It is a London derby with a splash of Italian as one-time Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri leads Fulham into Stamford Bridge on Sunday to face Maurizio Sarri and the Blues.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Sarri became the 11th Italian manager in the Premier League era when he succeeded the 10th one – Antonio Conte – this summer. This match marks just the seventh pairing of Italian managers, and Ranieri was involved in two of the previous six, having faced Watford’s Walter Mazzari and Swansea City’s Francesco Guidolin while at Leicester City.
The compatriots hold each other in high esteem and have learned from the other over the decades traversing both Italy and England.
“I spoke with him; he remembers me, he came to me and said ‘can I come to watch your training session?'” Ranieri said at his news conference. “But I think Sarri is not inspired by me, he’s a very good coach, because he arrived so late at the highest level. He deserves it. He has a lot of jobs in his career, and he deserves where he is.”
“Friend is a big word but I like him (Ranieri) very much,” Sarri told Sky Sports. “I visited him in Florence 20 years ago. I think he doesn’t remember this meeting but it was very important for me. “He visited us around 40 days ago to see our training. He spoke to me and Gianfranco (Zola).”
The last time Ranieri was at his old stomping grounds, he was afforded a pre-match honour guard as his Foxes completed their fairy-tale 2015-16 season by lifting the Premier League trophy. Less than three full seasons later, “The Tinkerman” returns to Stamford Bridge trying to rescue a Fulham side who are already three goals shy of matching the 36 the Foxes shipped all season in their championship campaign.
Ranieri did not change much in terms of formation from predecessor Slavisa Jokanovic, who used a 4-3-3 formation that served Fulham (2-2-9) well in their successful promotion bid. In Ranieri’s debut versus Southampton, the Cottagers used a 4-2-3-1 set-up in which Aleksandar Mitrovic served as the target forward with Ryan Sessegnon, Tom Cairney and ex-Chelsea forward Andre Schurrle underneath in attack.
The defence continues to be a problem as Fulham conceded twice in the first half, but there was belief in Fulham, who fought back in the second half with goals from Schurrle and Mitrovic – both set up by Sessegnon – to record a 3-2 victory that snapped a seven-game losing streak in all competitions.
“It’s a new era for the Club with a new manager in charge and the result was a perfect way to start it,” Sessegnon told fulhamfc.com. “We had two really solid training sessions and I believe it showed on the pitch that we are all together.
“That team spirit is massively important. With quite a few of the lads coming back from the international break late, the Gaffer hasn’t had that much time to spend with the whole team. The more we learn from the Manager the more we will be solid going forward.”
The 18-year-old Sessegnon figures to be a key part of Ranieri’s plans to help Fulham avoid the drop – he had just one goal and one assist in the first 12 matches while shuttling up and down the left side at all three levels. It is possible Ranieri views him as the Riyad Mahrez of this team, utilising Sessegnon’s pace and creativity to set up chances for Mitrovic and Schurrle, who have accounted for 12 of Fulham’s 14 goals in league play.
Schurrle, who played for Chelsea from 2013-15 and is on loan from Borussia Dortmund, raised some eyebrows when he said he would likely celebrate if he scored a goal and does not understand the fuss that surrounds the tradition of respecting a former team’s fans.
“I didn’t really think about it. I don’t understand why even fans get angry for a player celebrating,” Schurrle told Sky Sports News. “If I celebrate at Stamford Bridge, it would never be against Chelsea fans or against the club, it will be just for me and the Fulham fans.
“If I should score it will be spontaneous and I hope no one will take offence.”
Chelsea (8-4-1) had a different kind of offence Thursday in Europa League play, offering an emphatic response to their first loss under Sarri with a 4-0 thrashing of Greek side PAOK. The Blues, who had clinched the top spot in Group L before the match, continued their 100 percent record in Europe’s second-tier competition with a first-class result from a largely second-choice side.
The Pensioners played virtually the entire match with a man advantage after Yevhen Khacheridi was given a straight red card in the seventh minute for a tackle from behind. Giroud made the guests pay with a brace in a 10-minute span of the first half. Callum Hudson-Odoi added his first Chelsea goal in the second half before fellow forward Alvaro Morata capped the scoring with a thunderous header on a cross from Hudson-Odoi on 78 minutes.
While Giroud has scored four goals in his last three matches in all competitions, it was clear Sarri was still stewing about last weekend’s 3-1 loss at Tottenham Hotspur when asked if the France international had done enough to supplant Morata in the first XI for this contest.
“No, I don’t think so,” Sarri told The Times. “In the last match the problem was the team and not one or two players. So I think that if there were two different players, it would have been the same. Two strikers scored in this match so, for us, I think that’s really very important to have two strikers with confidence.”
