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Chelsea

Have Michy Batshuayi’s recent performances warranted a starting berth for Chelsea?

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Michy Batshuayi

By any stretch of the imagination, it has been a far from ideal start to Chelsea’s title defence.

Last season Antonio Conte’s side were relentless on their way to another Premier League triumph, losing just five matches and embarking on a mid-season run of form that saw them win 13 matches on the bounce.

Despite keeping hold of the majority of their title-winning squad – minus Nemanja Matic, who left for rivals Manchester United – and making a few summer additions of their own, the west London side have found the opening nine matches of the 2017/18 campaign a different proposition.

The opening day reverse to Burnley shocked most but, after showing character in the way they saw off London rivals Tottenham at Wembley, it seemed the defeat against the Clarets was merely a false-start.

It also seemed that Conte’s men were firmly back on track after winning five of their next six top-flight matches – with the only blot on their copybook coming from a frustrating stalemate with neighbours Arsenal at Stamford Bridge – keeping them firmly in the hunt behind both Manchester sides.

That was as good as it has got for the Blues lately though, and consecutive losses to both Manchester City and basement boys Crystal Palace have seen them gradually fall further and further away from the top.

Last week there were rumours of unrest in the Chelsea camp as a result of Conte’s allegedly tough training regime, with The Sun claiming that players were finding it ‘exhausting’ and that it was leading to injuries and fatigue, with the Italian refusing to give players a day off following matches.

How much truth is behind those claims is yet to be seen but, after 70 minutes of Saturday’s home clash with Watford, Conte was staring down the barrel of a third consecutive Premier League defeat, with goals from Abdoulaye Doucoure and Roberto Pereyra turning the game in the favour of the visitors.

Summer signing Alvaro Morata looked anything but sharp after returning from injury during the week and a distinct lack of cutting edge, allied with an excellent Watford display, left the champions devoid of any inspiration.

As time ticked away you could see the desperation etched on the face of Conte, who knew that a third successive loss in the league would have increased the talk of his job being under fire. As a final roll of the dice he turned to his bench and introduced forwards Michy Batshuayi and Willian.

It is not often that somebody can only play 30 minutes of top-flight football and still walk away with the man of the match accolade, but that is exactly what Batshuayi did after a game-changing display.

With his first proper sniff at goal he brought the scores level, peeling off his marker in the box before putting in a darting run across the near post and glancing a powerful header into the far corner beyond Heurelho Gomes in the Watford goal, giving Chelsea a sense of hope out of almost nowhere.

It was his goal that lifted the noise around Stamford Bridge, a noise that the Chelsea players on field responded to, and there was an air of inevitability when Cesar Azpilicueta clinched the winner in the 87th minute.

The three points may have been all-but secured by the time Batshuayi notched a late fourth, his second in a 35-minute cameo, but you could tell just how hungry the striker was to make an impact.

Everybody knows that strikers get judged by goals, not just their performances, and the way he bullied his way through the Watford defence and tucked home was of a man desperate to impress.

The Chelsea manager was quick to praise the 24-year-old following his contribution on Saturday and deservedly so too, telling the Evening Standard:

“I think the substitutions sometimes work, sometimes it doesn’t work. I think every coach during the game it’s important to understand the right moment. If there is a situation to improve and to change.

“I am pleased for Michy because he scored two goals but his impact during the game was also amazing. I think it was the same for Willian and [Davide] Zappacosta.”

It was a much-needed contribution from the Belgian after an unconvincing performance at Crystal Palace last weekend, failing to take advantage after being awarded a rare start in Morata’s absence.

On that occasion he only had 19 touches against the Premier League’s bottom side, managing just one from inside the box, and he failed to have a single shot which led to him being hauled off just shy of the hour mark.

But after Saturday the question now is, can Batshuayi kick-on? And will he be given the chance?

Since arriving from French side Marseille for £33.1 million back in 2016 he has found it consistently tough to find a route into the starting line-up, leading to regular speculation over his future at Chelsea .

It seems that Batshuayi is currently walking a very fine tightrope under Conte, with reports from the Telegraph last month suggesting that he could have been on his way out over the summer, had Chelsea been successful in their pursuit of Swansea City’s – now of rivals Tottenham – Fernando Llorente.

There have even been recent claims that Conte is patiently waiting for the January transfer window to unleash himself in the market, desperately looking for a proven back-up for main forward Morata.

