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 21 Preview — Chelsea (13-4-3) vs. Southampton (3-6-11)

Chelsea’s needs to find a centre-forward during the January transfer window have intensified as they must make do without Olivier Giroud for the immediate future, starting with Wednesday’s match against Southampton at Stamford Bridge.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Blues (13-4-3), who are provisionally two points clear of Arsenal for the fourth and final Champions League spot, have had only two true centre-forwards on their roster this season – Giroud and Alvaro Morata. While neither has filled up the back of the net – they have combined for six league goals and 11 in all competitions – coach Maurizio Sarri has been able to get by at the position by usually playing the more in-form of the two or by using Eden Hazard as a false No. 9 in his 4-3-3 set-up.

One of those options, however, has been removed in the short-term after Giroud limped off in the second half of Sunday’s 1-0 victory at Crystal Palace with an ankle injury after having a goal chalked off for offsides, and his timetable for a return is unknown. The World Cup-winning France international may not have the goal haul desired of a centre-forward, but his nous and industry in the box – often knocking down long balls for Hazard and the other Chelsea wingers to run onto – is keenly valued by Sarri.

“In the last two days we were a bit unlucky. Yesterday in 10 minutes we had three injuries: (Cesc) Fabregas, (Ruben) Loftus-Cheek and (Danny) Drinkwater,” Sarri told Chelsea’s official website. “Now today Giroud, and we were already without Pedro and (Callum) Hudson-Odoi, so now we are in trouble because in January we have to play every three days.”

That puts the onus on the 26-year-old Morata, who has not scored since Nov. 4 in any competition, to take some of the scoring burden off Hazard, who has a team-best 12 goals overall. The Belgium international had factored in all of Chelsea’s previous five goals in the prior four matches before N’Golo Kante took a weighted pass from David Luiz and scored the match-winner on 51 minutes Sunday.

Chelsea have been linked to AC Milan forward Gonzalo Higuain and Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson as possible moves in the impending transfer window, but there is also the possibility the Blues could recall Michy Batshuayi from Spanish side Valencia or Tammy Abraham from Championship club Aston Villa from their respective loans.

Southampton (3-6-11) continue to scrap in the relegation mix and are 2-0-3 since Ralph Hasenhuttl took over following the sacking of Mark Hughes. The Saints were outclassed 3-1 at home by reigning champions Manchester City on Sunday, though there continue to be glimmers of promise that could help them avoid the drop.

One such moment came in the 37th minute when Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, playing the high press Hasenhuttl wants to use after he can get more practice time in with the club, was able to dispossess a City player and beat Ederson for a short-lived equaliser. Hojbjerg, though, was not around at the end of the match, getting a straight red on 86 minutes for scything Fernandinho with a two-footed challenge and will miss the next three contests.

Hasenhuttl has not been afraid to give everyone a chance to earn minutes as 18-year-old Kayne Ramsay was the latest to make his first-team debut at right back. Hughes had only turned to fellow youngsters Yan Valery and Michael Obafemil shortly before being shown the door, but both – along with Ramsay – are being given every opportunity to win minutes as Southampton need all hands on deck to avoid the drop.

“It was one goal to have a view on all the guys who have practiced under my management and for the young players to have a good experience against a fantastic team,” Hasenhuttl explained to the club’s official website. “That’s what we tried to do and we are always demanding to give these players a chance. I think it was a very important game for Kayne and I think he did a good job.

“It’s our future and we have to work on that. For me, it was an interesting pressure because now the transfer period comes and I have to know which players I can count on.”

Hojbjerg’s absence means Mario Lemina will again be drafted into the midfield. After going to a four-man back against City and giving defenders Maya Yoshida and Jannik Vestegaard off Sunday, Hasenhuttl could opt for the three-man defence he has primarily used since his arrival at St Mary’s.

Chelsea have won seven on the bounce in all competitions between the clubs after a 3-0 victory in the reverse fixture at St Mary’s on Oct. 7. It was Ross Barkley’s coming out party for the Blues as he set up Hazard’s goal on the half-hour before scoring one on 57 minutes. Morata added gloss to the scoreline with a tally that finished a 31-pass movement.

Southampton are 3-5-11 at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League era, with the most recent win coming in 2015. Last season’s 1-0 Chelsea victory was the first time in the last seven matches in London there was a clean sheet.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Chelsea are overwhelming 1/4 favourites to pick up another three points, while Southampton are 9/1 underdogs to pull off a shock scoreline. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 5/1.

