After avoiding the same fate that befell Leicester City in the Carabao Cup quarterfinals midweek, Chelsea look to strengthen their hold on their top-four status Saturday when they host the Foxes at Stamford Bridge.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
First-year coach Maurizio Sarri moved a step closer to winning his first trophy at any level as Chelsea (11-4-2) scraped out a 1-0 victory over Bournemouth to earn a date with derby rival Tottenham next month in the two-legged semifinals. Eden Hazard came off the bench to find the match-winner six minutes from time for the Pensioners, who are unbeaten in four in all competitions (2-2-0) since their surprising loss at Wolverhampton.
Upon completion of the semifinal draw, Chelsea assistant Gianfranco Zola immediately seized on the theme of revenge for Chelsea, who were thoroughly outclassed by Spurs in a 3-1 loss last month. That defeat also was Sarri’s first loss in any competition since taking over in the summer.
“We are happy because some time ago they gave us a good football lesson, and we are looking forward to challenging them again,” Zola told the club’s official website. “I’m sure it’s going to be a different type of game, and I think everybody is very excited to face them again.
“We were hurting (after the league defeat). Too many players underplayed in that game. There are a lot of proud players in our team, and of course they will want to play this game. I am really pleased we are playing against them and I can’t wait.”
Sarri made six changes to the side that won 2-1 at Brighton and Hove Albion, with Hazard making all the difference after his introduction just after the hour. It was his team-leading 10th goal in all competitions for Chelsea, and the Belgium international has a two goals and five assists in his last five appearances while factoring in all but one of the Blues’ eight goals in those contests.
“He is certainly one of the players who has given this club a lot of satisfaction,” Zola said of Hazard, who could be eyeing a move come season’s end. “Considering he is only 27, hopefully he will stay longer with us and become even bigger. I am really looking forward to seeing Eden achieving great things with the club, and to help us coaches achieve something important.”
It will be interesting to see if Sarri sticks with Hazard in a false No. 9 role for a third straight league match after restoring Olivier Giroud to the first XI for the first time in five matches. The France international was thwarted twice trying to add an insurance goal in stoppage time and has not scored in league play since a consolation strike in the loss to Spurs.
Leicester City’s dreams of a semifinal appearance in the Carabao Cup were dashed with a loss to current cup holders Manchester City on Tuesday after playing the reigning league champions to a 1-1 draw. Marc Albrighton pulled the Foxes (6-4-7) level on 73 minutes, but their luck on penalties in this competition finally ran dry as only Harry Maguire beat City goalkeeper Aro Muric from the spot.
Danny Ward, who was between the sticks in shootout victories over Wolves and Southampton in the previous two rounds, was unable to stop any of the four City attempts, though Raheem Sterling missed his try from the spot.
“For us to put on a second half performance like we did, we’ve got to take encouragement and confidence from that and take it to Stamford Bridge,” Albrighton told LCFC TV at full-time. “We’ll go there and put up a good fight and get a result. We’re disappointment because we came so far and took (Manchester City) all the way. We said before if we can get them to penalties we need to make sure we finish them off. We did half of that but didn’t do the full job.”
If Leicester are to get that result Albrighton feels is possible, an improved performance from midfielder James Maddison is vital to the cause. Manager Claude Puel pulled him at halftime in last weekend’s 1-0 loss at Crystal Palace as both the England international and the rest of the team failed to show any aggression in playing a Palace side without top striker Wilfried Zaha.
Maddison, who shares the team lead with Jamie Vardy with five goals in all competitions, had scored the last two goals in the run of play for Leicester City – a span that covered the previous seven matches in all competitions – before Albrighton’s equaliser.
Chelsea took four points from the two meetings last term, with the sides playing out a scoreless draw in the corresponding fixture. The Blues also had a 2-1 victory after extra time in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup as Pedro’s goal on 105 minutes proved decisive.
The Pensioners are unbeaten in their last seven (5-2-0) in all competitions versus Leicester City and 12-2-1 in the last 15 matchups. That lone Foxes victory in London in December 2015, though, was the catalyst that sparked Claudio Ranieri and the Midlands’ side stunning run to the 2016 Premier League title and ended Jose Mourinho’s second stint at Stamford Bridge.
Per Bet365, Chelsea are heavy 1/3 favourites to pick up a second victory this week and maintain their top-four status. Leicester City are 10/1 underdogs to pick up just their second win in the last 16 versus the Pensioners. There are also 9/2 odds on the sides splitting the points.
There are 8/11 odds for the clubs to combine for more than 2.5 goals compared to 11/10 odds to finish under the threshold. There is an expectation for at least one clean sheet, with 7/10 odds of one team not scoring compared to 21/20 odds for both teams putting one goal through.
The seemingly irrepressible Hazard leads the goal-scoring options, including an 11/4 status for first-goal honours. Giroud is a 7/2 selection, while fellow striker Alvaro Morata and Callum Hudson-Odoi are both 9/2 options. Willian is 11/2 followed by Pedro and Ruben Loftus-Cheek at 6/1. For the visitors, Jamie Vardy is the top option at 10/1 to provide a 0-1 scoreline, with Kelechi Iheanacho further back at 14/1.
To score over the course of 90 minutes, Hazard and Giroud are both better than even money at 8/11 and 20/21, respectively, to bag a goal, and Morata and Hudson-Odoi are both 13/10. Willian checks in at 13/8, with Pedro and Loftus-Cheek paired together again, this time at 7/4. Vardy leads the line for Leicester at 3/1, with Iheanacho 9/2 and Maddison 5/1.
While there are undoubtedly some English purists who would love a sumo wrestling-like tussle in the penalty area between Giroud and “Slabhead” Harry Maguire, we all know Sarri has no time for such banalities. Therefore, the expectation is this new-look front three of Pedro, Hazard and Willian will continue until someone figures out how to shut them down.
Bournemouth did show some ability to do so with a five-man back, but Leicester manager Claude Puel has used a back four for all but one match this season in all competitions and is not expected to suddenly vary here ahead of the busy holiday fixtures.
This is a straightforward match to a degree, with the X-factor being whether Leicester City can raise their play in this match. Puel’s benching of Maddison last weekend was probably a good wake-up call to the precocious midfielder, and if the Foxes can stay on the ball, the England international has the pace to find the pockets of space to create threatening chances.
Leicester also always have the fallback option of Route One soccer and sending Vardy on the hunt against Chelsea’s centre back pairing of David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger, though that may not be an optimal route for success.
On the Chelsea side, watch for where Hazard makes his runs with the ball, whether he challenges Maguire or Wes Morgan when he goes forward. Those are the interplay decisions that make Hazard and Sarri such a dynamic tandem — the manager and the player understand each other very well, and it adds to the connectivity between the Belgium international and Jorginho.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 2, Leicester City 0.