2018-19 EPL Match Day 22 — Chelsea (13-5-3) vs. Newcastle United (4-6-11)

With multiple irons in the fire and a top-four spot to defend, Chelsea look to bounce back from a tough Carabao Cup loss Saturday when they host relegation-threatened Newcastle United.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Eds note — replace Atsu for Muto on Newcastle left wing

The turn of the calendar year saw no let-up in the fixture list for the Pensioners, who were held to a draw at Southampton in their first league match of 2019. They followed that with a 2-0 victory over Nottingham Forest on Saturday in the third round of the FA Cup as Alvaro Morata had a second-half brace.

Tuesday, though, was a different story as Chelsea (13-5-3) lost 1-0 to Tottenham Hotspur in the first leg of their Carabao Cup semifinals. Harry Kane’s contested penalty on 27 minutes was all that separated the London sides, with manager Maurizio Sarri taking heart in the fact the tie was still delicately balanced and Chelsea played far better than they did in a 3-1 loss to Spurs in late November in which they were bossed all over Wembley.

“We deserved more because in this match we played better than the opponents,” Sarri told Chelsea’s official website. “We were in control of the match and defended well against a team dangerous in the offensive phase, so we deserved more. We played about 70 balls in the opposition box against 11 balls of Tottenham in our box, 18 shots against seven I think, five goal opportunities against two, so we deserve more.

“So I am really disappointed with the result but very happy with the performance, one of the most important of the season from my team.”

Sarri had issue with the penalty awarded Kane, noting the original call of Spurs being offsides should have stood as opposed to VAR overturning it after Chelsea keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga upended the England international. As someone who dealt with VAR while managing Napoli in Italy, Sarri dryly noted, “I think they need to study better this system.”

Chelsea already made a splash in the transfer market with the acquisition of Borussia Dortmund winger Christian Pulisic for next season, but for the January window, the London side are the subjects of constant speculation. Notably absent from Tuesday’s 18-man roster was Morata, with rumours of him returning to Spain with Sevilla bandied about.

There is talk of Sarri being reunited with Gonzalo Higuain, who is currently on loan from Napoli to AC Milan, with reports Higuain’s agent is in London to hammer out some sort of deal. Bayern Munich continue to be in pursuit of winger Callum Hudson-Odoi, who is making himself more indispensable to Sarri with each passing performance.

The good news for Sarri is two of the players currently in his squad – centre-forward Olivier Giroud and winger Pedro – should be available for starting duties after both came off the bench Tuesday. Giroud would allow Hazard to go back on the wing as opposed to the false nine spot Sarri has used the Belgium international more of late.

Newcastle United (4-6-11) could only hope to have such names associated with them bandied about in the transfer rumour mill as manager Rafa Benitez begins yet another window with hat in hand to owner Mike Ashley looking for any sort of reinforcements to help in the relegation scrap to stay afloat for a third consecutive season in 2019-20.

The Magpies have been linked with a possible move for winger Miguel Almiron, the Paraguay international who recently helped Atlanta United win the MLS Cup in just their second season in the top flight of American football. Atlanta is reportedly asking for a minimum of £24 million for the 24-year-old Almiron, who totaled 21 goals and 28 assists in 62 league matches the last two seasons, a figure that would finally break Newcastle’s transfer record of £16.5 million for Michael Owen in 2005.

“He is an amazing player, he was one of the best players on the pitch in both of the All-Star games that we played against Juventus and Real Madrid,” Atlanta United president Darren Eales recently told SkySports. “I have no doubt that when the time is right and the offer is right, he can be a success in whatever league he goes to.”

As Newcastle look to find reinforcements, Benitez must find a way to come up with points against the Big Six to aid in the relegation scrap. The Toons have yet to take any of a possible 21 from their first seven such contests after a 2-0 loss at Manchester United on Jan. 2. Some solace can be taken in Newcastle being a better road side than at home this term, collecting 11 of their 18 points (2-5-3) outside St James’ Park.

The expectation is Benitez will stay with the five-man backline he has used in league play for the last four league matches as well as the teams at the top of the table. Newcastle United will be without winger Kenedy for this match since he is ineligible to face his parent club, perhaps opening the door for Christian Atsu to play on the wing and move Ayoze Perez into a central playmaking role.

The ultra-conservative tactics nearly got Newcastle a point in the reverse fixture against Chelsea, who were gifted a 2-1 win when Newcastle right back DeAndre Yedlin deflected a shot by Marcos Alonso into his own net on 87 minutes. Hazard had staked the Pensioners to a lead on 76 minutes from the spot before the Magpies equalised through Joselu with seven minutes remaining.

Chelsea are 5-1-1 in their last seven versus Newcastle in all competitions and have won six on the bounce at Stamford Bridge since a 2-0 loss in 2012. The Magpies are a woeful 2-6-17 in their trips to Chelsea in the Premier League era, with the other triumph coming in the 2010-11 League Cup.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Chelsea are 2/9 favourites to complete the double over Newcastle, who are 16/1 longshots to beat a Big Six side for the first time in eight tries this term. The odds of a draw to give the Magpies their first point in such contests are 6/1.

Oddsmakers are expecting Chelsea to find a way to breach Newcastle’s defence, with 4/6 odds on clearing 2.5 goals compared to 6/5 odds on going under. There are 1/2 odds there will be a clean sheet in either direction, compared to a 6/4 offering on both sides scoring.

