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 14 Preview — Chelsea (8-4-1) vs. Fulham (2-2-9)

It is a London derby with a splash of Italian as one-time Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri leads Fulham into Stamford Bridge on Sunday to face Maurizio Sarri and the Blues.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Sarri became the 11th Italian manager in the Premier League era when he succeeded the 10th one – Antonio Conte – this summer. This match marks just the seventh pairing of Italian managers, and Ranieri was involved in two of the previous six, having faced Watford’s Walter Mazzari and Swansea City’s Francesco Guidolin while at Leicester City.

The compatriots hold each other in high esteem and have learned from the other over the decades traversing both Italy and England.

“I spoke with him; he remembers me, he came to me and said ‘can I come to watch your training session?'” Ranieri said at his news conference. “But I think Sarri is not inspired by me, he’s a very good coach, because he arrived so late at the highest level. He deserves it. He has a lot of jobs in his career, and he deserves where he is.”

“Friend is a big word but I like him (Ranieri) very much,” Sarri told Sky Sports. “I visited him in Florence 20 years ago. I think he doesn’t remember this meeting but it was very important for me. “He visited us around 40 days ago to see our training. He spoke to me and Gianfranco (Zola).”

The last time Ranieri was at his old stomping grounds, he was afforded a pre-match honour guard as his Foxes completed their fairy-tale 2015-16 season by lifting the Premier League trophy. Less than three full seasons later, “The Tinkerman” returns to Stamford Bridge trying to rescue a Fulham side who are already three goals shy of matching the 36 the Foxes shipped all season in their championship campaign.

Ranieri did not change much in terms of formation from predecessor Slavisa Jokanovic, who used a 4-3-3 formation that served Fulham (2-2-9) well in their successful promotion bid. In Ranieri’s debut versus Southampton, the Cottagers used a 4-2-3-1 set-up in which Aleksandar Mitrovic served as the target forward with Ryan Sessegnon, Tom Cairney and ex-Chelsea forward Andre Schurrle underneath in attack.

The defence continues to be a problem as Fulham conceded twice in the first half, but there was belief in Fulham, who fought back in the second half with goals from Schurrle and Mitrovic – both set up by Sessegnon – to record a 3-2 victory that snapped a seven-game losing streak in all competitions.

“It’s a new era for the Club with a new manager in charge and the result was a perfect way to start it,” Sessegnon told fulhamfc.com. “We had two really solid training sessions and I believe it showed on the pitch that we are all together.

“That team spirit is massively important. With quite a few of the lads coming back from the international break late, the Gaffer hasn’t had that much time to spend with the whole team. The more we learn from the Manager the more we will be solid going forward.”

The 18-year-old Sessegnon figures to be a key part of Ranieri’s plans to help Fulham avoid the drop – he had just one goal and one assist in the first 12 matches while shuttling up and down the left side at all three levels. It is possible Ranieri views him as the Riyad Mahrez of this team, utilising Sessegnon’s pace and creativity to set up chances for Mitrovic and Schurrle, who have accounted for 12 of Fulham’s 14 goals in league play.

Schurrle, who played for Chelsea from 2013-15 and is on loan from Borussia Dortmund, raised some eyebrows when he said he would likely celebrate if he scored a goal and does not understand the fuss that surrounds the tradition of respecting a former team’s fans.

“I didn’t really think about it. I don’t understand why even fans get angry for a player celebrating,” Schurrle told Sky Sports News. “If I celebrate at Stamford Bridge, it would never be against Chelsea fans or against the club, it will be just for me and the Fulham fans.

“If I should score it will be spontaneous and I hope no one will take offence.”

Chelsea (8-4-1) had a different kind of offence Thursday in Europa League play, offering an emphatic response to their first loss under Sarri with a 4-0 thrashing of Greek side PAOK. The Blues, who had clinched the top spot in Group L before the match, continued their 100 percent record in Europe’s second-tier competition with a first-class result from a largely second-choice side.

