Chelsea will welcome Southampton to Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night knowing that a victory will take them three points closer to the Premier League title as they cut the number of remaining fixtures from six to five.
When the two sides met in late October it was a comfortable win for Chelsea, though the Blues have failed to beat the Saints in either of their last two visits to west London after a defeat and a draw in their last two encounters.
Chelsea reacted to defeat at Old Trafford against Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United in the perfect fashion as they saw off the challenge of Tottenham at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final at the weekend, with Eden Hazard’s cameo changing the game in their favour. However, Antonio Conte’s side have not kept a clean sheet in their last six games, since they played United in March, and have not kept one in the Premier League since January.
Claude Puel’s side have a far better defensive record having kept six clean sheets in all competitions since then, with four coming in the Premier League, but the south coast club have struggled against the big boys. Defeats to Tottenham and Manchester City in recent weeks have dented hopes of a late surge up the table despite impressive wins over Crystal Palace and West Brom.
Chelsea predicted starting XI Southampton predicted starting XI
Eden Hazard and Diego Costa should both returning to the starting eleven having been rested, but Nathan Ake is likely to retain his place with Willian also having done enough to be preferred to Pedro in attack alongside the rested duo.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is likely to be the man to miss out as Oriol Romeu returns having served his suspension for ten yellow cards in the only change for Claude Puel’s team.
Gary Cahill has recovered from his mystery illness in time to return to training with a hope of playing against the Saints but it is unlikely that he will be available from the start after spending several days in hospital. Eden Hazard and Diego Costa are expected to return to the starting line-ups after being rested at the weekend.
For Southampton, former Chelsea man Oriol Romeu will return having served a two game suspension. Left-back Sam McQueen could miss out though with a groin problem. The game may come just too soon for Matt Targett and Charlie Austin despite the duo resuming training after months on the sidelines, and Virgil Van Dijk and Alex McCarthy remain long term injury problems.
Match Prediction: Chelsea 3-1 Southampton
Southampton have proved that they can be resilient, but Chelsea should just be too much for them. The seven day advantage in terms of rest before the game for the Saints could have given them the edge, but with Eden Hazard and Diego Costa set to return having been rested, they will have no mercy as they look to secure the Premier League title.
Manchester City 1-0 Chelsea: Three talking points from the Etihad
Manchester City managed to beat Chelsea for the second time this season as they continue their march to the Premier League title. The contest was far from entertaining, as the visitors showed no interest in playing football and instead to soak in pressure.
Pep Guardiola’s team didn’t have to get out of second gear and it was a more comfortable victory than they would have been expecting. The Citizens are now 18 points clear at the top of the table and remain on target for 100 points, which would be a superb achievement.
Meanwhile, Chelsea sit outside of the Champions League places and are now five points behind Tottenham in fourth position. They will need a near perfect end to the season if they are to avoid missing out on qualification for next season’s competition. Here are three talking points from the Etihad Stadium…
David Silva showed his class
The 32-year-old has been at Manchester City for the majority of their journey from Premier League also-rans to elite super club and he remains a crucial player for them under Pep Guardiola.
If he had been in the team for the entire campaign, he would be running Kevin de Bruyne close for the PFA Player of the Year award. He is a classy operator who seems to get better with age.
He got the important assist for the winning goal with a superb piece of play and that is becoming par for the course for the Spanish international. Silva completed 95% of his passes and made three key passes during the contest. Meanwhile, he was very good out of possession as he made three ball recoveries.
It has been incredible to watch Pep Guardiola get all of his attacking talent on the pitch at one time, but the improvement of both Silva and De Bruyne off the ball has helped achieve that.
They are now complete midfielders and capable of thriving in both halves of the pitch. The midfielder is a club legend and supporters will be hoping that he has a few years left in him.
Antonio Conte continues to make puzzling decisions
Last season, the Italian was lauded every week as his side won the league title comfortably, but he has failed to follow it up with a good second campaign. There have been a lot of problems for Chelsea this season including recruitment, tactics and player performance.
They have been reliant on Eden Hazard and as the campaign has progressed, the team have lost their intensity, which suggests they no longer believe in Conte.
Their 3-4-2-1 formation was revolutionary, but they have moved away from it frequently this season and haven’t been able to settle on a first eleven. That was one of Chelsea’s strengths last season. Gary Cahill and David Luiz have been sidelined, while Alvaro Morata has failed to replace Diego Costa sufficiently.
