Our last match of 2016 is at home to Stoke on New Year’s Eve, and we will be hoping for lucky number thirteen, as we look to continue our winning streak. A new club record already established, we can set another with a win over Stoke City, as we have equalled our nine match unbeaten record in all competitions. Disregarding the various record setting permutations, a win here is more important in terms of our title aspirations than anything else, as Liverpool and Manchester City both face-off this weekend as well. So with one (and hopefully both) definitely dropping points this weekend, another three points for us would move us further clear of at least one of our title rivals. A draw in the aforementioned fixture would see us eight points clear of Liverpool and nine clear of Manchester City, if we could take all three points against Stoke.
Kante and Costa return after suspension against Bournemouth on Boxing Day, but we now have Pedro unavailable for this match after he picked up his fifth caution of the season. This is disappointing as he has been excellent so far, and the linkup he showed with Hazard and Willian against Bournemouth was exceptional. Willian will likely retain his place in the starting eleven, with himself and Hazard flanking Costa. Whether Fabregas remains will be interesting, after another good display from him when called upon against Bournemouth. On the whole Conte seems to prefer the pairing of Matic and Kante centrally though. Saturday is the cut-off for five yellows resulting in a suspension, so anyone who’s one card shy of a ban will avoid a suspension until they pick up their tenth booking, as long as they don’t pick up a card on Saturday. This is particularly pertinent for David Luiz, who, if booked against Stoke, will miss the mid-week trip to Tottenham.
It was a pleasure to watch the front three against Bournemouth, and despite question marks prior regarding the lack of a centre forward once the line up was announced, it turned out not to be a problem, as the build play was adapted to cope with the lack of a target man. Hazard was worth the ticket price alone for anyone lucky enough to have been in attendance. Bournemouth were unable to deal with him dropping deeper to pick the ball up, and his delightful turns and touches in these areas, and the lightning one touch link play with Pedro and Willian initiated from there was almost indefensible. Bournemouth were not without chances though, and Wilshere found space between the lines on occasions, and we were nearly punished. This could be a problem against Stoke, with, if he plays, Shaqiri capable of taking advantage in such areas.
Stoke City took four points from us last season, as well as eliminating us from the league cup on penalties after a 1-1 draw. The last meeting was our home league fixture in March, which also finished up 1-1. So, we are winless in our last three against Stoke, prior to that though, the Potters had only taken one win and two draws in our previous seventeen meetings. Our last win was the home fixture in season 14/15, a 2-1 success, perhaps most memorable for the Stoke goal though, an effort from his own half by Charlie Adam. That was the first goal they had registered in four matches against us prior to last season. These matches tend to be tight affairs, aside from our remarkable 7-0 home win in our double winning 09/10 season, and an excellent 0-4 away result in 12/13, with a top corner screamer from Hazard being the highlight, coupled with John Walters having an absolute shocker of a match! Overall we have won 45, drawn 22 and lost 30 of our fixtures against them.
It will be interesting to see how Stoke set up against us, as we have come up against varying systems in an attempt to stop us this season. Eddie Howe opted for a couple of variations in system on Boxing Day, switching from a 4-1-4-1 to a 3-4-2-1 and back again. He was probably the first manager to make a concerted effort to press our centre backs to try and limit them playing out from the back/advancing forward. Arter and Wilshere tried to press them to no avail. We moved the ball too quickly into midfield for this to work though, and with Hazard dropping deeper, their holding midfielder was pulled further up field, and they no longer had the spare midfielder to make the system work. Pedro, Willian and Hazard were too much to deal with when they went to a back three, as they tucked in; leaving their wing backs 1v1 against Moses and Alonso. I would expect Stoke to go with a 4-2-3-1, but maybe Hughes will surprise us.