2018-19 EPL Match Day 23 Preview — Arsenal (12-5-5) vs. Chelsea (14-5-3)

Potential players comings and goings are all the talk ahead of Saturday’s mouth-watering London derby at the Emirates between top-five sides Chelsea and Arsenal.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

For fourth-place Chelsea (14-5-3), the rumours are that Gonzalo Higuain could be available for this match if the Pensioners are able to formally complete a loan deal with AC Milan and register him before the 12 p.m. Friday deadline.

If the signing goes through as expected, it would be a reunion of the Argentina international and coach Maurizio Sarri – their one season together at Napoli in 2015-16 resulted in Higuain scoring 36 goals in 35 league matches. That haul matched Gino Rosetti’s mark for most goals in the Italian top flight set in 1928-29 as Napoli finished runners-up to Juventus.

Higuain moved to Juventus in 2016 and totaled 40 goals in 73 league matches to help the Bianconeri win the scudetto each of the last two years. With the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus this season, the 31-year-old Higuain was surplus to goods and loaned to AC Milan, where he has six goals in 15 Serie A contests and eight in 22 overall.

With Higuain’s arrival comes the expected departure of Alvaro Morata, who has similar numbers – nine goals in 23 matches in all competitions – to the Argentine but has never truly found a comfort level in Sarri’s 4-3-3 formation.

Morata’s likely move back to Spain – Atletico Madrid is reportedly his destination – would leave Higuain and Olivier Giroud as Chelsea’s lone centre-forwards, a position where Sarri has not had more than two players all season while also using Eden Hazard in that role as a false nine.

In the event Higuain is not registered in time for this match, he would likely make his Chelsea debut Thursday in the second-leg semifinals of the Carabao Cup at Stamford Bridge where the Pensioners will attempt to overturn a 1-0 deficit to Tottenham Hotspur.

Less than 13 kilometres to the north, the talk regarding Arsenal (12-5-5) again centers around Mesut Ozil. The former Germany international has been working his way back from an injury, but there have been times first-year manager Unai Emery has opted not to use Ozil, citing “matchups.”

Ahead of a match which could all but scuttle any chance of a top-four finish for the Gunners – a loss would leave them nine points adrift of Chelsea – Emery continued to be non-committal on what the midfielder’s role would be if he had one.

“I like to create the same spirit for all, and that spirit is every player gets and gives consistent work and moments with their performances but it’s not easy,” Emery told Arsenal’s official website about whether the whole Ozil saga is frustrating. “Sometimes you are better and sometimes you are worse. The most important thing for me is how he can helps us and how every player can help us with their consistency.”

Emery downplayed talk of Ozil potentially leaving in the January window but also did not commit to having him on the roster for the derby, simply saying that “after these two weeks maybe this Saturday will be okay for him.”

On the pitch, the Gunners seemed to be in need of Ozil considering their lack of playmaking options in a 1-0 loss at derby rival West Ham United. The lack of creativity was made all the more glaring as one-time Arsenal midfielder Samir Nasri provided the cross for Declan Rice’s 48th-minute goal that proved decisive.

Aaron Ramsey tried to make something in his minutes as a substitute – Emery’s decision to drop him from the first XI was curious considering he also had fellow midfielder Lucas Torreira on the bench – but there was something clearly lacking from the Gunners, who are 3-1-4 in all competitions after having gone unbeaten in 23 matches.

“I think Saturday is a big test and our first objective is to be in the top four,” Emery said. “It’s more difficult after our defeat against West Ham but we can take positives, like if we win on Saturday.

“It’s a difficult, tough match and I think it’s a good test for us also. We wanted to go into this match with three points difference in the table, but our defeat at West Ham doesn’t give us this possibility. But Saturday, I am looking forward to playing this match because I want to look at my team, our team, playing with a good performance and also to show our supporters we can do more and we can do better than we are doing away.”

Chelsea, who may have felt unlucky to lose to Spurs mid-week, channeled that frustration into a 2-1 win over Newcastle United last weekend. Willian ended a 10-match goalless drought with his go-ahead marker on 57 minutes, a well-taken shot after being set up by Hazard – playing the false nine as Morata failed to rate to be on the bench, where Giroud watched all but the final three minutes.

The Pensioners controlled the match for the final half-hour after a lack of focus following Pedro’s goal allowed Newcastle to draw level before halftime.

“It’s an important win, it’s three points at home and we did the job,” said David Luiz to Chelsea’s official website after his long ball set up Pedro’s goal on nine minutes. “It was not an easy game for us. I think we could have killed the game in the first 25 minutes, but we didn’t score the second goal.

“In the Premier League every team can be dangerous from set-pieces and that is what happened. ‘They scored the equaliser and after that it is always difficult but I think the team was mature enough to be calm at half-time. Then, in the second half, we controlled the game and scored the second goal.”