The Pensioners played virtually the entire match with a man advantage after Yevhen Khacheridi was given a straight red card in the seventh minute for a tackle from behind. Giroud made the guests pay with a brace in a 10-minute span of the first half. Callum Hudson-Odoi added his first Chelsea goal in the second half before fellow forward Alvaro Morata capped the scoring with a thunderous header on a cross from Hudson-Odoi on 78 minutes.

While Giroud has scored four goals in his last three matches in all competitions, it was clear Sarri was still stewing about last weekend’s 3-1 loss at Tottenham Hotspur when asked if the France international had done enough to supplant Morata in the first XI for this contest.

“No, I don’t think so,” Sarri told The Times. “In the last match the problem was the team and not one or two players. So I think that if there were two different players, it would have been the same. Two strikers scored in this match so, for us, I think that’s really very important to have two strikers with confidence.”

All told, he made nine changes from the side who lost to Spurs, retaining keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and left midfielder Ross Barkley. It is possible, though, all nine players could be back in the starting XI for this match.

What offers the most intrigue for Sarri’s lineup selection is with midfielder N’Golo Kante, at whom the gaffer leveled stinging criticisms for going too far upfield and exposing Jorginho to Tottenham’s pacy attackers.

The key returnee will be winger Eden Hazard, who leads Chelsea with eight goals in all competitions. He picked up a knock to his ankle in last weekend’s loss, and Sarri took no chances with the Belgium international since Chelsea had nothing at stake. Barkley’s start in Thursday’s win could mean Mateo Kovacic starts to the left of Jorginho in the midfield.

This London derby has been one-way traffic in Chelsea’s favour in the Premier League era as the Pensioners are 15-10-1 in those matches. Fulham are 0-5-8 at Stamford Bridge and lost 2-0 in their last visit as a top-flight team in the 2013-14 season. The Cottagers have gone 17 matches (0-7-10) without a win at Chelsea since a 2-0 victory in Division Two back in 1979.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Chelsea are strong 2/11 favourites to claim all three points from this derby, while Fulham are 16/1 underdogs to give Ranieri a happy homecoming and record their first Premier League victory at Stamford Bridge. The odds of the teams splitting the points like Ranieri did in his last visit with Leicester City are 7/1.

Oddsmakers are expecting goals to be scored with the over 2.5 selection getting 4/11 odds compared to 11/5 for under. There are 4/5 odds on a clean sheet in at least one direction, and it is slightly better than even money for both teams to get on the scoreboard at 19/20.

A fully-rested Hazard against a slipshod Fulham defence are two compelling reasons to make the Belgian the odds-on favourite to open the scoring at 3/1 odds. Despite his dismissal of starting Giroud for this match, the France international has edged out Morata for second place with 10/3 odds compared to 4/1 for the Spaniard.

There is still a market for Hudson-Odoi at 9/2, ahead of both Willian and Pedro (11/2), while even Barkley is getting action at 15/2 over his likely replacement Kovacic. For Fulham, Mitrovic is 13th overall on the list at 12/1, and for those who think revenge is a German goal scored cold-bloodedly, Schurrle offers a 20/1 return.

Hazard (4/7), Giroud (4/6), Morata (5/6) and Hudson-Odoi (20/21) all are better than even money to find the back of the net in this contest, with Willian and Pedro just off that line at 6/5. Mitrovic has 3/1 odds, while Schurrle checks in at 11/2 to put one by Arrizabalaga, sharing those odds with Luciano Vietto and Aboubakar Kamara.

PREDICTION

For a week, Fulham got to forget about all the misery, all the talk of relegation, all the lampooning of their defence by beating the one team that arguably should have hired Ranieri before they did in Southampton.

This weekend, however, reality is going to come crashing back down upon the Cottagers. While getting Joe Bryan back helps, this is still an evaluation period for Ranieri, who will likely spend all of December figuring out who exactly his best four are. The only two who appear safe are Mawson and Odoi as a central defence pairing, and the decision to move Chambers up as a defensive midfielder gives Fulham three centre backs for all intents and purposes.