Unsurprisingly, Hazard leads the list of options for first goal-scorers, getting 13/5 odds to do it in both matches between the teams. Giroud, who may or may not start, is second at 10/3, while Morata rounds out the top three at 4/1. Chelsea, in fact, occupy the first 14 slots on the list for the first goal before there is a Rondon sighting at 18/1 along with Joselu. Hudson-Odoi is a 9/2 selection, followed by Willian (5/1) and Pedro (11/2).

Hazard and Giroud are better than even money odds at 4/5 and 5/6, respectively, to score at any time during the contest. Morata is again third at 11/10, with Hudson-Odoi (5/4) and Willian (7/5) completing the top five. Rondon and Joselu are again paired together, this time at 11/2, to score over the course of 90 minutes.

PREDICTION

What a difference a better performance makes. After looking like he wanted to run away and hide from the world after his side’s first loss to Spurs, Sarri was in much better spirits after Tuesday’s loss, and with good reason. The Pensioners took the fight to their London rivals for almost the entire hour after Kane’s penalty, denied once by the woodwork and also by some competent goaltending from Spurs deputy Paolo Gazzaniga.

This is a chance for Chelsea to reinforce what worked in that game, though it may also be a chance for Sarri to find out once and for all whether or not he wants to keep Morata or off-load him for a different centre-forward. Holding him out of Tuesday’s contest on the heels of a brace was puzzling unless there is a deal to send him back to a La Liga side. But given how Chelsea refused to let Cesc Fabregas leave for Monaco until Friday, it seems unlikely Morata will not at worst be on the bench for this game or possibly start.

Newcastle will be Newcastle in this match, which is every bit the backhanded compliment it is intended to be. The Magpies will defend resolutely and stubbornly, perhaps release Ritchie and Yedlin down the flanks on the occasional counter, but they will cede too much possession to Chelsea (again) and be suspectible to crosses in the box from Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta as opposed to the wingers given how compact the two lines will be.

It is understood Benitez is simply doing what he can with what he has, and it continues to be a source of frustration throughout Tyneside and the Toon Army given his coaching acumen in contrast to what he is given to work with considering the spendthrift ways of Ashley.

This match, as Agent Smith best said in The Matrix, “is the sound of inevitability.”

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 3, Newcastle United 0.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 22 PREVIEWS:

West Ham United (8-4-9) vs. Arsenal (12-5-4)
Brighton and Hove Albion (7-5-9) vs. Liverpool (17-3-1)
Leicester City (9-4-8) vs. Southampton (3-7-11)
Tottenham Hotspur (16-0-5) vs. Manchester United (11-5-5)

2019 Carabao Cup 1st Leg Semifinal Preview — Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea

Neither Mauricio Pochettino nor Maurizio Sarri have a trophy to their credit despite impressive coaching credentials. Both look to take a huge step toward that first piece of silverware Tuesday when Tottenham Hotspur host Chelsea in the first leg of their Carabao Cup semifinal at Wembley Stadium.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Pochettino’s Spurs, who are also one spot ahead of the Pensioners in the table in third place, bested three Premier League opponents to reach the final four for the first time since finishing runners-up in 2015. The League Cup was the last trophy the Lilywhites claimed, doing so in 2008 by defeating Chelsea 2-1 after extra time on a goal by Jonathan Woodgate in the 94th minute.

It was the first League Cup final played at new Wembley Stadium, which the Spurs continue to use as home grounds while the finishing touches are part on the renovated but overdue to open White Hart Lane, and Spurs would like nothing more than history to repeat itself with a first-leg win in this London derby.

As has been the case since the sacking of Jose Mourinho at Manchester United, the pre-match press conference again turned into reading tea leaves about Pochettino’s future, whether it is with Spurs, potentially at United or even possibly Real Madrid. The Argentine offered no clues about a potential direction, though a few eyebrows were raised with some of his comments.

“Daniel Levy [the Tottenham chairman] is creating a legacy that is going to be amazing for the club,” he said according to The Times, vacillating between wariness of staying too long at a club as Arsene Wenger did at Arsenal while also sounding hopeful he could be with Tottenham for a long run.. “I can see in the future Tottenham winning trophies.

“I don’t know if that will be with us, without us; in one year, in five years. But all the foundations are down for one day to start to win titles and be like other successful clubs.”

Tottenham have won back-to-back matches since their surprising 3-1 home loss to Wolverhampton on Dec. 29, with a 3-0 league victory at Cardiff City and a 7-0 hammering of League Two side Tranmere Rovers in the third round of the FA Cup on Tuesday. Pochettino was able to overturn eight of his starting XI from the win at Cardiff, with Heung-Min Son continuing to terrorise opponents with a goal and two assists.

The South Korea international, who will join his compatriots after Sunday’s game against Manchester United to participate in the Asian Cup, has seven goals and four assists in his last six matches across all competitions.

Chelsea have not lacked for trophies since losing that 2008 League Cup final, having won three Premier League titles, four FA Cups, one League Cup, and of course, the 2012 Champions League title. Sarri, a coaching vagabond who only rose to international prominence in his last two stops in Italy at Serie A with Empoli and Napoli, has never won a trophy in a coaching career that spans more than 30 years.

But what was on the Italian’s mind was the chastening 3-1 defeat to Spurs at Wembley on Nov. 24 in which Pochettino turned the match on its ear by using a diamond midfield that allowed his two attackers up front to isolate playmaker Jorginho in space and take advantage of his lack of pace.

