Contenders or pretenders?
Both Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur are in search of three vital points to stay within stalking distance of reigning champions and frontrunners Manchester City when the top-four clubs face off Saturday in a London derby at Wembley Stadium.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Chelsea (8-4-0) are third in the table, four points back of City and one of three unbeatens in the league along with the Citizens and Liverpool. While Maurizio Sarri has made a successful transition to the Premier League from Napoli and the Blues will progress to the knockout rounds of the Europa League, there is a sense there is not much space between where his side are and their ceiling.
The Pensioners are 1-2-0 thus far against the other members of the Big Six, and their showdown at home versus Manchester City looms on Dec. 8. Chelsea beat a similarly transitioning Arsenal squad in Match Day 2 and have been held to draws versus Liverpool and Manchester United, conceding goals in the 89th and 93rd minutes, respectively.
While Chelsea are always among the league leaders with players who toil for their respective countries during the international break, few have drawn as much speculation in the recent recesses than striker Olivier Giroud.
The France international, who has just one goal this season and yet to break his duck in league play, once more tried to put an end to the talk he is unhappy at Chelsea as Sarri has played the hot hand between Giroud and Alvaro Morata – the only two true strikers on the club.
“I feel like I’m going back a few months with these questions, so I asked the same questions before the World Cup,” Giroud told Telefoot after converting a penalty in Les Bleus’ 1-0 win over Uruguay in a friendly. “I’m at peace, happy with this title of world champion, and that’s the best thing I could do in my career, I’m putting a lot of things in perspective.
“I do not need to put a lot of pressure on me to have more play time. I’m not going to let go, I’m going to continue working to make my way in. Today there’s no question of moving, of changing anything, I’m going to hang on, do not count on me for give up.”
While Morata may be Sarri’s first-choice striker, the Italian may be forced into a change in the midfield as Mateo Kovacic was held out of both of Croatia’s matches due to a knock. If he is unable to go, Ross Barkley would take his spot in the starting XI to the left of Jorginho in Chelsea’s 4-3-3 set-up.
Tottenham Hotspur (9-0-3) may finally be ready to kick on after an early season of uneven play, especially in the Champions League. In fact, their lack of success in the continental tournament – the Lilywhites still have heavy lifting to reach the knockout round – has brought a sharper focus in grinding out league results.
The Spurs have six wins in their last seven top-flight matches, the lone reverse a 1-0 defeat at home to City. Last season, their inspired Champions League play in which they finished atop a group with eventual three-times champion Real Madrid led to a lull domestically that contributed to City easing to the Premier League title.
“We are up there. Maybe we haven’t played the best football we have showed for the last few years. But we have still got the points. Sometimes that is necessary,” winger Christian Eriksen told The Mirror. “That is how it goes and at some point if it clicks and we get the points, then we will be different.
“We will go for it and we will see where we end up. We will do our best and then, if we are lucky or not lucky , we will see.”
The big issue for Mauricio Pochettino heading into this match is depth on the back line. Left back Danny Rose and centre back Davinson Sanchez remain long-term injury absentees, and right back Kieran Trippier is unlikely to play after suffering an injury in the 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace prior to the international break.
Jan Vertonghen was expected to be sidelined until next month, but the Belgium international could be in line to make a return for this contest. If Pochettino wants to be conservative and not reunite Vertonghen with his compatriot Toby Alderweireld, Juan Foyth would get another call to central defence.
Serge Aurier would get the call should Trippier not be able to play.
This match kicks off an intense eight-day stretch for Tottenham, who have a must-win Champions League encounter at home versus Inter Milan midweek before a north London derby at Arsenal on Dec. 2.
The road team won both matches last term, with Dele Alli helping Spurs end their 28-year run of misery at Stamford Bridge with a brace four minutes apart in the second half of a 3-1 victory. Chelsea recorded a 2-1 win at Wembley as left back Marcos Alonso completed his brace on 88 minutes, making sure an own goal by Michy Batshuayi would not result in a draw.
Chelsea have an impressive 30-19-6 record versus their London rivals in the Premier League era and have taken points in 16 of the last 19 meetings in all competitions (9-7-3).
Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are slight favourites to claim all three points and further burnish their title credentials with 6/4 odds for a victory. Spurs have 17/10 odds to pip the Pensioners for third while handing Sarri his first defeat, and there are 12/5 odds on the teams finishing in a deadlock.
There are 27/10 odds on Chelsea winning with more than 2.5 goals, with Spurs offering a 3/1 return on such an outcome for them. A 0-0 or 1-1 draw has 15/4 odds, and both sides have 11/2 odds on a victory with less than 2.5 goals. A 2-2 draw and higher has 17/2 odds.
In a match with attacking superstars, Kane rises highest to be the odds-on favourite to open the scoring at 10/3, followed by Chelsea’s Eden Hazard at 9/2. The striker tandem for the Blues — Morata and Giroud — follow their teammate as the Spaniard has 5/1 odds and the Frenchman 11/2. Spurs reserve striker Fernando Llorente rounds out the top five at 6/1, and there are a host of players at 8/1 — Heung-Min Son, Erik Lamela, Willian, Lucas Moura and Pedro.
Kane is narrowly better than even money to score during the course of the match at 91/100, with Hazard above the threshold at 7/5. Morata’s form makes him a 17/10 selection, edging out Giroud (7/4). Llorente is further back at 19/10, and the group of scorers at 8/1 for the first goal are again lumped together for an any-time marker as Willian, Pedro, and Moura are 5/2, while Son and Lamela are 13/2.
This is a match that could go in any direction, especially with Spurs seemingly threadbare at the back in which Alderwiereld — the one wooed by Manchester United in the summer transfer window — the last one standing of the back four. This is also a curious clash of styles — Pochettino is able to strategise on a match-to-match basis and likes to push opponents wide, yet going through the flanks is how Chelsea operate once Jorginho initiates the offence.
Giroud’s comments were interesting, but also interesting is that no one seems to have any idea if Chelsea will add a third striker in the January transfer window. One of the appealing parts of Sarri to Chelsea was the gaffer’s perceived indifference to the comings and goings on of the market, but it also seems impossible a man who gets to granular levels on tactics is wholly ignorant of who is available and more importantly, who can help Chelsea.
And that is the issue right now because despite not having a loss, Chelsea need help. Or at the very least, Morata and Giroud must score goals. Both have played well in spurts and both are willing foot soldiers, but at some point, they have to put goals on the scoreboard. Otherwise, these late concessions that have already cost the Pensioners four points on two occasions will cost them three in one.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Tottenham Hotspur 1, Chelsea 2.
OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 13 PREVIEWS:
West Ham United (3-3-6) vs. Manchester City (10-2-0)
Fulham (1-2-9) vs. Southampton (1-5-6)
Bournemouth (6-2-4) vs. Arsenal (7-3-2)
Watford (6-2-4) vs. Liverpool (9-3-0)