While Tottenham Hotspur were left to survey the wreckage of a doomed Uefa Champions League campaign, last season’s hard work undone by a perfect storm of a haunted house (Wembley), superior opponents (Monaco) and a manager intent on ignoring his best line-up (Maurico Pochettino), their opponents on Saturday will have spent the past week plotting how to inflict a first Premier League defeat of the season on the North Londoners.
Antonio Conte's Chelsea have no European distractions this season and it is ominous that they sit top of the Premier League while the rest of their top-four rivals, save for Liverpool, all have continental commitments that will stretch into the new year.
While the Italian has taken the plaudits for the upturn in Chelsea’s trajectory since a harrowing 3-0 defeat to Arsenal in September, it is worth noting that he always had within his squad enough star wattage to light up the City of London.
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Eden Hazard is on course to best a 2014/15 campaign that garnered Premier League, League Cup and twin player-of-the-year titles. Diego Costa has gone from beast to beauty and the limited edition 1,000 horsepower N’Golo Kante that drove Leicester City to the title last season looks like doing the same for Chelsea this time around.
Astute signings such as Marcos Alonso coupled with rediscovery of form (Pedro) and reinvention of the wheel (Victor Moses) are also a reflection of a manager adept at making the best use of his resources. Perhaps Conte’s greatest achievement in a run of six league games that has yielded six wins, 17 goals and none conceded though is finally finding a position where David Luiz can flourish.
While the thought of him being the last line of defence in what was a fragile back four was enough to give Chelsea fans sleepless nights, the idea mooted for him to anchor a midfield overlooked his ability to go walkabout from a position that requires diligence and discipline.
They say hindsight is a wonderful thing but foresight is better. Making Luiz the spare man in a back three now seems like the position he was born to play, but it was Conte who peered into his crystal ball and saw the benefits of playing the Brazilian where his speed, strength and passing could be best utilised, as well as giving him licence to step out with the ball.
While many see him as a headless chicken, Luiz is given a run outside his coop because Conte has two loyal shepherds. In Cesar Azpilicueta, Conte has the most versatile and underappreciated defender in the league, a right-back, converted to a left-back who now performs sterling at centre-back one side of Luiz. In front of them at the base of midfield alongside Kante is Nemanja Matic, Chelsea’s very own Sergio Busquets: tidy, efficient, strong and athletic, and a player who takes one stride to cover ground where others need three.
While it is the aforementioned Conte, Hazard, Costa and Kante that take the headlines, the protection Azpilicueta and Matic provide are the foundations on which Chelsea’s stability is based.
The match at Stamford Bridge on Saturday will be a third straight London derby for Spurs and the first against Chelsea since the infamous 2-2 draw that handed Leicester the title last season at the expense of Pochettino’s side. Tottenham remain the only unbeaten team in the league, but a return of one win in the last nine should give Chelsea extra motivation to break Spurs hearts again.
Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat to Monaco in the French principality exposed telling deficiencies in Pochettino’s squad. A game they could not afford to lose was as good as surrendered before kick off with the omission of half of a back four that boasts the meanest defence in England’s top flight in favour of inferior understudies.
Jan Vertonghen’s composure was desperately needed against a classy and vastly underrated Monaco team while Kyle Walker’s threat at right-back would have checked the lively Benjamin Mendy and perhaps had him heading back towards his own goal instead of towards Tottenham’s at will.
It was telling after the Monaco match that Pochettino questioned his players’ mentality to manage expectations and the pressure of twin assaults on the Premier League and Champions League only three months after saying he had assembled a squad capable of doing exactly that.
The game at Stamford Bridge represents a final measuring stick for the Argentine to gauge his squad’s qualities against top-four challengers.
Draws against Liverpool and Arsenal, as well as an assured victory over Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, represent a fine return for any club. Victory would turn the conversation from top four to genuine title contenders where as defeat would mean a reevaluation of targets this season and make the disquiet around Pochettino’s recent signings and selections much more audible.
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