Even if Maurizio Sarri does not believe his Chelsea side can overtake Manchester City for the Premier League title, his side may be the last obstacle to the Citizens repeating as champions as the sides collide Saturday at Stamford Bridge.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Though the Pensioners (9-4-2) are only 10 points adrift of City (13-2-0), it may as well be a chasm of 10 miles to Sarri, who wrote off his team’s chances after their 2-1 loss at Wolverhampton on Wednesday. Chelsea looked to be in control of the match after Ruben Loftus-Cheek scored on 18 minutes, but two goals by Wolves in rapid-fire fashion in the second half consigned the Blues to their second league loss in three contests and left Sarri at a loss for his team’s fragile psyche.
“We played very well for 55 minutes,” he said post-match. “After their first goal, that was an accident because we were in full control of the match, we were suddenly another team, without the right distances and without our football. I don’t know why.
“I am very worried, not with the result, but for the fact we didn’t react to the first goal of the opponent. We didn’t react at all. I worried about this.”
Sarri’s concession his side will not challenge for the title was not all together surprising considering he downplayed those hopes almost immediately upon his arrival, but to publicly confirm it while currently top four with 23 matches to play was still jarring. It also needs to be remembered he dealt with such a plight in Italy in charge of Napoli as they pushed and pushed Juventus in Serie A without ever finishing ahead of the Bianconeri.
“Manchester City are in another category. We have to play and to fight to be in the top four,” he continued. “The result is very difficult for this, because I know in every match you have to gain points. In the last championship in Italy I lost Serie A with 91 points, so I know very well you have to gain points in every match.
“City are the best team in Europe, maybe the best in the world. They can win the Champions League, but that depends on moments.”
Sarri made five changes from the side who defeated Fulham last weekend, most notably holding out central midfielder Jorginho and centre back David Luiz. Both will likely be restored to the first XI, along with centre-forward Olivier Giroud and winger Pedro for Alvaro Morata and Willian, respectively.
With goals in his last two league matches, Loftus-Cheek could be in line for a second straight start over both Ross Barkley and Mateo Kovacic on the left side of the midfield in Chelsea’s 4-3-3.
Manchester City are completing their first run-through against the other “Big Six” teams and have taken 10 points from the previous four matches, with their only dropped points a scoreless draw at closest pursuers Liverpool. The Citizens have won seven on the bounce in league play since that deadlock at Anfield and survived a nervy finish in Tuesday’s 2-1 win at Watford.
Leroy Sane continued his torrid run as he and Riyad Mahrez scored City’s goals on either side of halftime, but the Hornets grabbed a late lifeline through Abdoulaye Doucoure after an error by Fabian Delph and pressed for an equaliser before time ran out.
“We started to lose balls and let them have the opportunity to come back,” City boss Pep Guardiola told the club’s official website. “And of course when they score with ten minutes left you suffer. In this league you have to score the third goal and we didn’t do that, that’s why we suffer.”
The suffering, though, has been at a minimum in league play as City are unbeaten in their last 21 (18-3-0) dating back to last term and they have trailed for all of 12 minutes this season. Additionally, their plus-38 goal difference through 15 matches is the largest in top-flight English football history since the 1892-93 Sunderland side amassed a plus-39.
Manchester City are also trying to become the first non-London side to win seven consecutive league matches in the capital. They currently share the mark of six with the 1950-51 Portsmouth side and are 7-1-0 in London since a 2-1 loss at Stamford Bridge on April 5, 2017.
Sane has five goals and four assists in his last six matches, making Mahrez the more likely of the two to be dropped with the expectation Raheem Sterling will return to the first XI. Gabriel Jesus, though, is likely to lead the line for a third straight contest as Sergio Aguero aggravated an adductor injury in training Monday and is doubtful to feature in this contest.
Guardiola also overturned his entire back line at Vicarage Road, though it would not be surprising if three of the four – wide backs Delph and Kyle Walker and centre back John Stones – retain their spots and are joined by Aymeric Laporte.