Dele Alli and Harry Kane scored in the first 16 minutes of the game before Son tore around Jorginho for a third on 54 minutes as Sarri took his first loss after coming to Stamford Bridge in the summer.

“I saw my players in the dressing room after the match. They were destroyed,” Sarri told the club’s official website. “They needed only to realise why the match was so bad. It was very easy. The video of the first 15 minutes was clear. There was a big difference in mentality, aggressiveness, determination. It was clear for me and also the players.

“That match was really strange. It was after the international break, and probably we were not able to arrive to the match with the right mentality and focus. It can happen. Now we need to play another match.”

Chelsea have traversed the path to the semifinals by the slimmest of margins, winning each of the three matches by one goal. It took a moment of late magic by Eden Hazard to get by Liverpool at Anfield before defeating former Chelsea midfielder-turned-manager Frankie Lampard and Championship side Derby County in a peculiar match that featured Derby scoring two own goals in addition to two against Chelsea before Cesc Fabregas scored the winner.

In their most recent Carabao Cup match, it took another late goal from Hazard as the Blues saw off Bournemouth at home last month. Chelsea are unbeaten in their last four matches in all competitions (3-1-0) after getting a brace from Alvaro Morata — the Spain international’s first goals since Nov. 29 — on either side of halftime in a 2-0 FA Cup triumph over Nottingham Forest on Saturday.

The win came at a price, though, as Ruben Loftus-Cheek was forced off in the first half with an injury. Sarri is sweating out late fitness tests for both winger Willian and centre-forward Olivier Giroud though teenage starlet Callum Hudson-Odoi, who set up both of Morata’s goals, is expected to retain his starting spot for this match.

“I know for me he is a very important player, he‘s young and now he’s improving, especially in the defensive phase,” Sarri noted of Hudson-Odoi, who has been linked with a move to Bayern Munich. “I think he played really well in the last match. He was in trouble in the game at Watford but only because he had a problem in his hamstring. I’m really very happy with him, I don’t know the situation with the club but for me he’s an important player.”

Sarri, like Pochettino, was able to overturn eight players from the last league match, with Morata, David Luiz and Ross Barkley the holdovers.

HOW TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR GOT HERE:

Sept. 26 — D vs. Watford 2-2 in third round at Milton Keynes, advanced 4-2 on PKs
(Success 46′, Alli (PK) 81′, Lamela 86′, Capoue 89′)
Oct. 31 — W at West Ham 3-1 in round of 16
(Son 16′, 51′; Perez 71′, Llorente 75′)
Dec. 19 — W at Arsenal 2-0 in quarterfinal
(Son 20′, Alli 59′)

HOW CHELSEA GOT HERE:

Sept. 26 — W at Liverpool 2-1 in third round
(Sturridge 58′, Emerson 79′, Hazard 85′)
Oct. 31 — W vs. Derby County 3-2 in round of 16
(Tomori (OG) 5′, Marriott 9′, Keogh (OG) 21′, Waghorn 27′, Fabregas 41′)
Dec. 19 — W vs. Bournemouth 1-0 in quarterfinal
(Hazard 84′)

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Tottenham are 5/4 favourites to hold serve with a victory at Wembley, while Chelsea are 9/4 underdogs to carry a victory back with them for the second leg at Stamford Bridge. The odds of the sides playing to a draw are 13/5.

Oddsmakers are giving the lean for over the 2.5-goal threshold at 4/5 odds compared to even money for the under pick. Both teams are expected to score for the second time in as many meetings, with 4/6 odds on that occurring compared to 11/10 for at least one clean sheet in either direction.

As expected, Kane leads the way for first goal-scorer options at 3/1, with understudy Fernando Llorente second at 9/2, pipping out Hazard (5/1). With the possibility of Giroud potentially shaking off an ankle injury and being available, the France international has 6/1 odds while Spurs’ Lucas Moura is 13/2 and Morata is 7/1 along with the very in-form Son.

Kane is the only player who is better than even money to score over the 90 minutes, offering a 5/6 return. Llorente has 13/10 odds, while Hazard is a 6/4 selection. Giroud is 15/8, with Moura starting the next level at 2/1. Morata and Son are both 11/5 options, with Alli at 5/2, Willian at 11/4, and Spurs playmakers Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela both 13/4.

PREDICTION

Sarri hammered home the point to anyone who would listen about how bad Chelsea were in the first 15 minutes of their loss to Tottenham Hotspur and the need to play better. The good news is Chelsea could not conceivably play any worse as the 2-1-2 part of the 4-1-2-1-2 formation Pochettino unveiled created huge pockets of space Alli, Kane, Son, and Christian Eriksen tore through.

The loss also showed just how much of a perfectionist Sarri is because he leveled a stunning double-barreled criticism of N’Golo Kante after the match, which was all the more surprising considering Kante’s positioning in Sarri’s 4-3-3 is not his ideal place on the pitch given his prowess as a disruptive force in the midfield. The France international has since played better and to Sarri’s liking, but it did also reveal the Italian knew what he was talking about when he said he was in the early stages of rebuilding the 2017 Premier League title winners.

Both sides are expected to use fairly strong lineups for this first leg after being able to rest most of their regulars. Sarri probably wasn’t thrilled he had to use Hazard as an injury replacement before halftime, but that is the way things have been going for the Pensioners of late with regards to injury.