On Sunday, Conte chose to field Hazard as a lone frontman, but he struggled to impact the game in that role. He is best when having space in front of him to run into and he didn’t have that against Manchester City.
The Belgian international was isolated and touched the ball only 31 times. It was a tactical error and one that blunted Chelsea’s attack before a ball was kicked.
Ilkay Gundogan is flourishing in the middle of the park for Manchester City
The former Borussia Dortmund midfielder has had his problems since arriving in the Premier League.
He has suffered a few injuries and that has seen him struggle to secure a regular starting berth, but he has featured prominently in recent weeks and is perfect for the system. Gundogen recycles possession effectively and that is required, especially when the opposition team sits deep.
Gundogen touched the ball more than any other player on the pitch with 181 touches and was very good at distributing the ball quickly. He finished the match with a 96% pass success rate, which shows his role.
He wasn’t taking any risks and he didn’t have to. City have a lot of attacking talent and the German international isn’t required to try risky passes to influence the game.
Although Chelsea didn’t get on the ball much, Gundogen broke up the play when required with four ball recoveries. Fernandinho’s absence could allow the 27-year-old to secure the place on a permanent basis and he does offer more in the role, especially in possession. It was a strong performance and one of the standouts in a dull affair.
Manchester United 2-1 Chelsea: Three talking points from Old Trafford
Rob Meech brings us three talking points as Manchester United overcame top four rivals Chelsea at Old Trafford on Super Sunday.
Goals from Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard helped Manchester United record a crucial victory over Premier League top-four rivals Chelsea.
In-form Willian had fired the visitors in front on 32 minutes before Lukaku restored parity shortly afterwards.
Both sides looked capable of snatching all three points, but it was substitute Lingard who had the decisive say when he nodded in Lukaku’s cross.
Alvaro Morata thought he had equalised for Chelsea late on but it was erroneously ruled out for offside, denying the Blues what, on balance, would have been a deserved point.
Here are three talking points as United reclaimed second spot and moved six points clear of Chelsea.
Lukaku makes a statement at long last
He was at the centre of a tug-of-war between United and Chelsea last summer before eventually joining the Red Devils to be reunited with Jose Mourinho, with whom he had worked at Stamford Bridge.
It is fair to say the Belgian’s not entirely justified the huge transfer fee, but this performance suggests the tide could be turning.
His goal, which settled United after a shaky start, was the first he had scored against a top-eight club this season and it could not have been more timely.
Emboldened by his strike, the 24-year-old looked back to his menacing best and, although Thibaut Courtois denied him a second of the afternoon, the Belgian played a key role in United’s winner.
His chipped ball to Lingard was inch-perfect, handing the England man an opportunity he couldn’t refuse to put the hosts in control.
This wasn’t a vintage United performance by any stretch, but it bore all the hallmarks of a Mourinho team.
Chelsea’s top-four hopes suffer a blow
It has not been an easy period for Chelsea boss Conte, who had to face questions about his own future following shock defeats to Bournemouth and Watford.
He answered his critics to some degree as the Blues held mighty Barcelona to a draw in the Champions League in midweek.
This was another improved display from his charges, with no suggestion that they are not playing for their manager.
Willian’s goal was well deserved but their lead lasted only seven minutes.
Chelsea can feel aggrieved that Morata, who had earlier hit the woodwork, had a late effort ruled out for offside when he appeared to be level.
Nevertheless, the Blues now sit in fifth place, two points behind Tottenham Hotspur who saw off Crystal Palace earlier in the day.
There are still 30 points to play so all is not lost for Chelsea, despite this setback.
But with competition so fierce, Conte knows his side face an uphill climb to finish in a Champions League spot.
Super-sub Lingard presses his case
While Lukaku had struggled to have an impact in the crunch games, the same cannot be said about Lingard.
He was in sparkling form earlier this season, scoring six goals in a nine-match spell over the festive period.
Although that form tailed off to an extent, the 25-year-old reminded Mourinho of his ability to make something happen.
Ten minutes after coming on for Anthony Martial, Lingard was at the centre of the celebrations when he converted Lukaku’s cross.
Despite having a peripheral role at times, this was his 13th goal in all competitions for United this season.