Given Southampton’s frailities at the back against better squads, there are 8/15 odds on there being more than 2.5 goals scored in this match compared to 6/4 odds on them finishing under that threshold. The odds of Chelsea posting a clean sheet make the “No” option on both teams scoring a slight favourite at 3/4 compared to even money for “Yes.”

With Giroud expected to be unavailable, Hazard is a strong choice for first-goal scoring honours at 11/4, followed by Alvaro Morata (4/1) and the suddenly in-demand Hudson-Odoi at 9/2. Willian is a 5/1 pick to score first, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek is another step back at 6/1. Ings is Southampton’s top option at 10/1 while Austin is a 14/1 pick to mak it 0-1.

Hazard’s overall form makes him a 4/6 selection to score over the course of 90 minutes, with Morata even money to put one past McCarthy. Chelsea’s wingers — Hudson-Odoi, Willian and Loftus-Cheek — are all better than 2/1 odds, ranging from Hudson-Odoi at 6/5 to Loftus-Cheek at 8/5 with Willian in between (13/10). Ings is an 11/4 pick to score for the Saints, with both Austin and Manolo Gabbiadini both 4/1 options.

PREDICTION

If ever a match called for graft and grind for Chelsea, this is the one as they limp into the end of the holiday fixture list. The Blues have a chance to emerge with three wins on the bounce before likely overturning most of this starting XI for their FA Cup match versus Nottingham Forest.

At the moment, though, means another leaning on a moment of magic from Hazard to secure three points. The Belgium international has seemingly been a part of every key goal — save Sunday — and with the walking wounded seemingly growing with each passing day, Hazard might be the only in-form goal-scorer Sarri has at the moment.

Which, of course, brings us to Morata. The lack of available bodies has forced Sarri’s hand to the point he must start the Spaniard up front. With only 14 minutes under his belt after a four-game absence due to injury, Morata might only be effective for an hour in this match, but he may need to play all 90 minutes out of necessity. There are limitations throughout Chelsea’s roster due to injury — it does not seem out of the question Ross Barkley could wind up in an advanced wing role or that Victor Moses gets a rare start, transfer rumours not withstanding for the one-time Nigeria international.

For Southampton, this is a chance to be obstinate, play behind the ball and try to hit Chelsea on the counter in the bid to take at least one point from this match. The high-pressing style Hasenhuttl wants to use could be in play here since Jorginho is not the swiftest, and playing a triangle attacking style with the playmaker in the hole under the two forwards has proven effective at times versus the Pensioners.

The issue for Southampton is how much of the ball will they see in the attacking third. If the Saints sit back, the answer will be not much since it would turn into the kind of match where Jorginho will be spraying passes and Hazard will look to dart into pockets of space against the Saints’ back three. If Southampton are adventurous and press, it is possible Hazard pick them apart as well, but if they can dispossess Chelsea’s midfielders, there could be goal-scoring opportunities as well.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 1, Southampton 0.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 21 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (11-5-4) vs. Fulham (3-5-12)
Wolverhampton (8-5-7) vs. Crystal Palace (5-4-11)
Newcastle United (4-6-10) vs. Manchester United (10-5-5)
Manchester City (15-2-3) vs. Liverpool (17-3-0)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 18 Preview — Chelsea (11-4-2) vs. Leicester City (6-4-7)

After avoiding the same fate that befell Leicester City in the Carabao Cup quarterfinals midweek, Chelsea look to strengthen their hold on their top-four status Saturday when they host the Foxes at Stamford Bridge.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

First-year coach Maurizio Sarri moved a step closer to winning his first trophy at any level as Chelsea (11-4-2) scraped out a 1-0 victory over Bournemouth to earn a date with derby rival Tottenham next month in the two-legged semifinals. Eden Hazard came off the bench to find the match-winner six minutes from time for the Pensioners, who are unbeaten in four in all competitions (2-2-0) since their surprising loss at Wolverhampton.

Upon completion of the semifinal draw, Chelsea assistant Gianfranco Zola immediately seized on the theme of revenge for Chelsea, who were thoroughly outclassed by Spurs in a 3-1 loss last month. That defeat also was Sarri’s first loss in any competition since taking over in the summer.

“We are happy because some time ago they gave us a good football lesson, and we are looking forward to challenging them again,” Zola told the club’s official website. “I’m sure it’s going to be a different type of game, and I think everybody is very excited to face them again.

