Saturday 3rd December 12.30
By all accounts, this is officially the season to be jolly and so, without further ado, here’s an early Christmas present for you all. Pre-season favourites versus the current favourites, joint second versus top, Pep versus Conte. Whatever way you care to look at it, this is one hell of a game. Can Pep crack this crafty system that Conte has so successfully deployed? Can Conte and his charges continue their incredible winning run? So many questions so let’s look to see if there are any answers.
We can be certain about one thing and that is that Pep Guardiola is football nerd of the highest order. As such, he will have watched with fascination as Chelsea radically re-ordered themselves early in the season into an offensive 3-4-3 that lacks for nothing in defence. Traditionally, when Italian managers use a three-man defence, it’s shorthand for having five players sitting across the line.
Making a success of things
On the odd occasion when the Chelsea defence have faced concerted pressure, the wing backs have naturally dropped deep but they’re much happier further up the pitch, especially Victor Moses. Without a recognisable playmaker in midfield, the width and offensive impetus provided by Moses and Marcos Alonso is essential in their efforts to shift play higher up the field to Eden Hazard and co. This aspect of their play has been a strength so don’t be at all shocked if Gaurdiola chooses to view it as a potential weakness.
He who shouts the loudest/fools seldom differ
Even allowing for the fact that City are just one point off the top, Guardiola has been widely derided as something close to a chancer by a decent cross-section of football fans and the media. Granted, most of these people are blow-hards who couldn’t tell their arse from their elbow but it is quite correct to say that City haven’t always impressed and have sometimes looked shambolic in their attempts to play out from the back.
Playing the cards you’re dealt
It’s also correct to say that these players are only following instructions and therefore that Guardiola is culpable to a degree, great or small, but when the likes of Nicolas Otemandi and John Stones are regularly paired at centre back, to put it kindly, mistakes are bound to happen. Happily for City, they have the players to cause damage further up the field and in Pep they have one of the few managers who can figure out a way to successfully unlock Conte’s system.
Unhappily for City, Chelsea are in the habit of scoring goals. In the seven games since they began their winning run in the league, they have averaged just under three goals per game and have conceded a single goal. Even at Christmas time, it would be hard to ask for a better run of form. They found themselves under the cosh for the first half hour against Spurs last week and, for the first time in a long time, they looked rattled and unable to think or play their way out of the press. A goal just before half-time and a dressing room bollocking from Conte did the job and normal service was resumed after the break.
A sterner test
What will be different in this game is the quality of forwards that they’ll face. The three man defence of David Luiz, Gary Cahill and David Azpilicueta has been remarkably successful, far beyond what any honest observer might have imagined. Each has been able to play to their strength with their weaknesses becoming somewhat negated in the process. In and of itself, that speaks to the success of their current system but this match will be the biggest test they have faced thus far.
The same is true for the City forwards as they pit themselves against the league’s most miserly defence. Whatever way you look at it, this match promises much so let’s ho-ho-hope it delivers. Apologies. The market makes City the favourites at just longer than evens but the prices for a draw or a Chelsea win are enticing. City will certainly concede but stand a decent chance of scoring, too. Although this column is very partial to the current incarnation of Chelsea and reckons them favourites to win the league, City will present quite a challenge. On the whole, a draw at 13/5 from BetWay looks like good business.