England boss Gareth Southgate is a known admirer of Lingard’s and, with World Cup selection on the horizon, the United academy product will be hoping to get as much game-time as possible in order to book his place on the plane to Russia.
After this telling cameo against Chelsea, Mourinho may have a hard time leaving him out of the starting XI.
Willian’s form shows he can provide the support Eden Hazard needs at Chelsea
Willian’s form for Chelsea of late suggests he could play a key role in the Blues’ season run-in, writes Jack Jackman.
The performances from Willian over the past week have been excellent and Chelsea will be hoping that he can maintain that level for the season run-in.
The Blues have been too reliant on Eden Hazard this season and, quite often, if the Belgian international doesn’t perform, the team don’t win.
They have been labelled a one-man team by some on social media and that hasn’t been an unfair accusation. However, there has been an improvement during the last three matches and their Brazilian international has been a major reason for that.
The upturn in form started with a win over West Brom in the Premier League. It wasn’t an excellent performance by any means, but it was notable as it put an end to their winless run and injected confidence into the squad.
The victory also served to provide Antonio Conte with a new enthusiasm that had been lacking when Chelsea had been beaten convincingly by Bournemouth and Watford in back-to-back fixtures.
Although it gave the squad a platform to build on, there remained worries about their motivation and ability to compete with the rest of the top-six.
Hull City offered a tricky test in the FA Cup just days before the return of the Champions League, but Chelsea delivered a professional performance filled with class.
They were 4-0 up by half-time and Willian was the star performer. He scored two goals as he exploded back into form. It could have been a hat-trick for him on another day as he hit the woodwork in the closing moments.
It was an all-action display from the 29-year-old and he looked to have motivation that he had been lacking earlier in the season. Every time, the ball arrived at his feet, he would be positive in his choices.
During the match, he completed six dribbles, attempted four shots and made four key passes. He couldn’t have been more influential and his efforts earned him an opportunity against Barcelona.
Willian didn’t let his manager down during the contest with the La Liga side. It is one thing playing well in the FA Cup against lower league opposition and a completely other thing to show up when it matters most.
During his Chelsea career, the Brazilian international had always been a dangerous player, but he hadn’t proven himself in the biggest matches and that is why managers have been reluctant to make him a regular starter at Stamford Bridge.
That may have changed in the Champions League as he delivered a man-of-the-match display against one of the best teams in Europe.
Few thought that Chelsea could compete with Barcelona, but they showed that they could and earned a credible 1-1 draw in the first-leg. Willian was central to that success and with a bit more luck, they would have won the game.
The Brazilian international hit the woodwork twice and it looked like it wasn’t going to be his day. They were two excellent efforts from range and showed his quality from outside the area.
Willian is capable of scoring from anywhere inside the final third and in recent weeks, it looks like he has been given more encouragement to shoot on sight.
He didn’t lose his confidence and eventually he did find a way past Marc-Andre ter Stegen as he fired his side into a lead.
There wasn’t much to choose between his performances against Hull City and Barcelona, but the latter was more meaningful.
He completed six dribbles, attempted four shots and made four key passes, the exact same numbers as he produced in the FA Cup.
Willian has been accused of lacking consistency in the past, but that can’t be directed at him over this past week.
In addition to his attacking threat, the 29-year-old forward worked hard out of possession and that is important against a team like Barcelona.
The visitors dominated possession with 73% and Chelsea needed every player on the pitch to contribute off-the-ball.
Willian played his part as he won two tackles. Pedro is seen as the more industrious player when compared to his Brazilian team-mate and that may be part of the reason why he is picked to start more often.
However, that may change during the last few months of the season, as Willian has showed that he can combine work rate with attacking threat.
Chelsea’s problems lie in attack and the Brazilian could emerge to provide the support that Eden Hazard desperately needs.
Despite only starting 13 times in the Premier League this season, he has contributed four goals and six assists, with a goal involvement every 123.9 minutes.
Since the 2015/16 season, Willian has struggled to be as important to the team. During that campaign, he won both Chelsea Player of the Year and Player’s Player of the Year. Chelsea didn’t do well that year and finished in a lowly 10th position.
In hindsight, the attacker’s accomplishments were dampened by the team’s underachievement. Now, he has a real opportunity to reach those standards again, but this time in a side challenging for major honours.
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