The last piece of curiosity with Chelsea comes with Cesc Fabregas, who was thought to have made his farewell this weekend in the win over Nottingham Forest. The Spaniard has a deal in place to move to Monaco, but Sarri wants a replacement to fill the role of Jorginho’s understudy — Fabregas’ role this season — before letting him move to the Ligue 1 side.

He is not expected to be among the substitutes for this match despite being at Cobham this week for training.

As for this match, it will likely be a cagey one, though the expectation will be for Chelsea to be wary of pouring forward too many bodies out of fear of being exposed like they were in the first meeting. Son could be the X-factor in this match given his scintillating form, with Spurs being able to find offence easier than Chelsea in this match.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Tottenham Hotspur 1, Chelsea 0.

OTHER CARABAO CUP FIRST LEG SEMIFINAL:

Manchester City vs. Burton Albion

2018-19 EPL Match Day 16 Preview — Chelsea (9-4-2) vs. Manchester City (13-2-0)

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.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

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.

PREDICTION

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

Manchester United (6-5-4) vs. Fulham (2-3-10)
Leicester City (6-4-5) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (11-0-4)
Newcastle United (3-4-8) vs. Wolverhampton (5-4-6)
Everton (6-5-4) vs. Watford (6-2-7)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 15 Preview — Wolverhampton (4-4-6) vs. Chelsea (9-4-1)

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.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

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.

PREDICTION

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)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 12 Preview — Chelsea (8-3-0) vs. Everton (5-3-3)

It is an invisible albatross Everton have worn for nearly five years, yet the “0” that represents the number of Premier League road wins against “Big Six” clubs in that stretch weighs as heavily as the dead bird upon the mariner’s neck in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem.

Marco Silva and the Toffees hope to make Sunday the day the curse is finally lifted as they look to end a 30-match winless spell against the best of the top flight in a matchup with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Everton are 0-9-21 in their visits to Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and eternal rivals Liverpool since Bryan Oviedo struck in the 86th minute for a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford on Dec. 4, 2013. Following that triumph, the Toffees (5-3-3) have looked as idle as a painted ship more times than not, shipping 63 goals in those 30 matches with only 18 in response.

“I have confidence in our work, confidence in the way we are playing, seeing how our team is growing, playing better and getting better results,” Silva said at his Friday news conference. “Of course it will be tough. I accept Chelsea will be favourites. It will be a big challenge for us but what I hope and what I expect is that we are ourselves on the pitch.

“They will create problems for us but I want to see our team be ourselves, play in our way. In some moments they will create, but when we have the ball we have to be ourselves.”

Everton have failed in two bids this term to end the streak, losing 2-0 at the Emirates to Arsenal on Sept. 23, and more recently, 2-1 at Old Trafford on Sept. 28. There was a good south wind heading into that match – Everton had been unbeaten in four – and there is one albeit smaller once more following a 3-1 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion last weekend.

Richarlison continued his rich vein of goals since being moved to lead Everton’s line, scoring on either side of halftime. Right back Seamus Coleman showed he is fully recovered from the stress fracture that sidelined him four games earlier this season as well as the broken leg suffered representing Ireland in March 2017 with his first goal in 22 months, one that snapped a 1-1 deadlock in the second half.

“His physical condition is growing and it’s normal that his confidence is growing as well, not just because he scored the goal – even in the first half we had good combinations down the right side with him, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Theo Walcott,” Silva said of Coleman. “And, of course, in the second half when he scored it was an important moment for him and for sure it will give him good feelings and confidence.”

Confidence is something Everton have sorely lacked in their visits to Stamford Bridge, leaving southwest London without a victory in their last 23 tries (0-10-13) since their lone Premier League win – 1-0 on Nov. 26, 1994, thanks to a 39th-minute goal by Paul Rideout. The Toffees were cruelly denied an end to the streak in 2016, taking a lead in stoppage time only to have Blues talisman John Terry head home an equaliser in the 98th minute that should have been chalked off for offsides as the match finished 3-3.

Richarlison, though, is an injury doubt for this match and will be a game-time decision. If the Brasil international cannot go, Silva has either Cenk Tosun or Dominic Calvert-Lewin as options to lead the line.

The gaffer will be forced into one change since centre back Kurt Zouma is ineligible to face his parent club, with Silva to choose among Phil Jagielka, Mason Holgate and Yerry Mina to partner with Michael Keane. Mina, the Colombia international summer signing whose debut was delayed by a foot injury, made a late runout in the win over Brighton for his Premier League debut.

Chelsea (8-3-0) have climbed to second in the table, ahead of Liverpool on goal difference while trailing champions Manchester City by two points. The Blues return to domestic play after wrapping up first place in Group L of the Europa League with a 1-0 victory at BATE Borisov on Thursday.

Olivier Giroud broke his duck in the 52nd minute, heading home a cross from Emerson, and gave Maurizio Sarri the luxury of blooding some of the academy players for the final two matches of group play in the continental competition.

“I was hoping to score soon because I came back late from the World Cup and I was lacking maybe a bit of efficiency and luck, but you always need to keep working hard and keep the faith and that’s what happened,” the France international told the club’s official website. “It was a good cross from Emerson and that’s what we need to do more often.

“The manager kept saying we need to qualify from the group, and the earlier the better, so we’ve done the job even if we could have been more efficient. It’s a clean sheet and we won the game.”

