After progressing through to the Round of 16 in the Europa League, Chelsea resume their domestic campaign by taking a trip to the Etihad Stadium on Sunday to face a Manchester City side that are in a far distant 2nd place to Manchester United at the top of the table.
In fact, both sides are in rather similar positions with the title effectively out of reach for both, and both sides are hitting a somewhat dodgy patch of results. Chelsea needed a late Eden Hazard strike to beat Sparta Prague midweek while the fallout from Manchester City’s 3-1 defeat to Southampton is still felt in the dressing room. The Blues will feel that victory over City will give them a chance to overtake City for second, while City will be looking to consolidate Manchester United’s lead at the top of the table in hopes that they may slip up in the future.
For the first time in a long time in the league, Rafa Benitez will have a full squad to select from minus Oriol Romeu. Having rested Frank Lampard, Branislav Ivanovic, Ashley Cole, and David Luiz in midweek, the only fitness concern that Chelsea has could be from their Spanish playmaker Juan Mata who more and more frequently is required to play as the focal point of the creative attack.
For Roberto Mancini, things aren’t quite as cut and dry. For starters, he most likely will be missing his captain and key component to his defence in Vincent Kompany, and he will most likely be without Gareth Barry, meaning he’ll start with Javi Garcia in midfield or defence. Also, there have been concerns over the recent form of Joe Hart, though I’m not entirely sure that this match is one for Costel Pantilimon to start.
City have some real problems with motivation.
I don’t think you can start a breakdown of City without question how up for the fight their entire squad happens to be. You can call it a title hangover, but the fact is that this City team doesn’t seem to be the ruthless machine that pressured United last season and pipped them to the title. Some spark is missing from the side, and I’m not entirely sure that Mancini is sure where it comes from. He’s already criticized certain players for not giving 100%, and you can see his point. Against Southampton, once the second goal went in, you could see their heads drop as a collective. Once the third went in late, you could almost see them throw in the towel.
I think the key to beating City this season is to just sap their will. They have a great starting 11 and should have a great bench to change a match. However, one or two of the players on that bench just seem to not be up for a fight to change a match, and when things go poorly, you do wonder if some of the players aren’t waiting for the whistle. They’re a team that had to deal with adversity last year and dealt with it fine, but this season, they’re not doing so well at dealing. I think you have to come at them hard and fast and put them on the back foot.
City are a team that are entirely reliant on one player: Yaya Toure.
I think the key to stopping City is to first stop Yaya Toure. Whenever City are in trouble, he’s the man that they turn to with his pace, power, and creativity. However, I do think it makes them rather one-dimensional when you consider that their only other creative outlet is David Silva and that Mancini doesn’t play with traditional wingers because only Edin Dzeko is a threat in the air.
To cut off the supply to the front, you must stop Toure who essentially plays as the link man between defence and midfield and midfield and attack. No one else in that side possesses the ability to link play the way he does, although Silva is capable of playing between your midfield and defence. The other fact is that he’s also the main ball winner, so you must continue to go at him, especially since he seems to fade late in matches this season.
Beware of the duo of Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero.
We all know about the two Argentinian strikers employed by Manchester City, but I doubt that we’d be talking about them playing in the same team if it wasn’t for the sale of Mario Balotelli. With Balotelli, Mancini seemed hesitant to play both in the same side with the argument that although they had the best understanding of his strikers, they were too similar. He’s really right about that. However, at this point, he doesn’t have an option. I don’t believe that Edin Dzeko’s as effective from the start because I don’t think he quite has the pace or movement to keep an opponent guessing for 90 minutes, especially when he’s likely to come up against two strong center backs from any combination of John Terry, Gary Cahill, and Branislav Ivanovic.
That leaves Mancini with the option of playing both Tevez and Aguero from the start. Personally, I think it’s the best option for him because of the mobility questions in the above three defenders, but also because they could draw David Luiz if he starts in midfield into committing poor fouls. And don’t forget that Aguero is still deadly from free kicks; something we saw firsthand when he was at Atletico. If Mancini decides on starting those two as a duo, they do have the potential to cause havoc.
The main weakness of the City team is the midfield minus Toure.
The one major problem that City have in midfield is a lack of mobility from their two holding midfielders. Garcia and Barry have never been known as speed merchants, and if Barry isn’t fit to play, it will mean that Toure will have to slot deeper into midfield. That should work into Chelsea’s hands because I would expect that Garcia will have a difficult time tracking Juan Mata in that central area.
The other option that Mancini would have at his disposal would be to bring James Milner back into midfield to help in the center. However, with Hazard playing on the left, the likelihood is that he’ll be played on the right to help on Hazard rather than playing centrally. If he did play in the center, it would mean a recall for Samir Nasri, who’s fallen out with Mancini, and who’s appearance should signal an immediate attack down that flank.
Be careful of when City switch to a 3-5-2. If Kompany doesn’t play, we should look to attack it.
Whenever City go behind or feel they need to step up their attack, Mancini switches to a 3-5-2 formation and begins to try to play with wing backs. This has been a formation that Chelsea have had troubles with against teams like Juventus and City, but this time, I think it will end up different.
First off, even with Kompany, City don’t play three center backs in their back three. Generally when they switch to 3 at the back, Pablo Zabaleta tucks in from right back, either bringing Maicon on to play wing back or asking Milner to do so. Without Kompany, it simply means that the only center back capable of really initiating the attack from the back is Zabaleta, as neither Matija Nastasic or Joleon Lescott are really accomplished passers.
It also usually means that David Silva comes back to midfield or is sacrificed entirely. When that happens, the pattern of play becomes very predictable as everything goes through the middle or it goes through Aleksander Kolarov if he’s on the pitch.
Usually when you see the 3 at the back of City, it should be your signal that Mancini’s a bit desperate and he feels things need a big change. The big key is once he switches to 3 at the back, his side becomes more predictable and to make the change means he exhausts his substitutions and can’t really change the system again.