For whatever reason there is a sense of distrust emanating from Conte towards the young Belgian international, and he seems to overlook Batshuayi against the best teams or in pressure situations.

Against Manchester City, when Morata picked up an early hamstring injury, it would have been assumed by most that Batshuayi was the natural replacement but instead midfielder Willian was turned to.

It was little surprise that the Brazilian had an ineffective match playing out of position and Conte’s decision just begged the question as to where Batshuayi fits into his plans. If, that is, he does at all.

The problem for Batshuayi at present is that his Chelsea career seems to be going around in circles, scoring goals from the bench but consistently failing to leave a lasting impression when given a rare starting role. Conte was quoted back in March seeming unsure about his credentials as a starter:

“At the end of the season we’ll look at the situation of every single player. Now he’s working very well for us. He must continue to work and anything can happen. If he shows me he deserves to play, I’m ready to put him in the starting XI. If that doesn’t happen, I’ll continue this way.”

Seven months down the line, 12 games into the new season, the Belgian has managed just two starts in all competitions – one at home to FK Qarabag, and the recent defeat away at Crystal Palace.

For all intents and purposes it appears that Conte is more than content at the minute to consider Batshuayi as nothing more than an impact-sub. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer-esque. A man to alter the outcome of games.

Whilst this is working in the meantime – Batshuayi’s record speaks for itself – it is hard to deny that Conte is currently stunting the growth and development of one of Europe’s most promising young talents.

Across all competitions this season the 24-year-old has averaged a goal every 60.57 minutes, including the critical brace at the weekend and the dramatic last-gasp winner away at Atletico Madrid in European competition, and the Belgian has managed to score six goals in his last nine league games.

There is little doubt over his potential to be prolific in front of goal but there is only so many times Conte can turn to him only to see him crash and burn, and he cannot afford many performances, similar to that he turned in at Selhurst Park a fortnight ago, if he sees his long-term future at Stamford Bridge.

Batshuayi may be becoming a cult hero with the Chelsea fans – not least because of his lovable character on social media – but the self-proclaimed ‘Batsman’ needs to continue to do his talking on the football pitch, rather than from his phone, if he has any aspirations of competing with Morata.

With the Spaniard returning to action after his injury there’s not likely to be any starting roles for Batshuayi anytime soon but, if he can continue to score from the bench, how can Conte ignore him?

The relationship between manager and player has been frayed since his arrival from Marseille, not helped with the ongoing speculation over his role in west London, but the simple fact of the matter is that Conte is a footballing man driven by results, and if Batshuayi delivers those he will be played.

The fixture list will begin to pile up heading into Christmas and the Italian will need every resource possible in his limited squad, and now’s the time for the young Belgian to stand up and be counted.

Will is a Multimedia Journalism graduate from the University of Salford, specialising in the art of sports. Long-time suffering Northampton Town fan who once saw us win a league title. Find him on Twitter - @96PearsonW.

Chelsea

Chelsea 4-0 Hull City – Willian plays himself into Champions League contention

Jake Jackman

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Chelsea

Chelsea continued their upturn in form with a convincing 4-0 win over Hull City in the FA Cup. The Blues were overwhelming favourites for the tie, but they had to get the job done and they did so effectively, scoring four times in the first-half.

They would have had one eye on the Champions League tie against Barcelona that is upcoming and that led to Antonio Conte making several changes.

The Italian decided to rest key players such as Eden Hazard, Ngolo Kante and Cesar Azpilicueta. It was the right decision as they progressed with comfort. Here are three talking points from the match:

Olivier Giroud is off the mark

One huge positive to come out of the game for the hosts was Olivier Giroud’s first goal for the club. He signed in January to provide competition for Alvaro Morata and his performances have been encouraging since signing, but to hit the back of the net takes the pressure off the Frenchman.

The signing carried relatively little risk for Chelsea as the striker has lots of experience in England and his consistency is already shining through in a Blues’ shirt.

Early into the game, he had a great opportunity to open his account, but he blazed a volley over the bar. It was a difficult chance as the ball was lifted over the defence to play him in, but a striker of his calibre should have done better.

Three goals were scored and he didn’t score one of them. If he had finished the match without scoring, it would have been talked about and that is why his goal just before half-time will relieve the pressure from him.

The rest of his game was excellent as he got two assists and linked up the play well from the front-line. Although he was brought in to be the back-up striker, Conte may give him the start against Barcelona as he is the player in form.