Though Higuain is close to signing, there is still no understudy for midfielder and playmaker Jorginho following Cesc Fabregas’ departure to Monaco. Based on the current roster, Hazard, Ross Barkley or Mateo Kovacic would handle such responsibilities if the Italy international were to be sidelined.

Chelsea are seeking their first league double over Arsenal since the 2015-16 season after winning the reverse fixture 3-2 at Stamford Bridge in August. The first half was marked by frenetic bursts of clubs transitioning to their first-year managers – Chelsea raced to a 2-0 lead in the first 20 minutes on goals by Pedro and Morata, only to have Arsenal peg them back before halftime through Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Iwobi four minutes apart.

Hazard entered as a substitute on the hour and set up Marcos Alonso for the match-winner on 81 minutes. Chelsea are 1-3-2 in their last six visits to the Emirates but 4-4-2 in their last 10 league matches there.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Chelsea are 7/5 favourites to complete their double over Arsenal, who are 2/1 home underdogs. The odds of the sides splitting the points are a 13/5 longshot among the options.

Based on the reverse fixture, oddsmakers are expecting goals in this contest as well as there are 4/6 odds for more than 2.5 goals compared to 6/5 odds to finish under that bar. There also 8/15 odds for both teams to score compared to the 11/8 offering of an ending with at least one clean sheet.

Despite being underdogs, Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is the favourite to open the scoring at 7/2, edging out both Hazard (4/1) and Giroud (5/1). Alexander Lacazette (11/2) and Morata (6/1) round out the top five, with Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi and Arsenal youngster Eddie Nketiah both 7/1 options.

Aubameyang is the only player better than even money at 10/11 for a goal over 90 minutes, while Hazard is 11/10 and Giroud rounds out the top three choices at 11/8. Lacazette checks in at 6/4, followed by Morata (7/4) and both Hudson-Odoi and Nketiah at 2/1. Chelsea wingers Willian and Pedro lurk further back at 11/5 and 5/2, respectively.

Ozil is a 9/4 option to score during the match and a 9/1 longshot to make it 1-0 to the Arsenal.

PREDICTION

If the projected Arsenal XI above happens to be the actual starting XI, there is a very large question that needs to be asked of Unai Emery: Who is going to create in the middle of the park for the Gunners in that set-up?

Neither Xhaka nor Torreira are true 10s, and if the Gunners use a three-man back with the pair as shields, Emery is all but ceding possession to Jorginho to let him ping passes all over the attacking third for Chelsea. And that does not even begin to speculate on how Hazard could conceivably drift between Xhaka and Torreira and in front of Arsenal’s back three to draw a higher lane before laying the ball off to Willian or Pedro.

Some of the gloss has clearly come off Emery in recent weeks as Arsenal have regressed to the mean to a degree. Couple that with resurgent Manchester United — who came calling to the Emirates on Friday for a fourth-round FA Cup tie — and there is now the long-awaited hand-wringing that came with the Gunners in this rebuilding season.

Equally off-putting is Arsenal’s lack of movement in the January window, now exacerbated by Ramsey coming to terms to join Juventus next season. On the one hand, it is all well and good that this lingering distraction is put to bed, but as one playmaker is set to leave and a second (Ozil) is both recovering from injury and/or does not rate high enough to consistently make the first XI, it is fair to wonder what the long-term plan is or who a potential midfield target will be come season’s end.

Arsenal will not finish worse than sixth barring an unforeseen disaster, but winning the Europa League will be no easy task — especially if Chelsea are likely going to play with an eye to win it as well with United now mucking things up for a top-four spot. These next two matches are precariously poised for the Gunners, and two losses could create a maelstrom.

For Chelsea, there will be no Higuain for this match, but the eagerly anticipated reunion with him and Sarri will be made for the second leg of the Carabao Cup. Nothing like a little pressure to mark your debut on the Bridge. That said, bringing in Higuain and letting Morata walk — if that does wind up being the case — is going to put a lot of pressure on this club to either re-sign Hazard or command an outrageous transfer fee for the Belgium international.

It could also mark the beginning of a clear-out in the attacking positions in which Chelsea go younger and build around Hazard or find the next superstar to take some of the heavy burden that will accompany Christian Pulisic when he arrives next season.

As for the derby itself, Chelsea appear to be in a much better frame of mind on and off the pitch. They were unlucky losers at Wembley versus Spurs and shook off a lull versus Newcastle last weekend to win.

The reverse fixture against Arsenal will be a reminder the Pensioners cannot switch off like that because the Gunners can make them pay, but if Jorginho and N’Golo Kante can boss the midfield while staying on Arsenal’s half of the pitch, this is a match Chelsea should be able to control and claim three points from.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Arsenal 1, Chelsea 2.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 23 PREVIEWS:

Wolverhampton (8-5-9) vs. Leicester City (9-4-9)
Liverpool (18-3-1) vs. Crystal Palace (6-4-12)
Manchester United (12-5-5) vs. Brighton and Hove Albion (7-5-10)
Southampton (4-7-11) vs. Everton (8-6-8)

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 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)