By Liam Twomey
Many would have you believe that Sunday afternoon will throw together the two main challengers for Manchester United’s Premier League crown at Stamford Bridge – yet, remarkably, two months into the season, we still have very little idea of what to expect.
Chelsea and Manchester City are both adjusting to new signings, new managers and new tactics, and the cost of transition is inconsistency.
The Blues held their own for two hours against the best team in the world, Bayern Munich, in the Super Cup final in Prague at the end of August, only to lose limply at home to Basel in their Champions League group stage opener three weeks later. City utterly destroyed Manchester United at the Etihad Stadium a month ago, but have also imploded on the road against Cardiff City and Aston Villa.
Jose Mourinho and Manuel Pellegrini, the two new men on the touchline, know each other well from numerous battles in Spain. Yet the sense remains that neither have settled on a consistent strongest team as they ponder the decisions which will help decide Sunday’s clash.
The Special One has largely stuck with the 4-2-3-1 formation he practised at Real Madrid since his return to Stamford Bridge, but the chosen personnel and style have varied wildly depending on the opposition. Against Manchester United he parked his defence on the edge of Petr Cech’s penalty area and employed Andre Schurrle as a defensive forward to pressure the opposition backline. Against Bayern Munich he moved the German out to the right, put Fernando Torres up front and urged his team to counter with pace and ferocity at every opportunity.
At home the onus will be on Chelsea to attack City, but Mourinho is naturally pragmatic in his approach to big matches. This means we will likely be deprived of the pleasure of watching Juan Mata from the start, as the Spaniard is still not trusted to be mindful of his defensive responsibilities.
In Mourinho’s defence, discipline in wide areas will be crucial for the Blues because, in Pellegrini’s trademark 4-2-2-2 formation, City usually carry a threat on both flanks.
David Silva tends to drift from the left into the middle, allowing either Alexander Kolarov or Gael Clichy to overlap and provide crosses; on the right, Jesus Navas will exhaust and expose Ashley Cole if he is anything less than 100 per cent recovered from his rib injury.
Oscar will have to drop deep more frequently than usual to support the midfield duo behind him, too, because Fernandinho and Yaya Toure possess the strength and skill to out-muscle and out-pass Ramires and Frank Lampard. If, as expected, Silva looks for pockets of space between the lines, the task will become even harder.
The Brazilian has been favoured due to his hard work without the ball as much as his creativity with it, and he could play a crucial role at Stamford Bridge. If he can marry that endeavour with his trademark cutting edge, Chelsea will diminish City's stranglehold on the central areas and could catch out a defence which is yet to settle on a default position.
As ever, possession will be a key factor. Both teams are accustomed to having the most of the ball – Chelsea have the highest average home possession (62.6 per cent) in the league, while no one keeps the ball better away from home than City (64.2%), though these figures can also be attributed partially to a forgiving early fixture list. Despite their home advantage, City's potential monopoly on possession would better suit the Blues’ superior counterattacking prowess.
At the other end, City have weaknesses of their own. The potential return of Vincent Kompany means Chelsea cannot target the hapless Javi Garcia, but the left-back slot offers a window of opportunity.
Kolarov or Clichy are both defensively questionable and will be required by Silva’s wanderings to bomb forward regularly and provide attacking width. Unfortunately Chelsea do not possess a natural right winger (Hazard, Schurrle, Willian and Mata are all more comfortable on the left or through the middle), but Mourinho will likely ensure he has pace on his right flank to exploit any space in behind.
And those opportunities behind City's backline could be plentiful; Pellegrini's high line has caused unease at Carrington in his first few months in charge, and following their demolishing at the hands of Bayern in the Champions League they have had to reconsider their approach. If they are to dominate possession here, as is their wont, they will most likely push their defensive line up the pitch to squeeze the play and restrict the spaces in which Chelsea's creative players usually thrive.
That inevitable space behind the visiting defence will hearten Mourinho, especially as he has two strikers in good form.
Samuel Eto’o capped his steady improvement with an impressive first Blues goal against Cardiff last Saturday, while Fernando Torres looks as lively as he has ever done at Stamford Bridge. Both men have similar strengths, and will try to work the channels vacated by the City full-backs, make decoy runs to create space for supporting midfielders and exploit any space in behind Kompany and Matija Nastasic.
One concern both managers will share is the lack of a specialised shield in their two-man midfields. Fernandinho is perhaps the closest, while Mourinho has the option of Jon Obi Mikel. But unless both sides defend deep, with Silva and Aguero darting expertly between the lines at one end and Hazard, Oscar and possibly Mata doing the same at the other, the chances should flow.
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