“I don’t know [how to beat Pep Guardiola],” Maurizio Sarri’s admission in lead up to Chelsea’s incredibly difficult fixture against Manchester City is symbolic of the sort of candidness Chelsea fans have come to expect from the Italian, but many fear it also reeks of a defeatist attitude from the former Napoli manager prior to such a crucial game for the Blues.
Chelsea have lost two of their last three league matches, most recently to the newly promoted Wolverhampton Wanderers in the midweek when Sarri’s side had a collective brain freeze and embarrassed themselves at the Molineux. Manchester City, on the contrary, have nothing short of steamrolled their way to the top of the table, remaining unbeaten in the season so far. So have Liverpool, by the way, who remain just two points off Guardiola’s side but City’s exuberant confidence during matches is a sight to behold, for it only comes from teams at their finest.
It is a barely concealed fact that Guardiola has the perfect players in his squad for his choice of tactical system and a strong enough bench to navigate through both the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League, but that Manchester City would be devastatingly lethal in consecutive seasons surprised many.
Guardiola's side not only look invincible but seem capable of going the distance in all competitions, although they are prone to occasional missteps as against Lyon or for a period against Watford when the Hornets pushed back against City with all their might in the midweek.
For Guardiola, the only concern ahead of the Chelsea match would be Sergio Aguero's fitness and whether to start Gabriel Jesus up front or take a chance on the in-form Raheem Sterling to lead the line. City's wide forwards are in tremendous form and Chelsea's shaky defence will be in for a tough night if they are on song.
Sarri, meanwhile has a multitude of problems to solve with Chelsea all but unravelling in November. Sarri's system doesn’t work without Jorginho at the centre of the pitch, although it takes away from N'Golo Kante's effectiveness, thereby weakening Chelsea’s defensive prospects.
David Luiz and Marcos Alonso have consistently underperformed in the last few weeks, but the gaffer’s refusal to replace them has cost Chelsea so many points over the season that a loss tonight would keep them thirteen points adrift of Guardiola’s side. It isn’t simply the fact that Sarri doesn’t have all the pieces to the jigsaw puzzle which his system is, but also the poor form of his key players.
Eden Hazard's form, although the Belgian is still creating chances, has cooled down slightly and Alvaro Morata's struggles are clear for everyone to see. The Spaniard has flattered to deceive on most occasions and every productive performance has been followed up by a couple of underwhelming ones, a trait which not only messes up Morata’s confidence but also Chelsea’s momentum.
And it is momentum and time to settle down into Sarri’s system which Chelsea need the most at this point. Sarri is most definitely short of a few key players in the defence and the attacking setup, especially with the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ethan Ampadu still getting integrated into the first-team. Considering the fact that Manchester City and Pep Guardiola has already had a two-season headstart on that aspect, Chelsea succumbing to the visitors should not surprise regular observers of the game.
After all, the scenario wasn’t much different when Manchester City travelled to Stamford Bridge during Guardiola and Conte's first seasons in England, when City struggled spectacularly. It was last season's 1-0 victory, however, which firmly established Manchester City's title challenge.
“Winning there last season – it felt like more than three points,” Guardiola said, before adding, “it showed we could do it, the first important game away against the last champions. We could say after that we could go anywhere and deliver a good performance. Since then we have continued in that vein and that is what makes me most proud, the consistency we have shown in the last 15 or 16 months.”
The Spaniard also opined, “Stamford Bridge is never an easy place to go and get a result, I have been there a few times and lost, and this game is our last one away from home against one of the five hypothetical strong teams in the league.”
Manchester City are likely to establish an unassailable lead by Christmas in spite of Liverpool’s excellence, a sheer testimony to their finesse and Guardiola’s profundity. Chelsea would be fairly happy to secure Champions League qualification for next season, but more than their results, it is the performance of the Blues and Sarri’s reluctance to switch his personnel which is worrisome for Chelsea fans.
Adapting to the trials of the English Premier League is no mean feat and the day this Chelsea side thoroughly embraces Sarri’s system, the Blues could very well dictate terms of the league like Manchester City.
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Updated Date: Dec 08, 2018 16:06:46 IST