Manchester City welcome Chelsea to the Etihad Stadium on Sunday afternoon with defeat at Stamford Bridge in December still lingering in the back of their minds.
The football media fell into a predictable trap at the beginning of the season: everybody sat back and eulogised over a team that were destined to retain the title at a canter.
Claims that ‘City have improved from last season’, ‘City have too much strength in depth to relinquish the title’, ‘City could become the next invincibles’ were being thrown around with brazen regularity.
In the absence of perspective and long-term thinking, the rest of the division didn’t stand a chance. The fact Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool were both keeping pace with the league leaders wasn’t taken seriously enough. Then came the trip to Stamford Bridge.
City dominated the first-half in typical fashion. Leroy Sane was electric but unable to find the breakthrough, as were the usual suspects he so imperiously connected with during a pulsating opening.
But a sucker punch was just around the corner, and a familiar culprit was responsible: Kyle Walker. In a team as strong as Man City’s there is simply no place to hide; the smallest mistake is exacerbated by the flawlessness of Guardiola’s machine.
Walker was caught sleeping on the halfway line, allowing Willian time and space to penetrate the flank in the build up to N’Golo Kante’s opener. Chelsea went on to win the game 2-0 and City lost two of the three fixtures which followed that humbling defeat.
Not again, Kyle. City fans had managed to forgive Walker for the fatal error which facilitated Will Grigg’s knockout blow in the FA Cup last season, but his lapse in concentration at Stamford Bridge provided an uncomfortable reminder that his frailties are here to stay.
His error drew particularly damning criticism from Rio Ferdinand, who labelled him a liability after witnessing his mistake.
95% of the time Walker is an excellent defender who offers width, incredible speed, and balance in every phase of play. But there is a 5% hole in his brain which is holding him back and it’s the right-hand side of City’s defence that Maurizio Sarri should be looking to exploit with that knowledge in mind.
Gonzalo Higuain will be expected to start at the spearhead of Chelsea’s attack after scoring a brace against Huddersfield last time out, and his presence should convince Sarri to deploy Eden Hazard on the left side of his attack.
The brilliant Belgian should get all sorts of joy up against error-prone Walker, pulling him out of position and creating pockets of space for Marcos Alonso to exploit on the overlap.
Chelsea’s victory in December stunned just about everybody in the footballing media, but if Sarri can find another way to exploit Walker, valued at £45 million per Transfermarkt, he could secure three vital points and a season-defining domestic double.