Will it be enough? It’s way too early to tell, but the one thing Cottagers supporters should be heartened by is that Ranieri clearly has gotten through to Sessegnon, whom he absolutely needs on board if Fulham are going to escape the drop. This looks to be a more daunting proposition with each passing week as Huddersfield, Newcastle, and now Cardiff City are picking up points here and there.

On the other side, Sarri rightfully viewed Thursday’s victory as little more than a training ground exercise. Chelsea played with a man advantage against an already-overmatched PAOK side for 83 minutes — they should have won 4-0, Hudson-Odoi should have factored prominently, and both his strikers should have scored.

This match, however, will test the resiliency of Chelsea some. How Kante responds to Sarri’s criticism will be something to watch. How Kante interacts with Jorginho and vice versa will be scrutinised to see if Sarri’s directions are taking hold. It may not be as readily visible because Fulham will likely fail to apply much match pressure on the Pensioners, but these are the things that will determine if Chelsea can hold down a top-four spot as the gap between them and City eventually widens.

In a perfect world, Chelsea are in control of this match by an hour and Sarri can lift Hazard to give him some recovery time before Wednesday’s match at Wolverhampton. There will be smiles and hugs before the match between the two Italian managers, but in the end, there will be a Chelsea victory as expected.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 3, Fulham 0.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 14 PREVIEWS:

Manchester City (11-2-0) vs. Bournemouth (6-2-5)
Southampton (1-5-7) vs. Manchester United (6-3-4)
Arsenal (7-3-2) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (10-0-3)
Liverpool (10-3-0) vs. Everton (6-4-3)

 

2018-19 EPL Match Day 13 Preview: Tottenham Hotspur (9-0-3) vs. Chelsea (8-4-0)

Contenders or pretenders?

Both Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur are in search of three vital points to stay within stalking distance of reigning champions and frontrunners Manchester City when the top-four clubs face off Saturday in a London derby at Wembley Stadium.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Chelsea (8-4-0) are third in the table, four points back of City and one of three unbeatens in the league along with the Citizens and Liverpool. While Maurizio Sarri has made a successful transition to the Premier League from Napoli and the Blues will progress to the knockout rounds of the Europa League, there is a sense there is not much space between where his side are and their ceiling.

The Pensioners are 1-2-0 thus far against the other members of the Big Six, and their showdown at home versus Manchester City looms on Dec. 8. Chelsea beat a similarly transitioning Arsenal squad in Match Day 2 and have been held to draws versus Liverpool and Manchester United, conceding goals in the 89th and 93rd minutes, respectively.

While Chelsea are always among the league leaders with players who toil for their respective countries during the international break, few have drawn as much speculation in the recent recesses than striker Olivier Giroud.

The France international, who has just one goal this season and yet to break his duck in league play, once more tried to put an end to the talk he is unhappy at Chelsea as Sarri has played the hot hand between Giroud and Alvaro Morata – the only two true strikers on the club.

“I feel like I’m going back a few months with these questions, so I asked the same questions before the World Cup,” Giroud told Telefoot after converting a penalty in Les Bleus’ 1-0 win over Uruguay in a friendly. “I’m at peace, happy with this title of world champion, and that’s the best thing I could do in my career, I’m putting a lot of things in perspective.

“I do not need to put a lot of pressure on me to have more play time. I’m not going to let go, I’m going to continue working to make my way in. Today there’s no question of moving, of changing anything, I’m going to hang on, do not count on me for give up.”

While Morata may be Sarri’s first-choice striker, the Italian may be forced into a change in the midfield as Mateo Kovacic was held out of both of Croatia’s matches due to a knock. If he is unable to go, Ross Barkley would take his spot in the starting XI to the left of Jorginho in Chelsea’s 4-3-3 set-up.

Tottenham Hotspur (9-0-3) may finally be ready to kick on after an early season of uneven play, especially in the Champions League. In fact, their lack of success in the continental tournament – the Lilywhites still have heavy lifting to reach the knockout round – has brought a sharper focus in grinding out league results.

