Tension will be high at Stamford Bridge Saturday, where the current leaders of the Barclays Premier League take on the defending champions. It’ll be the second and final meeting of the season between the Blues and the Sky Blues, as Chelsea host Manchester City in London.
What’s at stake: Chelsea and City were level on top of the Barclays Premier League table after New Years Day action, but that all has changed over the past two weeks. Two weeks ago, Chelsea gained a two point edge when they defeated Newcastle 2-0, and when City were held to a 1-1 draw at Goodison Park. Then, Chelsea drubbed hapless Swansea City 5-0 away the same week City suffered a stunning 2-0 home loss to suddenly surging Arsenal. Currently, Chelsea have 52 points while City have 47. Each have 16 league matches.
Both teams are coming off very, very poor home losses in the FA Cup. City lost 2-0 to Middlesbrough, a team in the Championship, the second tier of English football. Chelsea blew a 2-0 lead to lose 4-2 to Bradford City, who play in an even lower league. Both of these teams will be keen to bounce back from poor FA cup results.
More importantly, this could be a defining match in the title race. Even though it’s only late January, a Chelsea win will open up an 8 point lead on City. Conversely, if City win on the road, it’ll be a one-match deficit for the champions.
Hazard v.s. Zabaleta: With Eden Hazard playing as a left midfielder and Pablo Zabaleta playing as a right back, the two will inevitably clash on Saturday. When they met in Manchester, Hazard recorded an 8.2/10 player rating from whoscored.com, the second highest in the match. However, in the World Cup, Hazard amounted a measly 6.7 ranking, and was subbed off as Belgium fell 1-0 to Argentina in the quarterfinals. Their mixed success against one another makes their tilt all the more exciting.
Silva and Aguero v.s. Fabregas and Costa: The strikers and the playmakers. Silva and Aguero may have more experience playing together than Fabregas and Costa, who have only combined internationally for about a year and domestically since August, but this season, the latter two have been revelations. Costa’s 17 goals and Fabregas’s 15 assists both lead the Premier League, and their connection has been undeniable. Silva and Aguero will need to turn in signature performances to outduel the deadly Spanish duo.
Chelsea will field the same XI that they’ve used in almost every league game this season. They’ll use Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, arguably England’s finest shot stopper, in net. A sturdy, convincing backline with Cesar Azpilicueta at left back, the English pairing of John Terry and Gary Cahill at center back, and attack minded Serbian Branislav Ivanovic at right back will hope to subdue City’s lethal attack. The double-pivot midfield will consist of Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas, both strong contenders for EPL player of the year. They have contrasting roles, with Matic as a stopper and Fabregas as a playmaker, though their play flows extremely well. Oscar will fill the number 10 role behind prolific striker Diego Costa. Eden Hazard will be deployed wide to the left, with Willian on the right.
Manchester City will start England international Joe Hart in goal. Gael Clichy, who has impressed this season, and Eliaquim Mangala, who has been shaky, will form an all French left side of the defense. Skipper Vincent Kompany and right back Pablo Zabaleta round out the back four. In midfield, assuming Yaya Toure doesn’t make the match (more on that later), Fernando and Fernandinho will hold, with Samir Nasri and David Silva rounding out the midfield. Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko will start up front.
What it Means Tactically: City will be losing some power in the middle without Toure, but they’ll be getting better defensive cover with Fernando and Fernandinho. Expect them to latch on to Matic and Fabregas and try and disrupt their flow, especially Fabregas’s. The two-striker formation for City will force Chelsea’s midfielders deeper down the pitch at times, as they will be threatened by the prowess of Aguero and Dzeko, as well as the creativity of Silva and Nasri. Expect the game to be played centrally when City have the ball; Silva and Nasri are more Number 10 type players instead of traditional wingers. That means that Clichy and Zabaleta will be key in advancing up the flanks and hitting in crosses for Aguero and Dzeko to attack. When Chelsea have the ball, meanwhile, expect them to spread the ball around to Hazard and Willian attack and try to service Diego Costa in the box. Hazard’s tenacity will also open up passing lanes for Fabregas to exploit.
Yaya Toure’s and Wilfried Bony’s availability: Both star midfielder Yaya Toure and new blockbuster signing Wilfried Bony are currently participating in the African Cup of Nations. At the time of writing, the Ivory Coast, who Toure and Bony play for, will be eliminated if they fall to Cameroon in their next match. Based off talent and squad depth, Ivory Coast should be favorites, which would mean that City will be without two of their best players. Toure was instrumental to City’s title run a season ago, and has started to improve his form of late. Bony is a prolific striker who has drawn many comparisons to Sergio Aguero himself. If they are available, City’s chances of winning are dramatically increased.
Frank Lampard: A legend at Chelsea, Lampard played 14 seasons for them, scoring 211 goals in all competitions. But, after signing for NYCFC this summer, he has taken a controversial yet successful loan spell at Manchester City, even scoring a clutch equalizer against his old club earlier this season. His familiarity with the club and with Stamford Bridge could make a massive impact on the pitch.
Chelsea are at home, and Yaya Toure will likely be absent. Expect Hazard and Willian to spread the field against City, carving out passing lanes for Cesc Fabregas to operate in. Costa and Hazard score, Manchester City continue to struggle, and Chelsea open up an 8 point lead at the top of the table.
Prediction: Chelsea 2, Manchester City 0