All told, he made nine changes from the side who lost to Spurs, retaining keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and left midfielder Ross Barkley. It is possible, though, all nine players could be back in the starting XI for this match.
What offers the most intrigue for Sarri’s lineup selection is with midfielder N’Golo Kante, at whom the gaffer leveled stinging criticisms for going too far upfield and exposing Jorginho to Tottenham’s pacy attackers.
The key returnee will be winger Eden Hazard, who leads Chelsea with eight goals in all competitions. He picked up a knock to his ankle in last weekend’s loss, and Sarri took no chances with the Belgium international since Chelsea had nothing at stake. Barkley’s start in Thursday’s win could mean Mateo Kovacic starts to the left of Jorginho in the midfield.
This London derby has been one-way traffic in Chelsea’s favour in the Premier League era as the Pensioners are 15-10-1 in those matches. Fulham are 0-5-8 at Stamford Bridge and lost 2-0 in their last visit as a top-flight team in the 2013-14 season. The Cottagers have gone 17 matches (0-7-10) without a win at Chelsea since a 2-0 victory in Division Two back in 1979.
Per Bet365, Chelsea are strong 2/11 favourites to claim all three points from this derby, while Fulham are 16/1 underdogs to give Ranieri a happy homecoming and record their first Premier League victory at Stamford Bridge. The odds of the teams splitting the points like Ranieri did in his last visit with Leicester City are 7/1.
Oddsmakers are expecting goals to be scored with the over 2.5 selection getting 4/11 odds compared to 11/5 for under. There are 4/5 odds on a clean sheet in at least one direction, and it is slightly better than even money for both teams to get on the scoreboard at 19/20.
A fully-rested Hazard against a slipshod Fulham defence are two compelling reasons to make the Belgian the odds-on favourite to open the scoring at 3/1 odds. Despite his dismissal of starting Giroud for this match, the France international has edged out Morata for second place with 10/3 odds compared to 4/1 for the Spaniard.
There is still a market for Hudson-Odoi at 9/2, ahead of both Willian and Pedro (11/2), while even Barkley is getting action at 15/2 over his likely replacement Kovacic. For Fulham, Mitrovic is 13th overall on the list at 12/1, and for those who think revenge is a German goal scored cold-bloodedly, Schurrle offers a 20/1 return.
Hazard (4/7), Giroud (4/6), Morata (5/6) and Hudson-Odoi (20/21) all are better than even money to find the back of the net in this contest, with Willian and Pedro just off that line at 6/5. Mitrovic has 3/1 odds, while Schurrle checks in at 11/2 to put one by Arrizabalaga, sharing those odds with Luciano Vietto and Aboubakar Kamara.
For a week, Fulham got to forget about all the misery, all the talk of relegation, all the lampooning of their defence by beating the one team that arguably should have hired Ranieri before they did in Southampton.
This weekend, however, reality is going to come crashing back down upon the Cottagers. While getting Joe Bryan back helps, this is still an evaluation period for Ranieri, who will likely spend all of December figuring out who exactly his best four are. The only two who appear safe are Mawson and Odoi as a central defence pairing, and the decision to move Chambers up as a defensive midfielder gives Fulham three centre backs for all intents and purposes.
Will it be enough? It’s way too early to tell, but the one thing Cottagers supporters should be heartened by is that Ranieri clearly has gotten through to Sessegnon, whom he absolutely needs on board if Fulham are going to escape the drop. This looks to be a more daunting proposition with each passing week as Huddersfield, Newcastle, and now Cardiff City are picking up points here and there.
On the other side, Sarri rightfully viewed Thursday’s victory as little more than a training ground exercise. Chelsea played with a man advantage against an already-overmatched PAOK side for 83 minutes — they should have won 4-0, Hudson-Odoi should have factored prominently, and both his strikers should have scored.
This match, however, will test the resiliency of Chelsea some. How Kante responds to Sarri’s criticism will be something to watch. How Kante interacts with Jorginho and vice versa will be scrutinised to see if Sarri’s directions are taking hold. It may not be as readily visible because Fulham will likely fail to apply much match pressure on the Pensioners, but these are the things that will determine if Chelsea can hold down a top-four spot as the gap between them and City eventually widens.
In a perfect world, Chelsea are in control of this match by an hour and Sarri can lift Hazard to give him some recovery time before Wednesday’s match at Wolverhampton. There will be smiles and hugs before the match between the two Italian managers, but in the end, there will be a Chelsea victory as expected.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 3, Fulham 0.
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