The Spurs have six wins in their last seven top-flight matches, the lone reverse a 1-0 defeat at home to City. Last season, their inspired Champions League play in which they finished atop a group with eventual three-times champion Real Madrid led to a lull domestically that contributed to City easing to the Premier League title.

“We are up there. Maybe we haven’t played the best football we have showed for the last few years. But we have still got the points. Sometimes that is necessary,” winger Christian Eriksen told The Mirror. “That is how it goes and at some point if it clicks and we get the points, then we will be different.

“We will go for it and we will see where we end up. We will do our best and then, if we are lucky or not lucky , we will see.”

The big issue for Mauricio Pochettino heading into this match is depth on the back line. Left back Danny Rose and centre back Davinson Sanchez remain long-term injury absentees, and right back Kieran Trippier is unlikely to play after suffering an injury in the 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace prior to the international break.

Jan Vertonghen was expected to be sidelined until next month, but the Belgium international could be in line to make a return for this contest. If Pochettino wants to be conservative and not reunite Vertonghen with his compatriot Toby Alderweireld, Juan Foyth would get another call to central defence.

Serge Aurier would get the call should Trippier not be able to play.

This match kicks off an intense eight-day stretch for Tottenham, who have a must-win Champions League encounter at home versus Inter Milan midweek before a north London derby at Arsenal on Dec. 2.

The road team won both matches last term, with Dele Alli helping Spurs end their 28-year run of misery at Stamford Bridge with a brace four minutes apart in the second half of a 3-1 victory. Chelsea recorded a 2-1 win at Wembley as left back Marcos Alonso completed his brace on 88 minutes, making sure an own goal by Michy Batshuayi would not result in a draw.

Chelsea have an impressive 30-19-6 record versus their London rivals in the Premier League era and have taken points in 16 of the last 19 meetings in all competitions (9-7-3).

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are slight favourites to claim all three points and further burnish their title credentials with 6/4 odds for a victory. Spurs have 17/10 odds to pip the Pensioners for third while handing Sarri his first defeat, and there are 12/5 odds on the teams finishing in a deadlock.

There are 27/10 odds on Chelsea winning with more than 2.5 goals, with Spurs offering a 3/1 return on such an outcome for them. A 0-0 or 1-1 draw has 15/4 odds, and both sides have 11/2 odds on a victory with less than 2.5 goals. A 2-2 draw and higher has 17/2 odds.

In a match with attacking superstars, Kane rises highest to be the odds-on favourite to open the scoring at 10/3, followed by Chelsea’s Eden Hazard at 9/2. The striker tandem for the Blues — Morata and Giroud — follow their teammate as the Spaniard has 5/1 odds and the Frenchman 11/2. Spurs reserve striker Fernando Llorente rounds out the top five at 6/1, and there are a host of players at 8/1 — Heung-Min Son, Erik Lamela, Willian, Lucas Moura and Pedro.

Kane is narrowly better than even money to score during the course of the match at 91/100, with Hazard above the threshold at 7/5. Morata’s form makes him a 17/10 selection, edging out Giroud (7/4). Llorente is further back at 19/10, and the group of scorers at 8/1 for the first goal are again lumped together for an any-time marker as Willian, Pedro, and Moura are 5/2, while Son and Lamela are 13/2.

PREDICTION

This is a match that could go in any direction, especially with Spurs seemingly threadbare at the back in which Alderwiereld — the one wooed by Manchester United in the summer transfer window — the last one standing of the back four. This is also a curious clash of styles — Pochettino is able to strategise on a match-to-match basis and likes to push opponents wide, yet going through the flanks is how Chelsea operate once Jorginho initiates the offence.

Giroud’s comments were interesting, but also interesting is that no one seems to have any idea if Chelsea will add a third striker in the January transfer window. One of the appealing parts of Sarri to Chelsea was the gaffer’s perceived indifference to the comings and goings on of the market, but it also seems impossible a man who gets to granular levels on tactics is wholly ignorant of who is available and more importantly, who can help Chelsea.

