When Chelsea and Manchester City emerge from the Stamford Bridge tunnel on Saturday, a 90-minute drama will begin that will either end in a stalemate, Manchester City forcing their way back into title contention, or Chelsea reminding City that under Mourinho, making up a points’ deficit is nearly impossible. All of that will play out, but unfortunately not all the actors will be able to play their parts, but rather their understudies will be out to prove a point.
Chelsea’s midweek effort in the Capital One Cup against Liverpool saw the Blues advance to the final, but those efforts weren’t without a cost. In a niggly contest that was reminiscent of the Chelsea-Liverpool matches in the first Jose Mourinho spell, 120 minutes were played at high intensity, Cesc Fabregas and Filipe Luis suffered injuries and are doubtful against City, and Diego Costa was subsequently banned for an apparent stamp on Emre Can that was not spotted by referee Michael Oliver.
However, Jose Mourinho was happy with the performance of Ramires in the second half, and he may be the replacement for Fabregas, and Didier Drogba isn’t a bad understudy to Diego Costa, especially in a big match.
Manchester City have their own selection issues. As horrible as it may sound, City supporters may have been secretly wishing for the Ivory Coast to be eliminated from the Africa Cup of Nations on Wednesday so that Yaya Toure and Wilfried Bony would be available for Saturday’s contest. That didn’t happen, so both will be missing, along with Samir Nasri who remains injured.
The positive for City is that they didn’t have to play 120 minutes midweek, and like Chelsea, were knocked out of the FA Cup at home by lower league opposition. They’ll be looking to get back on track and also to narrow the 5-point gap Chelsea enjoy at the top of the table to 2 points by the end of the day.
Coming into this match, City look a much different team.
When you watch City play, you often have a sense that in any match, no matter who the opponent, City could drop points. There’s always been a question mark in terms of their collective mentality and the fact that they can switch off in certain matches and at certain times in matches. But as a collection of players, when they get it right, they can be brilliant to watch. And even when it’s not clicking, they have individuals who can change a match through moments of individual brilliance, such as Sergio Aguero’s late goals against Bayern.
However, without Yaya Toure, City have looked a different team as of late. City have always predicated their attacks on two things: the speed of their transition game in an open match and the ability to break down opponents with the speed of their passing and movement in the final third, usually because of the combination of Toure and David Silva in midfield areas and Aguero up front. Without Toure, their passing has been slower, and they haven’t been able to pick the lock on a packed defence.
Despite the fact that he always looks like he’s moving at the speed of a snail, Toure does have the ability to dictate play from deeper, giving Silva freedom to create from further forward, and he also has the ability to make runs from deep that unsettle the opposition. Without Toure, the midfield duo of Fernando and Fernandinho become responsible for that part of the attack, and both are not really that kind of player.
Teams have worked that neither Fernando or Fernandinho present a threat to get forward and score or present a threat to create a goal from deep, so teams have started to cut off supply to David Silva and have frustrated them as of late. In fact, ironically, their pattern of play has looked similar to what Arsenal have been criticized for: playing the ball in nice pretty patterns, but no real end product and no plan B.
Against Chelsea, that’s a problem for them, particularly without Fabregas and with Ramires playing. The absence of Fabregas will make it a bit easier for Chelsea to decide to sit back and counterattack. Considering the success that Arsenal had doing that at the Etihad, it could be a long day for City at Stamford Bridge.
City’s injury returnees haven’t really gotten up to speed.
Sergio Aguero and Vincent Kompany have both missed time over the holiday period with muscle injuries. Both returned to the squad three weeks ago, and neither has really made an impact. Both cause City real concern because they affect the way that City play. Both really need to if City are to get a win at Stamford Bridge.
For Aguero, it’s not unusual. In fact, when he returns from any lower body injury, it often takes him weeks to get back to his normal sharpness. At the end of last season, he played, but he wasn’t nearly as effective for two months in the business end of the season. This season, he was rather anonymous against an Arsenal back line that lacks pace and aside from a few nice touches, he didn’t do much against Middlesbrough either. City need him to play and play well because Edin Dzeko is limited because of just recovering from an injury of his own and Stevan Jovetic is wildly inconsistent.
In the case of Kompany, it’s a bit more unique. He seems to pick up muscular injuries more often than you would expect, and when he comes back from them, he always looks like he could make a mistake. I’ve often wondered if Kompany sometimes rushes back from injury too quickly and he never really heals properly. Regardless, his performance against Arsenal was woeful and he wasn’t much better against Middlesbrough. If City have to rely on Martin Demichelis or Eliaquim Mangala, they could be in real trouble.
The absence of Cesc Fabregas might not be such a big loss in this game.
This season, Chelsea have been very different from the typical Mourinho style. They’ve conceded goals that they shouldn’t have and at times looked all over the place defensively. Last season, and in many others, Mourinho has always been able to call on a defensive-minded team that keeps a good structure that’s hard to break down and can break on the counter. With Fabregas in the team, that has been a problem. His ability to read the game has helped him defend, but his actual ability to defend is slightly lacking, and he has a tendency to get caught out of position often. When you’re protecting the back four, that’s a problem, especially when Nemanja Matic starts to get isolated.
In the absence of Fabregas, Ramires will most likely come in. Midweek, Mourinho hailed the return of “his Ramires,” which may just be a good thing in this match. In previous matches this season, Mourinho’s defensive option was to play Matic with John Mikel Obi as his midfield two. The problem, as I mentioned earlier in the week, is that the combination is solid defensively, but lacks any real energy when it comes to initiating a counterattack. At his best, Ramires does just that.
However, Chelsea’s problems become very similar to City’s with one exception. Matic is a much better passer than either Fernando or Fernandinho. While he’s not necessarily on the level of Fabregas, he’s more than capable of keeping possession ticking over, especially if Ramires is next to him making runs into space when needed. Plus, Chelsea don’t necessarily have to go out and win this match. A draw would suit just fine.
Diego Costa is suspended. Step forward, Didier Drogba.
For his “crimes,” Diego Costa will be forced to watch this match from the stands. While he is Chelsea’s leading goal scorer, his absence isn’t quite the crisis that it’s made out to be. His replacement isn’t too shabby in one Didier Drogba. Regardless of age, the one thing Drogba has is his mentality. When the lights get bright and the stage gets bigger, Drogba always seems to come up with his best performances, as evidenced by his goal-scoring record in Cup finals. However, it’s not just his penchant for showing up in big matches, but his skill set that I think will help in this match.
The one thing that Drogba offers that Costa doesn’t always is the variety in his play. Costa is very good at running in behind and playing with the ball at his feet in tight areas. However, he isn’t nearly as adept at drawing center backs out of the defensive line nor playing with his back to goal and creating chances as Drogba is. Drogba also offers you the option of playing high balls into the box for him to attack in the air, and that’s something you don’t often see when Costa plays.
The other main thing is the absence of Fabregas changes the way Chelsea plays. With Fabregas, the ball over the top from deep is always an option, especially with Costa’s ability to get in behind, but without Fabregas, that isn’t really the best option. By playing Drogba, especially if you’re planning on defending, he gives you the option of a long ball out of defence and hold-up play that you don’t always get with Costa. The worry is that you start launching long balls to Drogba, but that’s not much different than watching Fabregas and Oscar launch balls over the top to Costa.
If Chelsea are to win, Drogba will have to be involved in the match and although he doesn’t have to replace the goals, he at least has to replace the threat and the presence of Costa, and that’s something he can do and can do well.