Manchester City, 16 points clear at the top of the English Premier League standings, host defending champions Chelsea at the Etihad on 4 March, Sunday in what should have been a mouth-watering clash of titans as the business end of the season fast approaches, yet has been demoted to the status of just another encounter between two ‘top-six’ clubs – owing to the league leaders’ supremacy and Chelsea’s stuttering form.
While Manchester City are brimming with confidence following their two successive 3-0 routs of Arsenal last week, Chelsea come into this game with three losses and just the one win (against West Bromwich Albion) in their last four league fixtures – a stretch of results which has left Antonio Conte’s men on the fifth position in the league table, five points adrift of the qualification position for next season’s UEFA Champions League.
The tactical contest between the two managers, stemming from two different schools of footballing ideology, has been intriguing in every encounter between these two clubs, once blamed for the origins of Financial Fair Play in European football. On one end of the spectrum lies Pep Guardiola, whose modification of his trademark Cruffyian style of football to suit the rigours of English football has resulted in the rise of one of the finest ever teams of the Premier League era.
On the other, there is Antonio Conte, whose impressive adaptation to the Premier League last season surprised fans and pundits alike. Chelsea became the first club in 53 years to win the top division title playing three central defenders. One of the highlights of last season was the meeting between these two clubs at the Etihad when Diego Costa’s equaliser fanned Chelsea’s resurgence in the game and paved the path for the eventual title win. Since that momentous occasion, the paths of the two clubs have diverged and how!
Manchester City, strengthening in each and every aspect of their squad, have gone from milestones to milestones and in spite of their FA Cup loss to Wigan last month, are the favourites for a treble. Chelsea, on the contrary, are facing yet another managerial change in the upcoming summer. On Sunday, however, two teams of almost equal quality, helmed by two exceptional managers will take the field but with different purposes – three points will allow Manchester City to wrap up the title quickly and Guardiola to focus solely on European conquests but, three points will hand Chelsea a miraculous edge in the race for ‘top four’ and bring Conte some respite amidst his increasingly fractious relationship with the Chelsea board.
“It’s very important to have the coach and the club with the same ambition: to improve the team, the idea of football and the quality of your players,” Chelsea’s manager, frank as always, pegged the club’s results entirely on the board’s stumbles in the transfer market, perhaps a tad unfairly.
Conte did not mince his words at all. “The club knows very well what is my idea, what is my ambition. That is very clear. When you decide to work with this type of coach, you must understand that you take a coach with great ambition. Not a loser but a winner. And that ambition must always be shared,” the Italian added, which is probably the final knell in his relationship with the club hierarchy.
From a personnel perspective, Benjamin Mendy and Fabian Delph miss out for Manchester City while Chelsea’s Gary Cahill is likely to be excluded for the third consecutive match. While Chelsea’s defense has been culpable for their poor results since the turn of the year, getting on the scoresheet is where Chelsea have primarily fallen short – the London club has scored the least number of goals (50) among the top-six English clubs.
Olivier Giroud could be handed a start as Cesc Fabregas is expected to partner N’Golo Kante in the middle, Eden Hazard and Willian the likely choices in the attacking midfield. Guardiola is expected to field an unchanged line-up from the match against Arsenal and all eyes will be on Sergio Aguero, as the Argentine is just a goal away from racking up 200 goals for Manchester City.
“We cannot think we are perfect. You always have to have something to let the players know we are not good enough,” Guardiola has been adamant to avoid letting in any sorts of complacency; but it is Guardiola’s opposite number who is rightly worried that the defending champions are not ‘actually’ good enough.
Published Date: Mar 04, 2018 11:58 AM | Updated Date: Mar 04, 2018 11:58 AM