As far as gentle reminders go, that things aren’t always going to be perfect in football, Wednesday night’s draw with Schalke was probably about as soft as they come. In the sense that the lost points are almost entirely inconsequential, considering also the fact that we didn’t play particularly badly, it’s hard to get too upset about the result, annoying as it was. Ultimately I suppose it’s the circumstance under which we lost the lead which will have bothered fans the most. To be 1-0 up against a side depleted by injuries, crippled by a run of dire form and with a pretty atrocious record in England at the best of times, and then not to kill the game despite a multitude of simple chances to do so, was extremely frustrating to watch.
Symbolically the game was a most unwelcome hark back to the long forgotten days of last season, where we bossed games but all too often failed to win for wasting the opportunities we created. It’s a lesson we’ve all become painfully tired of learning – if you don’t take your chances, especially at this level, even with Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard in such wonderful form, you won’t win games. The sheer number and quality of chances we created should be a reassuring consolation though; misses like Fabregas’ and Didier Drogba’s either side of half-time surely can’t become too regular of an occurrence.
1) Drogba looks his age – It’s difficult to be too disparaging of the Ivorian, firstly because of this being his first start at this level of the game for some time, and also because he’s Drogba, but this week’s showing was undoubtedly a poor one. Matt Dickinson in The Times compared it to watching an aging Bob Dylan mumbling through his classics from the sixties – still exuding quality and demanding respect, but simply unable to deliver on past reputation.
2) Fabregas’ best position? – Already the Spaniard is starting to cause some headaches. He may be the best player in the team and he may be enjoying a wonderful start to his career in West London; where he should be playing in the midfield for now remains entirely unobvious however. Too far back and he can become a defensive liability, evidenced by his conceding of possession for Schalke’s equaliser on Wednesday. Played too far forwards though and he falls out of the game, the way Mesut Ozil can be renowned for. I’m not a fan of Chelsea using a 4-3-3 because leaves no space for Oscar, but the argument that it would be better for Cesc is becoming increasingly hard to dispute.
3) Filipe Luis needs to be a starter – Exactly what has this guy been doing on the bench so far this season? Cesar Azpilicueta has a much deserved reputation as the best one-on-one defensive full back in the country, but there didn’t seem much wrong with Filipe’s defending on Wednesday to me. He is of course much quicker and much better going forwards also. Mourinho may justifiably wish to use Azpilicueta against City if the plan is to sit back and play for a 0-0. But from then on, Filipe has to come into the team.
Man City Preview:
The first unfortunate point to have to make in preview of this Sunday’s contest is that the seeming mid-week fixture advantage we enjoyed would appear to have backfired. A comfortable win over Schalke and a thumping for Manuel Pellegrini’s side in Bavaria would’ve set the game up nicely. Instead, a frustrating draw for us and an inspiring performance for them against the best in Europe rather shifts a chunk of the momentum back in their favour you would’ve thought.
Whether or not it could be an advantage remains to be seen, but it’s clear that this game is of far more importance to City than it is to us, given the state in which defeat would place them. If we leave the Etihad with three points on Sunday, we’ll also leave with an eight point lead over our main title rivals after just five rounds, leaving them to face the reality of having gone four games without a victory, and having supplied us with another huge boost of momentum in these early stages. In the scheme of things, we all know eight points can be nothing, but for the trailing team, teetering on the verge of a slump, it can seem a demoralizing chasm and one that could quickly become insurmountable if things don’t improve quickly.
Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany, Demichelis, Clichy, Fernandinho, Toure, Nasri, Silva, Aguero, Dzeko
Courtois, Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Azpilicueta, Mikel, Matic, Ramires, Fabregas, Hazard, Costa
It’s rarely so difficult to predict which players Mourinho will select, either way, his tactical approach to this fixture will be fascinating. While we’ve been firing goals in for fun so far this season, City have failed to score in two of their last three. Odds are though, that Jose still won’t rely on his team to be able to outscore City in open, end-to-end contest, especially with Diego Costa still not fully fit. What’s far more likely is that the Portuguese will want to see a repeat of last season’s vintage defensive demonstration, with 0-0 always a decent result away to City, he’ll be anxious to see his back line put in a good performance also after an overall shaky start to the season.
Mikel would supply the stability in midfield we’ve lacked so far this year, whilst Ramires, who’s invariably selected in these big away games, will likely make up a midfield three with the Nigerian and Nemanja Matic. Cesc and Hazard are the two attackers you would think are un-droppable, while Costa is set for his first chance to shine in a big game for Chelsea, the way he became renowned for doing so in Spain.
Last season Pellegrini’s more defensive than usual team selections against Chelsea didn’t pay off. Bearing in mind that we’ll probably be playing for a 0-0 also, he should be tempted to pick all of his best attacking players to try and break down our defence. If Silva starts out wide however and Yaya Toure plays anything close to as bad as he was in Munich on Wednesday, then the counter attack should be a real concern for City. As a centre half partnership, Vincent Kompany and Martin Demichelis are also vulnerable to pace and direct running towards their goal.
Chelsea’s tactics should be obvious then. Hopefully we’ll play with slightly more ambition compared to the corresponding fixture last season, with Costa able to make a difference as the target man we haven’t had to play-off for some years now. A draw seems like the safe prediction, but if pushed, I’d lean towards a City win. This team haven’t lost many games of this importance over the past four years; it’s hard to imagine them not making a strong defence of their title the whole season through. Should they lose however, then Gary Neville’s words in The Telegraph this week about their ageing side possibly coming to the end of its trophy winning phase, may begin to become a more widespread concern, presenting the kind opportunity to obtain a psychological advantage, Mourinho is the master of exploiting.