And that is the issue right now because despite not having a loss, Chelsea need help. Or at the very least, Morata and Giroud must score goals. Both have played well in spurts and both are willing foot soldiers, but at some point, they have to put goals on the scoreboard. Otherwise, these late concessions that have already cost the Pensioners four points on two occasions will cost them three in one.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Tottenham Hotspur 1, Chelsea 2.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 13 PREVIEWS:

West Ham United (3-3-6) vs. Manchester City (10-2-0)
Fulham (1-2-9) vs. Southampton (1-5-6)
Bournemouth (6-2-4) vs. Arsenal (7-3-2)
Watford (6-2-4) vs. Liverpool (9-3-0)

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)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 11 Preview — Chelsea (7-3-0) vs. Crystal Palace (2-2-6)

After a curiously ragged Carabao Cup victory, Chelsea look to continue their unbeaten ways Sunday when they host Crystal Palace in a London derby at Stamford Bridge.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Blues (7-3-0) have yet to lose under first-year manager Maurizio Sarri, also winning three Europa League matches and two in the Carabao Cup following a 3-2 victory Wednesday over former Chelsea star-turned coach Frank Lampard and Derby County – who used a pair of Chelsea players on loan after consent from the top-flight side.

Chelsea won despite scoring just one goal themselves as Derby gifted the Pensioners a pair of own goals inside the opening half-hour – goals they canceled out with quick responses on both occasions.

Cesc Fabregas scored what proved to be the match-winner in the 41st minute as Chelsea claimed a spot in the round of eight opposite Bournemouth. While some of the defensive issues can be chalked up to swapping out his entire back line as part of eight changes from their 4-0 waxing of Burnley last weekend, Sarri wants things fixed now before the problems grow.

“In the last match I have to say Derby played a very good match,” Sarri told Chelsea’s official website. “We played well in the offensive phase, but a lot of mistakes in the defensive phase. It’s clear we need to improve.

“I am used to having problems like this in the first months. In Burnley I saw a very good performance in the defensive phase. Three days after I saw a lot of mistakes. It means we are a not a continuously solid team at the moment. It’s dangerous.”

With a win or draw, Sarri would match Frank Clark’s Premier League record for an unbeaten start. Clark opened 8-3-0 with a promoted Nottingham Forest side in 1994-95 en route to a third-place finish.

One issue Sarri must contend with is the status of star winger Eden Hazard. The Belgium international did not play against Burnley due to a back injury, and Sarri revealed he practiced for the first time in two weeks in training ahead of this match. The gaffer said Hazard would be “able to play for 40, 45 minutes,” which implies he would be on the bench to start this game and be called upon if needed.

That likely means Willian will switch flanks to take Hazard’s spot on the left, with Pedro expected to return after lasting just a half-hour against Burnley due to stomach issues. With Ross Barkley in splendid form – he has three goals and two assists in his last four matches – he likely gets the nod at left midfield over Mateo Kovacic.

Fellow midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who spent last season on loan at Crystal Palace, likely will be in the mix for the 18 again, but also of note Friday was Sarri ruling out a potential loan for the England international in the January window, noting “Ruben in October played four matches out of five. I think at the moment the situation is not for a loan of course. He has improved, but he needs to improve more from the tactical point of view.”

Crystal Palace (2-2-6) have sorely missed Loftus-Cheek’s industry through the midfield as they have now gone 395 minutes without a goal in the run of play after losing 1-0 at Championship side Middlesbrough – coached by one-time Palace boss Tony Pulis — on Wednesday in the round of 16 in the Carabao Cup.

Roy Hodgson made eight changes to the side that battled to a 2-2 draw versus Arsenal last weekend, getting both goals from the spot via Luka Milivojevic, but the decision to hold out Wilfried Zaha to rest ahead of this match backfired as the Eagles again were grounded in attack.

“Of course it’s a missed opportunity,” Hodgson told The Times while lamenting his side’s poor first half, “but you have to use these competitions. You have a squad of players and you have to give them the chance to play. A lot of them needed a game and none of them let me down at all.”

In addition to holding out Zaha, midfielders James McArthur and Cheikou Kouyate also did not make the trip to Middlesbrough to recover from niggling injuries. Forward Connor Wickham, however, has been ruled out with a thigh injury a fortnight after making his first league appearance in nearly two seasons with a late runout against Everton.