“We were hurting (after the league defeat). Too many players underplayed in that game. There are a lot of proud players in our team, and of course they will want to play this game. I am really pleased we are playing against them and I can’t wait.”

Sarri made six changes to the side that won 2-1 at Brighton and Hove Albion, with Hazard making all the difference after his introduction just after the hour. It was his team-leading 10th goal in all competitions for Chelsea, and the Belgium international has a two goals and five assists in his last five appearances while factoring in all but one of the Blues’ eight goals in those contests.

“He is certainly one of the players who has given this club a lot of satisfaction,” Zola said of Hazard, who could be eyeing a move come season’s end. “Considering he is only 27, hopefully he will stay longer with us and become even bigger. I am really looking forward to seeing Eden achieving great things with the club, and to help us coaches achieve something important.”

It will be interesting to see if Sarri sticks with Hazard in a false No. 9 role for a third straight league match after restoring Olivier Giroud to the first XI for the first time in five matches. The France international was thwarted twice trying to add an insurance goal in stoppage time and has not scored in league play since a consolation strike in the loss to Spurs.

Leicester City’s dreams of a semifinal appearance in the Carabao Cup were dashed with a loss to current cup holders Manchester City on Tuesday after playing the reigning league champions to a 1-1 draw. Marc Albrighton pulled the Foxes (6-4-7) level on 73 minutes, but their luck on penalties in this competition finally ran dry as only Harry Maguire beat City goalkeeper Aro Muric from the spot.

Danny Ward, who was between the sticks in shootout victories over Wolves and Southampton in the previous two rounds, was unable to stop any of the four City attempts, though Raheem Sterling missed his try from the spot.

“For us to put on a second half performance like we did, we’ve got to take encouragement and confidence from that and take it to Stamford Bridge,” Albrighton told LCFC TV at full-time. “We’ll go there and put up a good fight and get a result. We’re disappointment because we came so far and took (Manchester City) all the way. We said before if we can get them to penalties we need to make sure we finish them off. We did half of that but didn’t do the full job.”

If Leicester are to get that result Albrighton feels is possible, an improved performance from midfielder James Maddison is vital to the cause. Manager Claude Puel pulled him at halftime in last weekend’s 1-0 loss at Crystal Palace as both the England international and the rest of the team failed to show any aggression in playing a Palace side without top striker Wilfried Zaha.

Maddison, who shares the team lead with Jamie Vardy with five goals in all competitions, had scored the last two goals in the run of play for Leicester City – a span that covered the previous seven matches in all competitions – before Albrighton’s equaliser.

Chelsea took four points from the two meetings last term, with the sides playing out a scoreless draw in the corresponding fixture. The Blues also had a 2-1 victory after extra time in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup as Pedro’s goal on 105 minutes proved decisive.

The Pensioners are unbeaten in their last seven (5-2-0) in all competitions versus Leicester City and 12-2-1 in the last 15 matchups. That lone Foxes victory in London in December 2015, though, was the catalyst that sparked Claudio Ranieri and the Midlands’ side stunning run to the 2016 Premier League title and ended Jose Mourinho’s second stint at Stamford Bridge.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Chelsea are heavy 1/3 favourites to pick up a second victory this week and maintain their top-four status. Leicester City are 10/1 underdogs to pick up just their second win in the last 16 versus the Pensioners. There are also 9/2 odds on the sides splitting the points.

There are 8/11 odds for the clubs to combine for more than 2.5 goals compared to 11/10 odds to finish under the threshold. There is an expectation for at least one clean sheet, with 7/10 odds of one team not scoring compared to 21/20 odds for both teams putting one goal through.

The seemingly irrepressible Hazard leads the goal-scoring options, including an 11/4 status for first-goal honours. Giroud is a 7/2 selection, while fellow striker Alvaro Morata and Callum Hudson-Odoi are both 9/2 options. Willian is 11/2 followed by Pedro and Ruben Loftus-Cheek at 6/1. For the visitors, Jamie Vardy is the top option at 10/1 to provide a 0-1 scoreline, with Kelechi Iheanacho further back at 14/1.

To score over the course of 90 minutes, Hazard and Giroud are both better than even money at 8/11 and 20/21, respectively, to bag a goal, and Morata and Hudson-Odoi are both 13/10. Willian checks in at 13/8, with Pedro and Loftus-Cheek paired together again, this time at 7/4. Vardy leads the line for Leicester at 3/1, with Iheanacho 9/2 and Maddison 5/1.

