The palace intrigue continues for Chelsea, but for the moment, so is the winning.
Maurizio Sarri’s side look to make it three victories on the spin Wednesday, when Gonzalo Higuain is expected to make his Premier League debut at Dean Court versus Bournemouth.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Of the Big Six sides, only Chelsea (14-5-4) has made what could be called a top-drawer move in the January window thus far, finalising a deal to acquire centre-forward Gonzalo Higuain on loan from AC Milan through the end of the season with an £18 million option for 2019-20.
Higuain, who scored 36 goals in 35 league matches playing under Sarri at Napoli in 2015-16, made his Chelsea debut in Sunday’s 3-0 FA Cup victory at home over Sheffield Wednesday. The Argentina international started between Eden Hazard and Willian in Sarri’s usual 4-3-3 formation and raised some eyebrows when he declined Willian’s offer to take the penalty the Brasilian converted to open the scoring.
But he was productive in 80 minutes before making way for Olivier Giroud as the Pensioners advanced to a fifth-round tie at Stamford Bridge opposite Manchester United in a rematch of last year’s FA Cup final.
“Considering it was his first game, you will see more from him. A couple of times in the first half he made some great moves into space and he nearly got the right ball,” assistant coach Gianfranco Zola told Chelsea’s official website about Higuain. “I’m personally satisfied with him, but he’s going to get better because he needs to build up an understanding with the others. Sometimes in the first half he was making movement, but we couldn’t see his movement and it’s something we need to improve.”
The win capped a productive week of cup ties for Chelsea, who overturned a one-goal deficit in the second leg of their Carabao Cup semifinals versus London rivals Tottenham Hotspur and eliminated the Lilywhites via penalties to reach the final at Wembley next month against holders Manchester City.
As Chelsea welcomed Higuain into the fold, they said good-bye to fellow centre-forward Alvaro Morata, who signed a loan deal with Atletico Madrid after never finding a comfort zone in Sarri’s system. Morata’s departure leaves Higuain and Giroud as the only true central strikers on Chelsea’s roster, and Sarri is expected to continue playing the more in-form of the pair like he did with Giroud and Morata.
But Morata’s departure was overshadowed with Saturday’s news that starlet Callum Hudson-Odoi submitted a formal transfer request to force a move to Bayern Munich. The German side has already made four bids to Chelsea for the 18-year-old, the most recent one worth £35 million.
Hudson-Odoi also scored in Sunday’s victory, giving him two goals in 10 matches all competitions, but the allure of consistent playing time as well as furthering his development to stay on England’s radar for international play has factored in his desire to force a move – something Chelsea do not want to acquiesce to.
“He’s going nowhere – he’s a special talent, a very good player and is staying with us,” Willian insisted to Sky Sports. “Of course he is only 18 but he can improve a lot and in the future can become one of the best players in the world. It’s difficult not to think about Bayern Munich because they are a great team as well but for me, his future is here.
“He has to stay because he knows the club, and I am sure he will play more.”
Bournemouth (9-3-11) are seeking back-to-back league victories for the first time since beating Crystal Palace and Watford in October. The Cherries were idle over the weekend since they lost to Brighton and Hove Albion in the FA Cup but looking to build on their 2-0 win over West Ham United on Jan. 19.
Eddie Howe’s side are one of six sides separated by three points from seventh through 12th places as they enter this contest three back of Watford for seventh, which has the potential to carry a Europa League berth for 2019-20 depending on FA Cup results.
The Cherries also made a move to bolster depth to their back line in the down time, signing Chris Mepham from Brentford. Howe will likely take some time to incorporate the 21-year-old Wales international into the rotation since Mepham is just fully healthy again after missing some time with injuries.
“Chris is very comfortable on the ball, composed in possession, he makes a lot of good decisions, has good defensive instincts and a good mentality,” Howe told afcbTV. “We’re very excited about the opportunity to work with him. He’s a fantastic age with a lot of potential to be an outstanding player for us.
“We’re looking forward to developing and nurturing that potential, giving him the platform to progress his career here.”
Like most of the non-Big Six sides, a failure to claim points against the perennials has hindered Bournemouth’s climb in the table. The Cherries have lost all seven such contests this term, shipping 22 goals with only four in reply. In contrast, Bournemouth have a plus-9 goal difference against the other 13 teams while taking all 30 of their points from those 16 matches.
Chelsea are looking to complete the league double after winning the reverse fixture 2-0 at Stamford Bridge on goals by Pedro and Hazard in the final 18 minutes. The Blues also recorded a 1-0 home win in the quarterfinals of the Carabao Cup last month when Hazard came off the bench and scored six minutes from time.
Bournemouth have lost all three of their Premier League home matches versus Chelsea since earning promotion in 2015. Their lone win at home against the Pensioners came in 1988 when the sides were in the Second Division.
