Aside from an uncharacteristic shared smirk midway though Sunday’s 2-1 affair at Old Trafford, there isn’t much Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho have agreed on since the former arrived in England to succeed the latter at Chelsea.
Whether their apparent feud is sourced from some form of enviousness, a genuine dislike of each other or simply the kind of hot air fighting talk you’d sooner expect from Connor McGregor remains a matter of opinion.
But as Conte prepares for what will be the toughest test Chelsea face in the Premier League this season, an away trip to the Etihad Stadium where champions-in-waiting Manchester City have dropped just two points and scored 50 goals in 14 games, the Manchester United gaffer has inadvertently presented his Italian adversary with a crucial gift – a game-plan for how to beat the Citizens on their own patch.
That was devised four years ago, when Chelsea produced an away masterclass in arguably the greatest 1-0 the Premier League has ever seen.
In a game of preciously fine margins, two opposing schools of thought collided to create an end-to-end affair where every inch of space became of instrumental importance. For all the chances City made through their domination of possession and one-touch attacking play, Chelsea mustered up just as many by staging audacious counter-attacks and exploding into the gaps City left behind as they camped around the Blues’ box. In fact, it was arguably the visitors who made the better opportunities; in addition to scoring the only goal of the game, Eden Hazard, Samuel Eto’o and Nemanja Matic all hit the woodwork.
Branislav Ivanovic’s goal highlighted how important space and discipline was in that game. As Chelsea’s rugged right-back, he was perhaps the only player on the pitch afforded time and space on the ball in compromising areas – at least in relative terms. So when City failed to clear after one of Chelsea’s many rip-roaring counter-attacks, it was the Serbian who found himself unmarked and unchallenged on the edge of the box for just long enough to drill a placed shot into Joe Hart’s left inside netting.
Nobody else on the pitch, in any other moment of the game, was privy to that kind of luxury; City always found themselves a few inches away from a challenging Chelsea boot, and everything Chelsea did going forward had to be at full speed.
Of course, Chelsea and Manchester City are much-changed animals these days – after all, we’re talking about a match that took place four years ago with two different managers at the helm. But there are some glaring similarities; City still look to dominate the ball under Pep Guardiola, albeit with far more intensity than under Manuel Pellegrini, and Chelsea still set up to hit teams on the break in big games. In fact, they almost pulled off a counter-attacking masterclass of their own against Barcelona last week, with one erroneous pass from Andreas Christensen standing in their way.
What’s more, this fixture once again falls in February, City are once again amid a title bid and Chelsea are once again short of that challenge because of a misshapen squad. The dynamics are perfect for a performance that mimics what Chelsea produced in February 2014; a counter-attacking display as thrilling and effective as what City managed with 65% possession.
No doubt, Chelsea rode their luck that night – Yaya Toure and David Silva both missed glaring chances to score from close range as the ball bobbled around a Blues penalty box filled with practically all 20 outfield players – and they probably aren’t as dynamic offensively as they were when Ramires, Willian, Hazard and Eto’o combined to create an incredibly mobile front four.
But Chelsea will need fortune on Sunday too, that much is obvious, and Willian and Hazard particularly are far more consistent in what they produce on the ball these days. Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso too, can be vital outlets out wide and if Ivanovic’s goal tells us anything, it’s that they could well be the ones who find themselves in just enough space to wriggle a shot beyond Ederson.
Regardless of whether it pays off or not though, it’s clear the 2014 performance is the template Chelsea must follow this weekend; prepared to defend their own box for large spells, knowing they have the explosiveness and talent to create chances as good as City’s on the break – and for all the due praise City have received this season, we know they still make mistakes at the back when teams hit them on the counter. In another game of crucially fine margins, just one could decide the result.
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