Hull City showed fight in the second half

The contest was over by the time the players stepped back out for the second-half, but Hull City showed fight and commitment to keep the score down to 4-0.

Nigel Adkins knows the importance of every mental victory when battling against relegation and to draw the second half can provide the players with confidence ahead of a return to league action.

Their performance was markedly improved as they created good opportunities and came close to scoring from the penalty spot. David Meyler stepped up and saw his penalty saved, but that didn’t see the players lose focus as they continued to create opportunities. During the match, they had 10 shots to Chelsea’s 14, which shows that they were far from embarrassed. They just didn’t have the quality in the final third that their Premier League opposition did possess.

It would be a huge blow for Hull City to suffer back-to-back relegations and their manager will be aware of that. This match against Chelsea was a good occasion, but it was far from a priority and their defeat won’t live too long in the memory.

They are currently 21st in the Championship and only above the bottom three by one point. Their far superior goal difference provides encouragement, but they must show this level of commitment until the end of the season if they are to avoid the drop.

Willian proved his quality before the return of the Champions League

Rotation can cause problems in the FA Cup, but in this case, it provided an opportunity to those that are on the fringes of the first-team to play themselves into contention for the Champions League.

Willian is an interesting case as he does feature prominently, but he isn’t a guaranteed first-team starter, as Pedro often gets the nod to start ahead of him.

Willian was excellent against Hull City and certainly gave his manager some food for thought ahead of the match with Barcelona. He completed six dribbles, attempted four shots and made three key passes as he terrorised the opposition defence. On the day, he scored twice, but he easily could have got a hat-trick.

Antonio Conte will be aware that his team’s big weakness is an over-reliance on Eden Hazard. The return of Cesc Fabregas goes some way to providing some support to the Belgian, but if Chelsea can get Willian playing to this level consistently, that would be a positive. He is more dynamic than Pedro and offers more flair to the attack. This performance could see him start against Barcelona.

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Chelsea

Chelsea 3-0 West Bromwich Albion: Three talking points from Stamford Bridge

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from Stamford Bridge as an Eden Hazard inspired Chelsea dismantled a struggling West Bromwich Albion side.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

Chelsea eased the pressure on Antonio Conte after a brace from Eden Hazard saw off basement boys West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge.

It had been a troubling week for the Blues, following back-to-back heavy defeats against Bournemouth and Watford that had cast serious doubts over Conte’s position as manager.

But Hazard netted twice, either side of a goal from Victor Moses to complete a routine victory over the Baggies, who lost loan star Daniel Sturridge to injury after just three minutes.

Chelsea leapfrog Tottenham Hotspur into fourth spot as the battle for the top four heats up, while West Brom remain seven points adrift of safety.

Here are three talking points…

Talismanic Hazard comes to the rescue again

Just days after he was voted as Belgium’s player of the year by his peers, Hazard underlined his ability as a footballer of rare class with another brace to take his tally to 11 for the season.

Chelsea’s number 10 has an excellent scoring record against West Brom, one which he improved upon with a display that was too good for the Baggies to handle.

Hazard is a talismanic performer and when he hits his straps, the rest of the team feed off him.

Hazard combined with new boy Olivier Giroud to slam home his first of the evening, which eased the tension at Stamford Bridge.

The 27-year-old added his second and rounded off the scoring late in the second half, slamming the ball past visiting keeper Ben Foster.

Back in the top four as a result of this victory, Hazard will be the key to Chelsea’s hopes of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.

With him in their ranks, anything is possible.

Conte relieved as the pressure lifts

One man who will be extremely grateful for Hazard’s dazzling display is Conte.

The Italian seemed to be on the brink after last week’s 4-1 loss to Watford, which came hot on the heels of a similarly catastrophic result at home to Bournemouth.

Conte’s prickly demeanour and comments in press conferences had led some to speculate that he was goading the Chelsea board into sacking him, less than a year after he steered the club to the Premier League title.

Either way, it’s clear he retains the full support of the Stamford Bridge faithful, which was vocal in its support for Conte throughout the game, chanting his name with regularity.

Conte himself was typically demonstrative on the touchline, bellowing instructions and celebrating each of the goals as his players repaid him with an improved performance.

Whether he will be in the dugout next season remains to be seen, but for now at least his job is more secure than it was a week ago.

