With several quarter-finalists needing to prioritise Premier League survival, Leicester and Chelsea offer up the weekend’s most competitive FA Cup clash on paper.
Separated by just four positions in the Premier League table, Leicester can afford to turn their attentions to English football’s most historic cup competition without fearing how it may affect their top flight campaign.
That should see Claude Puel’s boys give the reigning champions a good run for their money in Sunday’s meeting at the King Power Stadium, further enthused by the fact they’ve already outplayed the Blues at Stamford Bridge this season, not to mention Antonio Conte’s side entering the game on the back of a humbling loss to Barcelona.
So, can Chelsea recover from their Champions League elimination in time to keep their final chance of silverware this season alive? London Evening Standard’s lady in the know on all things Chelsea, Vai Bhardwaj, shares her thoughts and predictions ahead of the 4.30pm kickoff…
The Blues will have mixed feelings after being knocked out of Europe’s most prestigious competition on Wednesday night. While the aggregate scoreline finished 4-1, Chelsea arguably outperformed Barcelona in both legs – containing them at Stamford Bridge barring one erroneous pass into the path of Lionel Messi before leaving the Nou Camp with almost twice the amount of efforts at goal as the home side.
What key positives can Conte take from Chelsea’s performances in the Round of 16?
Vai: “They can be pleased with the fact that, barring a handful of individual errors, they gave Barcelona a contest, particularly in the first leg which they drew 1-1. They also created chances to score in both legs, although they couldn’t finish them off, which will give them hope they can do the same when they play Leicester. The way they managed to stay compact in the first leg shows they can defend well as a unit, which they’ll be hoping to do at the King Power Stadium.”
The last time Chelsea and Leicester met, the Foxes took a point away from Stamford Bridge despite going down to ten men in a scoreless encounter that the visitors surprisingly dominated. That was a warning sign for the west Londoners, who soon went on to endure shock defeats to Bournemouth and Watford in the Premier League.
What must Chelsea do to ensure they aren’t cancelled out once again by Leicester?
Vai: “The first key thing they must do is stay compact and defend well as a team. Then they must be sure to use their creativity in the middle of the park – Cesc Fabregas will be important in that – to help create chances to score. The way the likes of Willian and Olivier Giroud are playing at the moment means Conte is likely to be optimistic Chelsea can then convert the opportunities at goal they create. But they must pull Leicester’s defence out of position – which can be done using the pace of Willian and Eden Hazard.”
Perhaps Conte’s biggest selection headache for the weekend centres around who should be at the spearhead of his attack. Giroud has enjoyed a decent start to his Chelsea career but struggled to have an impact at the Nou Camp, while club-record acquisition Alvaro Morata is now yet to find the net for the west Londoners since Boxing Day. Then there’s the whole debate over using Eden Hazard as a false nine.
Which forward is Chelsea’s best strike option and who should start on Sunday?
Vai: “Despite the fact that Giroud has scored just one goal for Chelsea since signing from Arsenal, he has created a lot of chances at goal meaning he is the Blues’ in-form striker. However, Conte will probably hand a start to Morata to boost his confidence in a game that Chelsea will want to win but one that is less of a risk to start the struggling striker in than against Tottenham in the league after the international break.”
And where do you think this game will be lost and won?
Vai: “Andreas Christensen has suffered from a few errors in the past month, since that 1-1 draw against Barcelona, so the way he handles Jamie Vardy could be key.”
Finally Vai, let’s hear your score prediction:
Vai: “Chelsea to win 2-1.”