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Will Chelsea derail City's brute force?
There is nothing, Jose Mourinho said after Chelsea had lost to Sunderland in the Capital One League Cup, as easy in football as keeping a clean sheet. His side went on to prove it, conceding just two goals in the nine games that have followed. Monday night, though, represents the greatest challenge of his side’s newfound solidity, as it meets a Manchester City team that still has a 100 percent home record, and is averaging four goals per game at the Etihad.
The freedom with which City is playing, the regularity with which it is scoring, is unprecedented in the modern English game. With 68 goals in 23 games, it is well on course to break the Premier League record of 103 in a season set by Chelsea in 2009-10 and, seeing the way it eviscerated Tottenham Hotspur this week, it’s not inconceivable that the all-time top-flight record of 128 set by Aston Villa in 1930-31 could be under threat. There is a fluency and a potency about City that means that, even if it doesn’t go on to clinch the title, it will be remembered with great affection.
For Chelsea, the novelty of the challenge means the game must be approached as a unique event -- the usual formula goes out of the window because this is an extraordinary opponent. To begin with, City plays with a highly mobile front two, probably Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo. John Terry remains one of the best physical defenders in the English game, a player who loves a muscular challenge, but he is increasingly slow-footed, and that means Aguero can never be allowed to isolate him. Terry must pick up Negredo, with Gary Cahill doing as best he can against Aguero, but he will need assistance, and that means a deep-lying midfielder who will stay deep, functioning almost as a third central defender. Mourinho is a fan of John Obi Mikel in the role and, while Nemanja Matic could in theory play there, it would be asking a lot of a player who is still settling into the English game.
City’s creative fulcrum -- inasmuch as it has a single point of attack; its strength, of course, is that it can attack from everywhere -- is David Silva, who drifts in from the left flank. Assuming Mourinho uses the 4-3-3 he deploys as a defensive measure against Arsenal, and against City when Chelsea beat it 2-1 at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season, that means the Spaniard would naturally be picked up by the right-sided midfielder. Again, that is a job Matic could do, but Ramires, all scurrying wiriness, is the more likely option, if only because of his greater experience in the Premier League.
Although Silva has been superb recently, the bigger problem tactically for Chelsea is likely to come on the other flank, where Jesus Navas operates more as a true wide man. The danger is that the left-sided player in the three, probably Frank Lampard, gets drawn out of position to cover him, a particular issue given how deep Navas often begins his runs, a facet of his extreme pace. That places huge pressure on the left back, probably Cesar Azpilicueta, who as a right-footer, will find himself trying to combat Navas, one of those rare wingers who still attacks fullbacks on the outside, on his weaker foot.
That in turn means that Eden Hazard, assuming he is used on the left flank, will have a lot of tracking back and defensive work to do, particularly given how City’s right back, Pablo Zabaleta, likes to get forward. No defenders in the league have created as many goals this season as he and City's left back Aleksandar Kolarov.
The capacity of City’s fullbacks to get forward is another issue. Usually against a side that can be expected to dominate possession, a team can keep the center compact, surrender the flanks and hope to deal with crosses. With the two fullbacks pushing on, though -- whether Kolarov or Gael Clichy plays on the left -- that becomes a strategy fraught with risk, as there’s always the danger that the fullback becomes a spare man. The positive for Chelsea is that Hazard and Willian, who will presumably occupy the wide roles, are both quick and powerful; they can perform their share of defensive work while still posing something of a threat on the break.
And as if that wasn’t enough, City offers an attacking threat from both their central midfielders. Even if a side sets up -- as Chelsea surely will -- with seven outfielders behind the ball and the two wingers shuttling to block up the flanks, leaving the center-forward, probably Samuel Eto’o, isolated to chase and harry and pick up on what scraps he can, there is still the danger of either Fernandinho or Yaya Toure bursting through. Even Oscar, as disciplined and tactically intelligent a player as exists in the modern game, cannot be expected to stifle both. And that means the back four plus the defensive curtain of three in front of them, have no room for error.
And that, really, is the fascination of this game: there is no side so relentless in its attacking as City, and no side so resolute as Mourinho’s Chelsea.
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