Per Bet365, Chelsea are 8/13 favourites to complete the league double and a season treble of Bournemouth, who are 19/4 underdogs for a breakthrough victory against the Big Six. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 10/3.
Oddsmakers are expecting a glut of goals, with 4/6 odds on the teams clearing 2.5 goals for the first time this season compared to a 6/5 return for the under. The odds of both teams scoring is a clear-cut favourite at 7/10 compared to 21/20 for a clean sheet in either direction.
In a nod to his skill and previous work with Sarri, Higuain is the favourite for first goal-scorers at 15/4. Eden Hazard follows him at 4/1, and Higuain’s tag-team partner at centre-forward — Giroud — is 5/1. Hudson-Odoi is an 11/2 option to make it 0-1 to the visitors, while Willian rounds out the top five at 6/1.
Callum Wilson leads the line for the host Cherries at 7/1, with fellow striker Joshua King at 9/1. Chelsea’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek is also a 7/1 option, with Pedro (15/2) and Ross Barkley (9/1) also offering a decent return.
Higuain is an even-money pick to open his account in this game over the course of 90 minutes, with Hazard right behind him at 11/10. Giroud rounds out the podium places at 7/5, beating out Hudson-Odoi (8/5) and Willian (7/4). Wilson (21/10) and King (11/4) are again the top options for the hosts, with David Brooks (10/3) and pocket Scot Ryan Fraser (9/2) also intriguing options.
Chelsea laid bare their ambitions for a top-four finish with the acquisition of Higuain, a move that is clear-cut in terms of internal opinion in the club and purpose. Sarri felt he needed an upgrade at centre-forward, and Higuain’s producitivity with the gaffer at Naples implies a greater comfort level and more goals than what Morata produced (and Giroud to a lesser extent).
It is also a move that places a tremendous amount of pressure on the Argentine’s shoulders. It has been 12 league matches since Chelsea scored more than two goals in a contest, one has to go back to their 3-1 victory over Crystal Palace on Nov. 4. The Pensioners racked up 27 goals in those first 11 league games, that haul has shrunk noticeably to 13 in the last 12.
The link-up play with Hazard and Willian will be a work in progress, with the first measuring stick game coming Feb. 10 at reigning champions Manchester City. Then Chelsea’s Europa League quest continues in Sweden before their mouth-watering FA Cup final rematch against Manchester United at home. Higuain is essentially on the clock to figure out how to make this all work.
Hudson-Odoi is an entirely different story, though it takes a certain amount of focus and maturity to submit a formal transfer request and then score a goal in the space of 24 hours. He is part of something bigger on two fronts — one for club and one for country.
As it pertains to Chelsea, the Blues may be one of the clubs who wind up getting most hamstrung by the details of Brexit if it ever comes to pass because there are undoubtedly going to be new player movement rules via loans the FA will have to ratify. The Pensioners could essentially field a “B” side if they recalled everyone.
At the international level, though, Hudson-Odoi appears to be a part of a new generation of England players who want playing time and are willing to find it on the continent. Jordan Sancho’s success at Borussia Dortmund, and Three Lions manager Gareth Southgate’s encouragement of that adventure has struck a chord with the younger Lions. That next generation — clearly emboldened by England’s World Cup semifinal appearance and fourth-place finish — appears to want bigger things and want them now.
Playing second fiddle as they most always do when facing a Big Six side are Bournemouth, perhaps the most exasperating of the “not ready for prime time” sides among the other 14. The Cherries play attractive, flowing football and can clearly punch hard at their weight class with only four losses in 16 matches versus their peers (9-3-4).
Yet that football is only seen fleetingly against the Premier League perennials. The most extended stretch may have come in the reverse fixture when they carried a scoreless match into the final 20 minutes before capitulating.
Bournemouth nearly ran a dysfunctional Manchester United under Mourinho off the pitch at Dean Court but failed to deliver a knockout blow. They gave City all they could handle for 45 minutes at the Etihad before City re-discovered they were City and put a 10-minute sleeper hold on Bournemouth for separation.
At the very least, Ake should be up for this match as he faces his former club. Bournemouth’s defence must galvanise themselves for this challenge for a full 90 minutes — the dropped points against the big clubs are going to make all the difference for who claims seventh. That said, it is difficult to envision the Cherries rising up to it for the full 90.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Bournemouth 1, Chelsea 3.
OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 24 PREVIEWS:
Wolverhampton (9-5-9) vs. West Ham United (9-4-10)
Manchester United (13-5-5) vs. Burnley (6-4-13)
Newcastle United (5-6-12) vs. Manchester City (18-2-3)
Tottenham Hotspur (17-0-6) vs. Watford (9-6-8)