Chelsea are still unbeaten since Sarri took over, recording 14 wins in 17 matches across all competitions. A win or draw here would set a Premier League record for the longest unbeaten start in a Premier League debut, a mark he shares with Frank Clark after he went 8-3-0 with Nottingham Forest in 1994-95 before losing at home to Blackburn Rovers.

Sarri once again overturned his entire back line in the victory at Belarus and gave Eden Hazard a start after the Belgium international had played just 26 minutes in Chelsea’s last two league matches due to a back injury. He also started Ross Barkley, which raises the question of whether Sarri will keep the former Everton player in his first XI for this match.

Barkley, who signed with the Everton at the age of 11, left the club in the January transfer window in a protracted saga – it was a £15 million transfer after the England international spurned a £35 million move on the final day of the August window – and Barkley is expecting to get some stick from Everton’s traveling supporters.

“I don’t think it (the reception) will be the best,” the midfielder admitted to the Evening Standard. “I was approaching 25 and I felt looking back I could have improved a lot more (at Everton). At Chelsea, I knew I’d improve a lot quicker around better players, around world-class players.

“I’m not nervous, I’m excited to play against my former club and teammates – I understand how some of them play, so that could be an advantage for me.”

Sarri is also expected to restore Alvaro Morata to his centre-forward role over Giroud, with the Spain international coming off a brace in last weekend’s victory over Crystal Palace that has given him three goals in his last two league contests.

Last season’s scoreless draw at Goodison Park in the most recent meeting ended a four-match winning streak for Chelsea in all competitions between the sides. The Pensioners are unbeaten in their last five (3-2-0) against the Toffees in league play since a 3-1 setback in 2015.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are solid favourites to at least emerge with a point to give Sarri the record of best Premier League start as the Pensioners are 2/5 to claim a victory and have 18/5 odds on splitting the points. Everton are listed at 6/1 for their first road victory over a Big Six opponent in nearly five years.

There is an expectation of goals in this match, as Chelsea are 19/20 favourites to win with more than 2.5 goals scored, substantially shorter than 10/3 for under the 2.5 threshold. The Toffees are 10/1 longshots to win with more than 2.5 goals and 16/1 to win fashioning a score line of 0-1 or 0-2. A 0-0 or 1-1 draw holds a slight sway at 11/2, while a high-scoring stalemate has shorter odds at 12/1 than a low-scoring Everton win.

After seeing him emerge unscathed after an hour in Belarus, Hazard leads the line for first-goal honours at 10/3. Chelsea’s strikers Morata and Giroud, as is usually the case, are lumped together — here at 4/1. Wingers Pedro and Willian are another step back at 6/1, followed by Loftus-Cheek at 7/1. And for those who believe revenge can be best served by making it 1-0 against a former team, Barkley has 7/1 odds as well.

Richarlison’s iffy status means he and Cenk Tosun are joint 9/1 odds as Everton’s top options, with Calvert-Lewin just off the duo at 10/1. Sigurdsson, the Toffees’ penalty taker, is 11/1.

Hazard is even money to beat Pickford over the course of 90 minutes, with Morata and Giroud both at 23/20. There is another pairing of Pedro and Willian, this time at 9/5, and Barkley and Loftus-Cheek are listed at 21/10. Richarlison has some separation from Tosun here, with the Brasilian getting 13/5 compared to the Turk’s 11/4 odds. Calvert-Lewin has 3/1 odds on scoring while Sigurdsson lurks just behind at 16/5.

PREDICTION

Thirty matches is a long time without a landmark victory. These are the types of matches Silva was hired for, to get the leviathan who are Everton awake and contending for Champions League spots on an annual basis. At the same time, wow is their track record in these matches awful.

In the Premier League era, they are 16-43-94 on the road against Big Six teams. They have not won at the Emirates/Highbury, Stamford Bridge and Anfield in this century. They have not won at Tottenham this decade.

Nearly half of those wins — seven — have come against Manchester City, but not the Manchester City you and I know of this decade following the change in ownership to Sheikh Mansour. No, these were the aimless Citizens, ones that even suffered the humiliation of relegation while Everton have avoided such a fate.

This is the history stacked against Everton, one painful defeat on top of another on top of another. To their credit, both losses this year — at Arsenal and at United — the Toffees stood up to their opponents. It can be argued Everton were the better side at the Emirates, laying siege to Petr Cech and the Gunners goal before being undone by two goals three minutes apart, one of which should never have been allowed.

Against United, there was wastefulness in the finished product but plenty of fight as the Toffees could not find an equaliser after Sigurdsson’s penalty. The 2-1 scoreline was fair to the hosts but also a proper scoreline to the guests who showed effort and resolve.

Which brings us to Stamford Bridge, where it is almost the silver anniversary of Rideout’s goal that brought Everton’s lone Premier League success. There is hope upon hope Richarlison will be able to go, but if he does not, one hopes Silva is bold and tabs Calvert-Lewin over Tosun to lead the line. That boldness could extend to Mina for his first Premier League start, but that may also be rash given Chelsea’s attacking nous and Hazard’s unpredictability in attack.

With Barkley getting the start in Belarus, the sidebar of facing the team who raised and nurtured him is relegated to just that — an add-on to the story with his expected arrival around the hour. What he does with those 30 minutes may change that narrative from sidebar to central plot, but there are more important actors in this contest.