Manchester City did the double over Chelsea en route to the title last term, returning the favour the Pensioners performed in 2016-17 when they lifted the trophy.
Both matches last season were decided 1-0, with Kevin De Bruyne – missing for this match through injury – making the difference at Stamford Bridge while Guardiola outfoxed Sarri’s predecessor Antonio Conte by using a 3-2-2-3 set-up that kept Chelsea’s back three wide and neutralized their counterattacking possibilities.
City have won two of their last three trips to Stamford Bridge but are just 4-5-12 there in the Premier League era.
Per Bet365, oddsmakers are showing City an impressive amount of respect by installing them as 19/20 favourites to claim all three points. Chelsea are 3/1 underdogs to deal the Citizens their first loss, and there are 14/5 odds for the sides to split the points.
Oddsmakers are also expecting offensive fireworks unlike last season, with 4/6 odds posted on the teams clearing 2.5 goals compared to 6/5 odds for another 1-0 scoreline or less than 2.5 goals total. There are 4/7 odds for both teams to find at least one goal while there are 5/4 odds for at least one clean sheet.
Jesus gets top billing in the first goal-scorer category with 4/1 odds, followed by Hazard and his teammate Sterling at 6/1. Giroud and Mahrez are both 13/2 options, with Sane and Morata a peg back at 15/2. The Silvas are both 10/1 picks, edging out Willian (11/1), while his teammates Pedro and Victor Moses are 12/1 longshots to make it 1-0.
Jesus is also the overall favourite to put one in the back of the net at 11/10, again trailed by Hazard and Sterling — this time at 7/4. The players paired together for first-goal options are the same for one over 90 minutes — Giroud/Mahrez at 15/8, Morata/Sane 11/5, and the Silvas are 3/1. Willian follows at 10/3, with Pedro and Moses both listed at 15/4.
There were 18 other occasions where it would have been perfectly acceptable to publicly write off your team’s title chances if you are Sarri, even with the caveat you have been downplaying expectations the moment you arrived at Stamford Bridge.
Doing so regarding the reigning title-holders ahead of a match against the reigning title-holders is a fascinatingly obtuse move by a man who has shown an increasing willingness to double-down on his stubbornness with regards to tactics and personnel.
It’s all well and good Sarri is not going to come out of his 4-3-3. It was that way at Napoli, it is this way at Chelsea, and it will continue to be this way as long as he is running the show. Fine, well, good. Then there is the issue of Kante, but even if he is using him in a sub-optimal way — and let’s face it, that’s what this is as the best defensive midfielder on the planet trying to find his moments to join the attack — he is talented enough to adjust, and is doing so from match to match.
The real question here is what does Guardiola have up his sleeve for this match? Last year, his 3-box-3 set-up completely flummoxed Conte, but different formation calls for different tactics, more so without two key pieces in Aguero and De Bruyne. There is no way Guardiola will keep Sterling out of the starting XI, though the Mahrez/Sane dynamic is interesting because Mahrez is the more creative player who can give Marcos Alonso and David Luiz fits on that left side.
For Chelsea, they need to fight for possession in this match, but it also would not be surprising to see City use the same kind of diamond set-up Tottenham did to put Jorginho on an island and make his passes cover longer distances. And like Spurs, City have more than enough pace up front as well as in the midfield with the Silvas and even potentially Ilkay Gundogan.
Chelsea appear to be of two minds at the moment, a side who really have not dealt with too much adversity throughout the term, but one who also appear to be losing that half-step of fluidity when that happens that throws a spanner into the works.
Lastly, Chelsea keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga has never been under siege for prolonged periods of time. How he fares in such situations will go a long way in determining just how top-four viable the Pensioners are.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 1, Manchester City 3.
OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 16 PREVIEWS
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Everton (6-5-4) vs. Watford (6-2-7)