Sturridge’s World Cup audition falls flat

In front of watching England manager Gareth Southgate, Sturridge would have been hopeful of making a positive impression following his shock move to West Brom in the January window.

The Liverpool striker made the switch in order to enhance his prospects of making the World Cup squad, which will be named in little over three months’ time.

Few doubt Sturridge’s quality, but his fragile body continually struggles to hold up under the intensity of Premier League football.

His withdrawal due to a hamstring strain less than three minutes on the clock was a monumental blow, both to him personally and West Brom’s ambitions of springing a surprise against Chelsea.

Although he is expected to be sidelined for only a couple of weeks, this latest setback again raises questions over his durability.

Sturridge’s opportunities to prove he deserves to be on the plane to Russia are fast running out.

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Arsenal

Which four of the ‘big-six’ clubs will qualify for next season’s Champions League?

Martyn Cooke

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There are just 12 games remaining of the current Premier League season and, with Manchester City seemingly destined to secure the title, attention will now turn towards the battle to secure a place in the top-four.

There are only three places available to share between Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Liverpool and two of those clubs will be have to be content with competing in the Europa League next season.

Here, The Boot Room predicts who will finish in the top four at the end of the season…

Arsenal

There was once a time when the possibility of Arsene Wenger and Arsenal failing to qualify for the Champions League was unthinkable, yet the Gunners are facing the realistic possibility of missing out on playing in Europe’s elite club competition for the second consecutive season.

This campaign they have been held back by their inconsistent and unpredictable form away from home and are playing catch-up with their rivals with a five-point gap emerging between themselves and fourth place.

There is a new sense of optimism around the Emirates Stadium after Wenger added Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to his squad yet a defeat against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday would all but end their hopes – qualifying through winning the Europa League could be a more realistic option.

Prediction: 6th

Manchester United

There is currently a slight sense of disappointment around Old Trafford this season that, despite obvious progress since the arrival of Jose Mourinho, the club have had to be content with seeing cross-city rivals Manchester City stroll their way towards the Premier League title.

It is difficult to imagine Manchester United missing out on a Champions League place as they already have a considerable buffer of seven points and undoubtedly have a squad that is full of quality and experience.

The arrival of Alexis Sanchez will provide additional impetus in the closing stages of the campaign and the only real danger is that their attention might be redirected towards challenging for the Champions League or FA Cup with the title already all but lost.

However, Mouirnho has his team ticking over nicely and it is likely that they will maintain their current league position.

Prediction: 2nd  

Chelsea

It has been a frustrating and increasing turbulent season at Stamford Bridge following the failure of Chelsea to build on last season’s title triumph.

Back-to-back defeats against Bournemouth and Watford have left the Blues clinging on to their place in the top four and there is now a realistic possibility that they may miss out on Champions League qualification.

Antonio Conte’s frustration with the club’s transfer policy has been clear to see since the summer and the off-pitch squabbling can only be a destabilising influence for the players.

Chelsea are certainly a team that are out of form and appear to be short of confidence and direction and it will be a true test of Conte’s managerial prowess to see if he can facilitate some sort of revival in the closing months of the season.

However, momentum is currently against them and they may well be one of the two clubs to miss out.

Prediction: 6th

Liverpool

You get the sense that it is always two steps forward followed by one step back at Anfield under Jurgen Klopp and you never know quite what to expect.

Liverpool continue to be consistently inconsistent as demonstrated by their recent, contrasting performances against Manchester City and Swansea City.

The arrival of Virgil van Dijk in the January transfer window is a boost, although recent games have suggested that he alone will not solve the club’s defensive frailties, whilst the sale of Phillip Coutinho is offset by the impressive array of attacking players that Klopp has collected.

If Liverpool can put together a good run of results then they will be able to capitalise on Antonio Conte’s woes as Chelsea and finish in the top four.

Prediction: 4th

Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham Hotspur supporters will now have a taste for Champions League football after the success of their team in this year’s competition and they are hitting form at just the right moment in the Premier League.

Mauricio Pochettino’s side are unbeaten since mid-December and have plenty of momentum with the inspirational figure of Harry Kane continuing to his remarkable, prolific run of form in front of goal.

Much will depend on whether the England striker can stay fit until the end of the season whilst they also need Dele Alli to rediscover the sparkle that he has lost in recent months.

Tottenham face a season-defining fixture on Saturday when they face Arsenal in the North London derby but they should have enough quality to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

Prediction: 3rd

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