One is most certainly Richarlison, who hopefully will not give way to his understudy. Another is Sigurdsson, who has masterfully pulled strings in the midfield to help create chances. But do not discount Chelsea’s striker tandem of Morata and Giroud. The Spaniard is expected to start, with the Sarri logic of leaving him back in London to rest confounding the media to the point he mumbled to himself in agitation during the press conference. And should Morata fail, Giroud will have plenty of life after ending his duck in Belarus. His link-up play with Hazard is the real reason Mina should be on the bench to start this contest, his Premier League blooding can come another day.

This should be an entertaining contest with plenty of cat-and-mouse. Everton may not get that elusive victory, and a point may be within their grasp, but that only happens if Richarlison is on the pitch.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 2, Everton 0.

OTHER MATCH DAY 12 EPL PREVIEWS:

Leicester City (5-1-5) vs. Burnley (2-2-7)
Huddersfield Town (1-3-7) vs. West Ham United (3-2-6)
Liverpool (8-3-0) vs. Fulham (1-2-8)
Manchester City (9-2-0) vs. Manchester United (6-2-3)

Europa League Match Day 4 Preview — BATE Borisov (1-0-2, 3, -3) vs. Chelsea (3-0-0, 9, +4)

Chelsea have a chance to wrap up the top spot in Group L of the Europa League on Thursday when they attempt a home-and-home sweep of BATE Borisov in Belarus.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Blues are still unbeaten under first-year manager Maurizio Sarri. In addition to grabbing the maximum nine points from their first three group matches, Chelsea are two points back of reigning champions Manchester City in the Premier League, in second place ahead of Liverpool on goal difference.

Sarri’s side, though, have had struggle finding goals in this competition with five goals in the three victories. The good news is they put three past the Tractor Boys at Stamford Bridge a fortnight ago, trigging their current four-match winning streak in all competitions in which they have piled up 13 goals after pulling away for a 3-1 victory over Crystal Palace last Sunday.

Eden Hazard, who had been slowed by a back injury that resulted in a three-match absence, came off the bench versus Palace and made an immediate contribution after has introduction by assisting on Alvaro Morata’s tie-breaking goal on 65 minutes.

It was Hazard’s fourth overall assist and his third in league play coming off the bench. The Belgium international has logged just 36 minutes in Europa League play, but Sarri included him on the roster to make the 3,200-mile round trip with an eye on finishing off qualification for the knockout round. The Pensioners will claim group honours with a victory and a draw by Midi and PAOK in the other match.

“According to our doctor there is not any risk, otherwise he would have stayed at Cobham, of course,” Sarri told the club’s official website. “We felt that for him it’s better to play, not for 90 minutes, but to play after two weeks of not playing.

“In the last match he played only for 30 minutes. The best way for him is that tomorrow he will play for 45 or 50 minutes.”

Somewhat surprising is who did not make the trip in Morata and midfielder Cesc Fabregas. Morata appeared to turn a corner with his brace, giving him six goals in all competitions, but Sarri saw this as an opportune time to give the Spaniard a breather having played all but 16 minutes in Chelsea’s last three matches while Olivier Giroud dealt with a knock.

Fabregas has been waylaid by an illness, prompting N’Golo Kante to make the trip. But since that is not the like-for-like switch that Sarri prefers, it appears Jorginho will serve as midfield metronome for the 4-3-3.

“We are in a perfect mood,” left midfielder Mateo Kovacic said. “We are doing good in our league and we are doing good in all competitions so this team wants to play football, we enjoy it, and every game we have an opportunity to show ourselves, so tomorrow we will be prepared and give our best to win the game.

“We are still unbeaten and we have not played at our highest level. We are with the coach only three months and of course it needs time to understand completely and to work on his football. I think we are doing a great job and I am sure in every training and every game we will be better and better.”

Sarri’s pattern of rotating his entire back line appears set to continue as Emerson, Andreas Christensen, Gary Cahill and David Zappacosta are likely to feature in front of Kepa Arrizabalaga.

BATE, who have wrapped up their 13th consecutive domestic title, have won three on the bounce since their loss to Chelsea and are coming off a 1-0 victory over Neman Grodno on Sunday. Yevegniy Berezkin came off the bench in the 77th minute and scored the winner two minutes from time.

The Tractor Boys have lost their last two group matches after winning at Midi, and the seven goals shipped in those two defeats have left them at the bottom of Group L at the halfway point. BATE will be keen to contain Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who ran riot in the reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge and accounted for all of Chelsea’s offence in the 3-0 victory.

We have followed all the games Chelsea have played. Videoton played well, had plenty of chances and could have got a different result. They are an example for us,” BATE manager Alyaksey Baha told BT Sport. “We analyse the games (against Arsenal) so we learnt from our mistakes. Now, a year later we are here in England, in London, playing against a top club, and we hope for a better result this time.”

Chelsea have outshot opponents 73-15 through the first three matches of group play and have won six consecutive Europa League matches dating back to a loss to Ruben Kazan in 2013. BATE have just two wins in their last 15 Europa League matches (2-5-8) while shipping 33 goals.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are decided favourites to make the group a fait accompli with 4/11 odds to take home all three points. There are 15/4 odds for the teams to split the points, while hosts BATE are a 17/2 pick to pull off an upset and improve their chances of getting out of the group.

The Blues are almost even money to win with a result of more than 2.5 goals at 21/20, while a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline — they posted a 0-1 result at PAOK in their other group play contest on the road — has a 5/2 return. The odds of a deadlock at 0-0 and 1-1 are 15/4, while BATE has 16/1 odds for a victory on either side of the 2.5 threshold.