PREDICTION

While there are undoubtedly some English purists who would love a sumo wrestling-like tussle in the penalty area between Giroud and “Slabhead” Harry Maguire, we all know Sarri has no time for such banalities. Therefore, the expectation is this new-look front three of Pedro, Hazard and Willian will continue until someone figures out how to shut them down.

Bournemouth did show some ability to do so with a five-man back, but Leicester manager Claude Puel has used a back four for all but one match this season in all competitions and is not expected to suddenly vary here ahead of the busy holiday fixtures.

This is a straightforward match to a degree, with the X-factor being whether Leicester City can raise their play in this match. Puel’s benching of Maddison last weekend was probably a good wake-up call to the precocious midfielder, and if the Foxes can stay on the ball, the England international has the pace to find the pockets of space to create threatening chances.

Leicester also always have the fallback option of Route One soccer and sending Vardy on the hunt against Chelsea’s centre back pairing of David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger, though that may not be an optimal route for success.

On the Chelsea side, watch for where Hazard makes his runs with the ball, whether he challenges Maguire or Wes Morgan when he goes forward. Those are the interplay decisions that make Hazard and Sarri such a dynamic tandem — the manager and the player understand each other very well, and it adds to the connectivity between the Belgium international and Jorginho.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 2, Leicester City 0.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 18 PREVIEWS:

Wolverhampton (7-4-6) vs. Liverpool (14-3-0)
Arsenal (10-4-3) vs. Burnley (3-3-11)
West Ham United (7-3-7) vs. Watford (7-3-7)
Everton (6-6-5) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (13-0-4)

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)

 

Europa League Match Day 5 Preview — Chelsea (4-0-0, 12, +5) vs. PAOK (1-0-3, 3, -1)

If this is how Maurizio Sarri is going to respond after a loss, things just got much more interesting at Stamford Bridge with Chelsea.

Still agitated after suffering their first loss in embarrassing fashion, Sarri and Chelsea look to regain some pride and momentum for this weekend’s Premier League play as they host Greek side PAOK in an Europa League Group L match Thursday in London.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

After piling up 14 victories going 18 matches unbeaten in all competitions, Chelsea finally tasted the bitter pill of defeat Saturday, absorbing a 3-1 reverse to Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium. The loss dropped the Blues to fourth in the table, one point better than hard-charging Arsenal and seven points adrift of frontrunners and reigning champions Manchester City.

But the manner of the defeat did not sit well with Sarri. He was tactically outfoxed by Spurs counterpart Mauricio Pochettino, whose decision to play a midfield diamond exposed Jorginho’s lack of pace in his deep-lying midfield role in Chelsea’s 4-3-3 formation. That lack of pace was exacerbated when N’Golo Kante went forward and left patches of open areas where Spurs raced through — Tottenham were two goals to the good after 16 minutes.

The match was done and dusted when Heung-Min Son bamboozled Jorginho on the flank and raced by him and around him before slotting past Kepa Arrizabalaga nine minutes after the re-start. Olivier Giroud grabbed a late consolation with his first Premier League goal, but Sarri was blunt and withering in his critique of Kante at Thursday’s pre-match news conference.

“I want to play a central midfielder who is a very technical player, a Jorginho or Fàbregas,” Sarri said. “I don’t want Kanté in this position. … Kanté, in the last match, wanted to solve the match after the first 15 minutes but in the wrong way,” Sarri said. “He lost his position. He attacked the other box too much. This is not one of the best characteristics of Kanté.

“Maybe it’s only a question of time,” Sarri added. “But Kanté has to stay near to Jorginho, especially when the ball is on the other side.”

The public rebuke was stunning as Kante’s meteoric rise to stardom as a defensive midfielder was instrumental in Leicester City’s shocking Premier League title in 2016 and again with Chelsea under Sarri’s predecessor Antonio Conte the following season. The France international was able to operate in a push-pull tandem with Paul Pogba in helping Les Bleus win the World Cup this summer, and after signing a new five-year deal to stay at Stamford Bridge worth a reported £290,000 per week, the timing of Sarri’s criticisms are sub-optimal.

Ever the diplomat, Giroud defended his compatriot, saying, “I think N’Golo can play every single position in midfield. We don’t need to question his position. He just needs to adapt to what the manager wants.”

