Having successfully dealt with their first case of adversity under Maurizio Sarri, Chelsea look to keep their hold on third place Wednesday when they face a scuffling Wolverhampton side at Molineux.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Pensioners (9-4-1) followed up their 4-0 thrashing of PAOK in Europa League play with an efficient 2-0 win over Fulham on Sunday in a west London derby. Pedro scored four minutes into the match and Ruben Loftus-Cheek added the second eight minutes from time as Chelsea looked far better than the side who were torn apart by fellow London side Tottenham Hotspur.
The match was partial redemption for midfielder N’Golo Kante, who was singled out for stinging criticism by Sarri during the week. Asked to play a different role than the one that brought him Premier League stardom with both Leicester City and Chelsea as well as with World Cup-winning France, Kante registered his second assist of the season on Pedro’s goal and won some plaudits from his boss.
“I think he played very well. He defended very well. He needs to improve a little more tactically but that’s natural,” Sarri said post-match of Kante. “For the national team he usually plays with two midfielders. Last season sometimes with a two and sometimes with three, but in a central position, so it’s normal that he needs to improve.
“Today he was better when the ball was on the other side of the pitch, I remember only one mistake in the first half. With the ball on the other side he has to stay close to Jorginho otherwise for us it’s a big problem. Jorginho is well able to make passes through the opponents but he’s not so good in the defensive phase with open spaces.”
Loftus-Cheek scored his second league goal, which was also the seventh by a Chelsea player off the bench. He was preferred to Ross Barkley as Matteo Kovacic’s understudy at left midfield, a sign Sarri could be expanding his substitution patterns with the busy December schedule underway.
“In the last few weeks he solved me problems,” Sarri said about the England international. “I was really very happy after the Europa League match because I think that was his best performance from a tactical point of view. Today I felt Kovacic was a bit tired and I put him on without problems. I was sure about his impact on the match.”
With a match at champions Manchester City looming next weekend, it would not be surprising to see Sarri overturn a good portion of his starting XI for this game similar to how he has for Europa League contests. His usual pattern is to swap out the entire back four and midfield three, and for this match, Willian will likely replace Pedro on the right wing after not playing versus Fulham.
As Chelsea have moved on from their lone loss in any competition, the defeats are piling up for Wolverhampton (4-4-6). The promoted side – considered by some to be the best in the Premier League era – have dropped five of their last six matches following a 2-1 defeat at fellow new boys Cardiff City on Friday.
Matt Doherty staked Wolves to a lead in the 18th minute, but after conceding an equaliser in the 65th minute, one could see the fear and doubt creeping into Nuno Espirito Santo’s side, and Junior Hoilett took full advantage with an inch-perfect strike to the upper 90 on 77 minutes.
Wolverhampton’s blistering start has kept them above the relegation fray – they are seven points above the drop – but the players know they must start turning around things quickly.
“We’re obviously worried,” Doherty told the club’s official website. “Coming into the season we had high hopes and we’re a good team. We should be winning here (at Cardiff) and beating Huddersfield at home, but we’re not doing that and it’s not good enough. Ever since the manager came in we’re not really used to losing games.
“Even at the start of the Premier League we haven’t been used to losing games and the run we’re on now is uncharted territory for a lot of us who have been here the last year-and-a-half. It’s going to test our character, test our heads and see if we have to dig deep down to get ourselves out of it.”
Nuno will be forced into one change as influential midfielder Ruben Neves must sit after picking up his fifth yellow card of the season in the loss to Cardiff. Neves had not missed a minute of the first 14 matches, and with Wolves already without other injured top midfielder Jonny, Romain Saiss and potentially teenager Morgan Gibbs-White may be pressed into larger roles for this contest.
Wolves’ lone Premier League win in eight tries (1-0-7) was a 1-0 triumph at Molineux on Jan. 5, 2011, on an own goal by Chelsea defender Jose Bosingwa. The Pensioners ended Wolverhampton’s FA Cup run in the most recent matchup in 2017, a 2-0 road victory in the fifth round on goals by Pedro and Diego Costa.
Chelsea have outscored Wolves 29-4 in their eight league meetings.
Per Bet365, Chelsea are solid 4/5 favourites to win a third straight match in all competitions, while Wolves are 4/1 underdogs to end their woes and pick up a needed three points. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 11/4.
Oddsmakers are torn on the number of goals, with 10/11 odds for both over and under 2.5 goals. There are 4/5 odds for both teams to find the back of the net, slightly better than the 19/20 odds for at least one clean sheet in either direction.
Eden Hazard leads the line for first goal-scorer options at 4/1, followed by his striker tandem of Giroud (9/2) and Morata (5/1). Willian gets fourth billing at 7/1, with Wolverhampton central striker Raul Jimenez rounding out the top five at 15/2. Fellow Wolves forward Leo Bonatini and Chelsea winger Pedro are both 8/1 options while Diogo Jota and William Moses follow at 9/1.
Hazard also leads the line for any-time goal-scorers at 5/4, again trailed by Giroud (7/5) and Morata (8/5). Willian is 9/4 to score over the course of 90 minutes, with Jimenez again completing the first five at 5/2. Both Bonatini and Pedro are paired together at 13/5, while Jota and Moses are likewise at 3/1. Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkley are both 10/3 options to score, followed by Cesc Fabregas and the Wolves duo of Ivan Cavaleiro and Helder Costa at 15/4.
Sometimes, a second-tier competition is a good thing. In the case of Chelsea, the Europa League has given Sarri a rhythm of choosing among his best 25 players to mix and match for this contest, and given Wolverhampton’s current poor form, it makes sense for the Pensioners to continue their pattern of wholesale changes for a midweek match.
The expectation is the back four and midfield three will be a complete swap, with Barkley and Loftus-Cheek flanking Fabregas. The intrigue revolves around the front three — Willian likely gets the start at right wing — but whether Sarri will start Hazard or potentially Moses on the left is worth pondering. The centre-forward position will likely remain the status quo for this match — Giroud starts, Morata comes off the bench — but a swap is most likely come the weekend.
The other good thing about squad rotation in this match is there is no real excuse for Chelsea to look past this match for Manchester City. The bulk of players who should be playing in this match are fighting for playing time and first-team minutes — they will be focused on the task at hand with the hope of a tangible reward going forward.
Loftus-Cheek has bought into this, which is why talk around him leaving in the January window has quieted down at the moment.
Little about this match breaks well for Wolverhampton, who were also given an extremely difficult third-round FA Cup draw at home versus Liverpool. For this match, missing Jonny was already bad enough, but Neves being a spectator as well will create huge problems for Wolves going forward — providing they even get the ball enough to do so.
One wants to believe Doherty’s comments about not being used to losing games were ones of defiance, but even leading up to Cardiff’s equaliser, there was a sense of building dread as Wolverhampton tried to protect that lead. When Wolves failed that task, it felt like a matter of time before the Bluebirds found a second — and they did.
Nuno has to walk a fine line because Wolves have a winnable match this weekend at St James’ Park versus Newcastle. A lopsided loss versus Chelsea could be potentially devastating, but the want to save some players in a bid to pick up points also makes sense here. This could be where Morgan Gibbs-White and Leander Dendocker get their first Premier League starts and Wolverhampton just roll with the punches and regroup for the Magpies.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Wolverhampton 0, Chelsea 3.
OTHER EPL Match Day 15 Previews:
Bournemouth (6-2-6) vs. Huddersfield Town (2-4-8)
Watford (6-2-6) vs. Manchester City (12-2-0)
Burnley (2-3-9) vs. Liverpool (11-3-0)
Manchester United (6-4-4) vs. Arsenal (9-3-2)