Oddsmakers have listed nine Chelsea players and the “no goal-scorer” ahead of BATE’s top option for the first goal of the match. Eden Hazard leads the line at 16/5, while Chelsea’s strikers Morata and Olivier Giroud are joint-second at 7/2. Willian follows at 9/2, edging out Callum Hudson-Odoi and fellow winger Pedro (5/1). Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek lurk slightly further back at 6/1. The top picks for BATE are Nikolai Signevich and Igor Stasevich at 12/1.

No one on Chelsea is better than even money to score, though Hazard (21/2), Morata and Giroud (both 23/20) are close. Willian is also a favourite among the oddsmakers at 8/5 while Hudson-Odoi and Pedro (both 7/4) and Loftus-Cheek and Barkley (19/10) also have shorter odds than 2/1. Signevich (7/2) edges out Stasevich (4/1) for the top BATE option to put one in the back of the net.

PREDICTION

One of the more interesting things about Chelsea is that they are as capable of grinding down opponents for a 1-0 victory or cruising by them 3-0. This match has the feel of the former given Chelsea’s previous road exploits in group play and the fact Sarri has committed to rotating his players more consistently, evidenced by changing over his back line and finding a way to get Loftus-Cheek involved.

By bringing Kante for Fabregas, it is possible the midfield could be Loftus-Cheek, Kovacic and Kante from left to right. Regardless of the trio, the primary task besides scoring must be to get Olivier Giroud involved in his return. The France international has four assists, tied for the most among Chelsea players — but has yet to open his scoring account.

The fact Chelsea have gone 16 matches without a loss and without a goal from Giroud is a testament not only to the talent the Pensioners have but also just how well they have taken to Sarri’s tactics and how well he has quickly figured out this squad.

Hazard likely will not become a factor in this match until the hour mark, unless Chelsea are trailing at the interval, and then the 45-minute estimation Sarri offered would come into play. Otherwise, this reeks of a blue-collar match in which Chelsea will control the ball similar to the 60 percent possession they had at Stamford Bridge. It would seem less likely Loftus-Cheek will strike for another hat trick, but one goal could be enough to see off the Tractor Boys.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: BATE Borisov 0, Chelsea 1.

OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 4 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (3-0-0, 9, +6) vs. Sporting CP (2-0-1, 6, +2)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 10 Preview — Burnley (2-2-5) vs. Chelsea (6-3-0)

Ruben Loftus-Cheek certainly caught Maurizio Sarri’s attention with his three-goal outburst in Europa League play. Yet the only way to win playing time under the Italian is to pay the same attention to deal defensively as Chelsea look to remain unbeaten on the season Sunday when they face Burnley at Turf Moor.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Fairly or unfairly, high hopes were pinned on Loftus-Cheek following England’s run to the World Cup semifinals this summer, when the 22-year-old showed plenty of promise and industry as a bustling midfielder with physical presence. He displayed flashes of that potential as a full-time starter on loan last season at Crystal Palace, who he helped overcame a dreadful start to a mid-table finish in the Premier League.

In his first season at Stamford Bridge, Sarri wanted to keep Loftus-Cheek at Chelsea (6-3-0), but he became surplus to goods to a degree with the arrival of Mateo Kovacic on loan from Real Madrid in the deal that sent keeper Thibaut Courtois to the reigning three-time Champions League winners.

Loftus-Cheek was also set back by injuries in the early part of the season, but he has been frustrated at dropping below both Kovacic and compatriot Ross Barkley in the pecking order at left midfield while playing just 99 minutes in all competitions heading into Thursday’s match versus BATE Borisov.

But for one glorious hour, all those frustrations washed away as Loftus-Cheek became the first Chelsea player in 12 years to strike for a hat trick in European competition, powering the Pensioners to a 3-1 victory that gave them a firm grip atop Group L. He scored twice in the first eight minutes before being gifted a soft third by BATE keeper Denis Scherbitski and also became the first English-born player to score three goals in a European contest since Peter Osgood and Tommy Baldwin combined for eight goals against Jeunesse Hautcharage in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1971.

“He played very, very well,” Sarri told Chelsea’s official website. “In the offensive phase, wonderful. I thought before, from the beginning of the season, he was really a very good player.

“Now I think the same, but I think maybe also he is more suitable to my football. He is improving. He also needs to improve in the defensive phase, but not only Loftus.”

Overall, Sarri made eight changes to the XI that drew Manchester United 2-2 last weekend, and he understands the affection the club and supporters have for Loftus-Cheek, who has come through the team’s academy. But the first-year manager was in constant communication with the midfielder during the match making sure he was positioned correctly on defence, and grasping those concepts may be the only way Loftus-Cheek cracks the league lineup or the match day 18.

“I know the fans love him, of course, because he was in the Academy. That’s normal,” Sarri noted. “It is very difficult to solve the tactical problem without an improvement in the defensive phase of these three midfielders. We can try, but we need to work and I need the cooperation of the players.”

Chelsea enter this match third in the table, ahead of London rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal on goal difference while trailing reigning champions Manchester City and Liverpool on goal difference. Staying unbeaten, though, could be challenging if star winger Eden Hazard – who has a team-high eight goals in all competitions – is unable to play. Sarri held him out of Thursday’s match with a back injury, and the Belgium likely will be a match-time decision for this contest.

