time the two top six sides met as Hazard stepped into a false-nine role, although, with the arrival of Gonzalo Higuain, there will surely only be room for one of the wide-men this time around.
They will have another opportunity to test their qualities against the champions this month though…
How important is it, psychologically, for both teams to get three points from this game considering that the Carabao Cup final is just around the corner?
George: “I think for Chelsea it goes beyond just the Carabao Cup. Another big loss and we’re back at the stage we were after Bournemouth. However, if we win – and Higuain scores again – we’ll be looking a whole lot better.
“We’ve already proven that we can beat City, and so I don’t think that’s overly important, but it’s just about whether we can sustain a run of form leading into that fixture and beyond.”
Chris: “Top six encounters are huge games in the season these days and you could go as far as to say era defining, too. At the Etihad Stadium around this time last year Antonio Conte’s Chelsea surrendered meekly and that display as much as anything else may have cost the Italian his credibility.
“This time around, if Chelsea were to win, it could be era defining for Guardiola because, although his 100-point season is unlikely to be beaten, defeat here and in the Carabao Cup final could see his side unravel. Victories on an unstoppable march to multiple trophies would see this period of the year burnish the legend further and ensure that he and his team go down as one of English football’s greats.
Having bested City last time out, Chelsea know that they’ve got another upset in them and they will go into the cup final with that knowledge regardless of Sunday’s result. For the Cityzens, though, a loss could sow some major doubts in the minds of the players, who will be faced with the prospect of their quadruple hopes crashing down going into the clash on 24th February.
Finally, what are your score predictions?
Chris: “On this week’s FIFpod I said 3-0 to Manchester City and – despite the fact I may now regret that hubris – I’m going to have to stick to it.”
George: “This is a rare game in that if we lost I wouldn’t be too heartbroken, as I really don’t want to see Liverpool at the top of the Premier League, but it’s important that we get a good result so we stay ahead of the likes of Man Utd and Arsenal. I’m going to go for 3-2 Chelsea.”
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