Palace’s last goal in the run of play came from left back Patrick Van Aanholt in their 2-1 loss at Bournemouth on Oct. 1. Zaha has not scored in five league matches dating to his winner versus Huddersfield Town on Sept. 15.

Though Loftus-Cheek could not play against his parent club last season per loan rules, Crystal Palace did split the two matches that finished with 2-1 scorelines. In the fixture at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea got their goals seven minutes apart through Willian and an own goal from Palace defender Martin Kelly.

Van Aanholt pulled one back at the death for the Eagles, who won in their previous two visits to west London. Chelsea are 12-2-4 versus Palace in the Premier League era, including a 6-1-2 mark at home.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Hazard’s iffy status has not deterred oddsmakers from making Chelsea prohibitive favourites with 2/7 odds. The Blues have 9/2 odds to claim at least one point from this contest, while Palace are 10/1 underdogs to claim a third win in four seasons at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea are better than even money to win with a final of more than 2.5 goals at 4/5, while the Pensioners are also a 14/5 pick to win by a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline. There are 6/1 odds on a 0-0 or 1-1 draw, while the Eagles are 18/1 to win with more than 2.5 goals and 22/1 to post a clean sheet while winning by one or two.

Hazard still leads the line for first goal-scorers despite his status, checking in at 16/5 odds. Chelsea’s alternating strikers — Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud — are directly behind the Belgian at 10/3. Wingers Pedro and Willian are 5/1 picks to give the hosts a 1-0 lead, with Barkley a 6/1 selection and Loftus-Cheek 13/2 to score against the team he was loaned out to last term. Zaha is Palace’s top choice at 12/1 for a 0-1 shock scoreline, while Alexander Sorloth and Jordan Ayew are both 16/1.

Hazard is better than even money to score during the match, getting 10/11 odds, and Pedro and Willian are both 6/4 picks to put one past Wayne Hennessey. Morata and Giroud are even money to bag one for Chelsea, while Zaha has 10/3 odds to break his duck for Crystal Palace. As Palace’s penalty taker, Milivojevic offers an intriguing 7/1 return.

PREDICTION

There are two areas of intrigue for this match. One is whether Sarri starts Hazard and tries to put the game to bed early, and the second being whether the Italian has a sentimental streak and starts Loftus-Cheek over Barkley and/or Kovacic in left midfield against his former team. Given his comments about Loftus-Cheek when asked about the possibility of a January loan, it does not seem likely, but since nearly everything Sarri has touched has turned to gold thus far, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

It would be surprising to see Hazard in the first XI given he just returned to practice this week after missing two weeks’ worth. Sarri has enough attacking options at his disposal that he has the luxury of bringing the Belgium international off the bench, but since Chelsea are also all but assured of reaching the Europa League knockout round, he can also give Hazard another week off if his side take care of business in the first hour of this contest.

With Olivier Giroud held out of the Derby County match due to fatigue, it would not be surprising to see him get the start over Morata, though the Spaniard has the better form of the two pure strikers. Given Palace play a deep back four, Giroud’s hold-up and knock-down abilities make the France international a better tactical choice for Sarri as Giroud again looks for his first goal of the season.

In their two matches against “Big Six” sides, Palace held their own in a 2-0 loss to Liverpool that was closer than the scoreline indicates and last weekend’s 2-2 draw versus Arsenal. Both matches, though, came at home, and while Hodgson’s team have gotten better results outside Selhurst Park than in it this campaign, Palace’s lack of form offensively coupled with a decided disadvantage in talent in the midfield means Chelsea should stroll to three points in this contest.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 3, Crystal Palace 0.

OTHER MATCH DAY 11 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (7-1-2) vs. Liverpool (8-2-0)
Wolverhampton (4-3-3) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (7-0-3)
Bournemouth (6-2-2) vs. Manchester United (5-2-3)
Newcastle United (0-3-7) vs. Watford (6-1-3)

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)