If Hazard is unable to play, Willian will likely replace him on the left wing as he did Thursday on the attacking line with Spaniards Alvaro Morata and Pedro. Centre-forward Olivier Giroud failed to distinguish himself Thursday, which means Morata is all but certain to lead the line as Sarri has been playing the hot hand at that position.

Burnley (2-2-5) can no longer use the Europa League preliminary rounds hangover as an excuse for their wildly inconsistent play as they try to re-discover the form that fueled their seventh-place finish last term. The Clarets’ bid to extend their unbeaten streak to four matches in league play was roundly swatted by Manchester City, who put them to the sword by a 5-0 count at the Etihad last weekend.

Sean Dyche’s team was competitive in the first half and trailed 1-0 at the interval, but goals two minutes apart by Bernado Silva and Fernandinho early in the second turned the final half-hour into a training ground exercise for the champions, who ruined Burnley keeper Joe Hart’s return to the City grounds as an opponent for the first time after a decade of service with the team.

“The feeling of frustration is a not nice one,” said Hart, who made 348 appearances for City before joining Burnley in the summer, to the club’s official website. “I appreciated the reception, but I came here as a Burnley player and the only thing I cared about was trying to get a result for us, so it wasn’t the perfect day.”

The good news for Burnley is they are closer to resembling the full-strength side that performed so well last term to earn European play. Steven Defour saw his first action last weekend after missing nine months due to injury, while midfielder and Ireland international Robbie Brady could be among the 18 for this contest after being sidelined nearly 10 months.

“It’s great to see Steve back,” forward Sam Vokes said. “He’s been a huge player for us over the last few years and I think we’ve missed him. He had some hard luck with that injury and to see him back playing in the Premier League is definitely good news.

“Robbie has done well for us in the past, as well, and had that terrible injury last Christmas time … those two lads will just add to the competition in the squad at the minute.”

Burnley have a win and a draw in their four matches at Turf Moor, but four of their six goals came in their waxing of Bournemouth last month.

The road team won both matches last season, with the Clarets pulling off a shock 3-2 scoreline over the 10-man Pensioners on the first match day to ruin the start of their title defence. Vokes had a first-half brace around a goal by Stephen Ward before Burnley saw off a furious late rally.

Chelsea returned the favour with a 2-1 victory at Turf Moor in April, with Victor Moses’ goal on 69 minutes proving to be decisive. They are 5-2-1 in Premier League matches versus the Clares.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are prohibitive favourites to take all three points with 1/3 odds, and there are 15/4 odds on the teams leaving the Turf Moor pitch with a point apiece. The odds of Burnley claiming all three points and taking a huge step towards the middle of the table are 17/2.

Chelsea have 21/20 odds to win the match with more than 2.5 goals scored, which seems reasonable considering Man City put five past Hart at the Etihad. The Pensioners are also a 12/5 pick to win by either a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline. Burnley have 16/1 odds to win on either side of the 2.5 goals threshold, while a 0-0 or 1-1 draw is listed at 19/4.

Despite his uncertain status, Hazard still leads the line for options among first goal-scorers at 16/5, nudging out Morata and Giroud at 7/2. Chelsea’s other wingers — Pedro and Willian — are joint-fourth at 11/2, with Barkley 15/2. Burnley forwards Vokes and Chris Wood are the top options to give the hosts a 1-0 lead, with both listed at 10/1.

Hazard is just above even money to score over the course of the 90 minutes at 21/20, closely trailed again by his centre-forwards at 6/5. Pedro and Willian are again paired together, this time at 9/5, while Barkley has 12/5 odds at putting one past Hart. Vokes edges out Wood for Burnley’s top any-time option at 3/1, just ahead of Wood’s 16/5 listing.

PREDICTION

If there was one match where Sarri could afford to at least not start Hazard as a precautionary measure, it would be this one. Whether it be Moses, Willian or even Callum Hudson-Odoi replacing the Belgium international, the Italian has made Chelsea a well-oiled machine currently good enough to at least compensate for Hazard’s absence as a one-off ahead of a busy stretch of schedule that includes a Carabao Cup tie and a trip to BATE.

Of course, Hazard is probably campaigning to be included in the XI given how much he has come to enjoy playing Sarri-ball, but the manager has the depth at Hazard’s position to be judicious and also the luxury of bringing a well-rested back four that into this match after they were given Thursday night off. The combination of Antonio Rudiger and David Luiz should be enough to see off the challenge of Vokes or potentially Chris Wood.

It also would not be surprising to see Barkley selected over Kovacic given the latter played against BATE.

Burnley continue to confound. There is almost this expectation every week that “this is the match they get it right,” then everyone is flummoxed by the result like the one that happened versus City. Granted, most teams outside the “Big Six” have the potential to be caught in the avalanche that is Manchester City’s offence on any given match day, but it was still surprising to see the Clarets deflate after that second goal, controversial or not.

Burnley had played better prior to that beatdown, but they will get no favours here from Chelsea. The Pensioners are an improved offensive team compared to last year’s two matches under predecessor Antonio Conte, and the sides who play systems — save their rout of Bournemouth — have given the Clarets trouble all season.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Burnley 0, Chelsea 2.

OTHER MATCH DAY 10 PREVIEWS:

Brighton and Hove Albion (3-2-4) vs. Wolverhampton (4-3-2)
Southampton (1-3-5) vs. Newcastle United (0-2-7)
Manchester United (4-2-3) vs. Everton (4-3-2)
Tottenham Hotspur (7-0-2) vs. Manchester City (7-2-0)