Sarri said he met with each player individually to figure out what went wrong as he prepares for Chelsea’s next league match Sunday against fellow Italian, former Chelsea and Leicester City boss, and newly minted Fulham gaffer Claudio Ranieri. Sarri is expected to make wholesale changes for the Pensioners for this contest, with a complete swap of the back four and midfield three expected.

Up front, there will be at least one change as Sarri has ruled out Eden Hazard, who suffered an ankle injury versus Spurs. That comes on top of the back injury that knocked the Belgium international for a few matches earlier this term, but what has irked Sarri is the assorted knocks are costing Hazard training time. Victor Moses will also miss this contest, leaving Pedro and Willian as the likely flanks to either Giroud or Alvaro Morata.

The Blues have already clinched a spot in the knockout round thanks to their 100 percent record and need a draw from either this match or their last contest at Vidi to clinch the top spot in the group. They opened Europa League play with a 1-0 victory at PAOK as Willian’s goal in the seventh minute stood as the difference.

The Greek side have won three on the bounce since their 1-0 defeat at Vidi left them third in the group ahead of BATE on goal difference. PAOK posted a 2-0 victory over Xanthi on Saturday as Aleksander Prijovic scored two minutes after the restart and Mauricio added a second on 65 minutes.

PAOK are five points clear atop the Greek Super League through 11 matches despite a two-point deduction stemming from their abandoned match versus AEK last term. They have only shipped four goals in domestic play, but the calibre of competition has flummoxed Razvan Lucescu’s side, which have yielded five goals in their four group contests.

We are here to win,” Lucescu said at his pre-match press conference. “I hope we took a lesson from the previous game. We have to play perfectly until the final whistle. Every game is different. We have will to fight for a good result. Chelsea is a great team. We have to be focused and concentrated.”

Omar El Kaddouri will miss the final group match if he is booked in this contest.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Chelsea are firm 1/3 favourites to retain their 100 percent record and post a fifth win in group play. There are 9/2 odds on the sides splitting the points, which would also give Chelsea group honours, and a shock scoreline in PAOK’s favour would offer a 10/1 return.

Despite the 0-1 scoreline in the reverse fixture and in three of their four group fixtures, oddsmakers are expecting Chelsea to hit the back of the net on multiple occasions with 8/13 odds on there being more than 2.5 goals compared to 13/10 for fewer.

Morata and Giroud are joint-top options to open the scoring at 9/2, with Willian a 6/1 selection to offer an encore from the reverse fixture. Pedro also has 6/1 odds to make it 1-0 for the hosts, with Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek checking in at 8/1. Prijovic is PAOK’s top choice on the toteboard for a surprise first goal at 9/1 along with teammate Chuba Akpom.

For any-time goal-scorers, the order remains the same for the aforementioned eight players — Giroud and Morata have 5/4 odds, Pedro and Willian 7/4, Barkley and Loftus-Cheek 12/5 and Prijovic and Akpom 11/4.

PREDICTION

At various points in the early part of the season, pundits have taken Sarri to task for what they felt was a sandbagging and playing down of Chelsea’s title hopes as each match passed and they continued to hover around the top of the table with Liverpool and Manchester City. The Pensioners have an intriguing eight days coming up as they travel to Wolverhampton mid-week before their long-awaited showdown with City at Stamford Bridge on Dec. 8.

Maybe Sarri doth protest too much in some regards, but it was growing more clear with each passing match against quality opposition that pushing Kante forward is not his optimal role. Ranieri knew that at Leicester, Conte knew that before Sarri arrived at Stamford Bridge, and the guy who perfected the role of “water-carrier” as a player with Les Bleus — Didier Deschamps — knew that in Russia this summer.

What made Sarri’s broadside all the more compelling is that Kante is a rather private person — he does not talk much about his game or anything. That Giroud spoke up for him speaks volumes about the respect Kante does have in that dressing room because Giroud has a fair amount of equity himself in doing all the dirty work as the knock-down target forward who makes everyone’s lives easier around the penalty area.

This match is one for Chelsea to exhale and let some of the understudies get a run-out, though the Ross Barkley/Mateo Kovacic tussle at left midfield continues to be one of the more underreported position battles on this team — mainly because it affects how often Kante can push forward on the opposite side.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 2, PAOK 0.

OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 5 PREVIEW:

Vorskla Poltava (1-0-3, 3, -3) vs. Arsenal (3-1-0, 10, +6)

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)