Will Liverpool maintain their title challenge?
Chelsea supporters are feeling increasingly nervous ahead of Saturday’s clash at Stamford Bridge with Premier League champions and current leaders Manchester City.
Having started the season brightly with a 12-game unbeaten top-flight run under new manager Maurizio Sarri, there was boundless optimism for the Italian’s high-press brand of football, but a painful 3-1 defeat against deadly rivals Tottenham Hotspur a fortnight ago provided a harsh reality check.
Sarri’s over-reliance on midfield metronome Jorginho, the player he’d built his football philosophy around at Napoli and sought to do the same at Chelsea, was suddenly and brutally exposed as Spurs choked the so-called regista’s supply lines and effectively neutered the Blues.
Defensively Sarri’s side were a gutless shambles. David Luiz lacked coordination while both full-backs Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta laboured.
Worse still, N’Golo Kante, arguably the best back four shield in the world, was marooned high up the pitch having been asked to play an attacking role in the new system.
Finally, there was what seems to have become a perennial problem for Chelsea… an impotent striker up front. Alvaro Morata is the current fall guy, and Sarri’s persistence with the misfiring forward has proved an increasing source of ire.
Chelsea bounced back from the Spurs defeat with a 4-0 Europa League hammering of PAOK, a game marked by the alternative to Morata, Olivier Giroud, scoring a brace and highly-rated youngster Callum Hudson-Odoi starting in place of Eden Hazard and scoring.
Emerson also impressed replacing Alonso at left-back while Ruben Loftus-Cheek furthered his claims for regular inclusion with an excellent display in midfield.
This was more like it. Players with a genuine zest for the game. The passing style of Cesc Fabregas, playing instead of Jorginho, offered Chelsea a greater cutting edge that Giroud in particular benefited from. Finally a Plan B of sorts perhaps for Sarri?
Well not exactly, the Blues boss reverted to type and personnel for the lacklustre 2-0 victory over bottom of the table Fulham in the Premier League game that followed.
Sarri’s on-going inflexibility came under increased scrutiny several days later during the course of Chelsea’s abject 2-1 defeat away at Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The Italian’s persistence with out-of-form players Alonso, Willian and Morata had drawn criticism from the start. This dissipated momentarily when the excellent Loftus-Cheek put the Blues in front, but Wolves refused to lay down and capitalised on Chelsea’s failure to make more of the 70% possession they enjoyed by scoring two quick goals to turn the match on its head.
The most damning match statistic for Sarri perhaps showed his side had 17 attempts on goal and scored only once.
A month ago, the Man City match had been viewed as providing a yardstick by which the Blues progress under Sarri could truly be measured, now it is viewed with trepidation.
It’s difficult to see Chelsea getting anything from the game unless their manager is prepared to make tactical concessions and tweak his starting XI accordingly. If stubbornness prevails and City benefit as a result, Sarri will have no one to blame but himself if support for his cause withers dramatically.