Weekend Verdict: Clear road ahead for Chelsea?

On Saturday, Chelsea arrived at the Etihad in the form of their lives for the top of the table crunch match between first and third. Seven straight wins, nineteen goals scored along the way and only one against; the emphatic nature of those performances compelled the bookmakers to make Chelsea joint favourites for the title along with their hosts Manchester City. On paper, a draw looked likely, if not a City home win, so when Chelsea snatched all three points in a 3-1 win against their rivals in a classic smash and grab, a re-assessment of Chelsea’s qualities and aspirations was required.

The question asked of Chelsea before the game was straightforward. Having lost against the dynamic and fluid high-press of Liverpool and Arsenal, how would their new defensive formation, installed since those back to back defeats, cope with City’s multi-dimensional attack? This was to be the mother of all tests and one that the defence failed, but Chelsea ultimately passed.

The game was a slow burner that grew in quality and entertainment. The opening exchanges offered no advantages to either side but as the game evolved, City began to dominate and eventually, began to attack the Chelsea defence relentlessly. Time and time again Chelsea were exposed, Gary Cahill in particular, for their lack of pace and awareness.

Ignoring his clumsiness that led to City’s goal—and he is clumsy—Cahill’s immobility makes him the weak link in Chelsea’s defence. He has the turning circle of an oil tanker, but not John Terry’s game intelligence to compensate. He was left standing by Navas and De Bruyne throughout the afternoon as the City forwards combined to get beyond him and into scoring positions. The real surprise was that City did not profit and their profligacy in front of goal cost them dearly. They had more than enough chances to win the game comfortably.

Chelsea’s players celebrate the killer-blow executed by Eden Hazard. (Photo by Darren Walsh/Getty Images)

But they didn’t, and Chelsea did—because their forwards were ruthless. They may lack the squad depth of City but you can only field eleven players in a game and man for man I would rate them slightly higher than any of their rivals. Hazard is once again peerless and able to dominate a game in a way that none can match. Only Coutinho comes close to the Chelsea man at this moment but his output is not as comprehensive as Hazard’s, yet, and can still be measured in moments.

Hazard can single-handedly drive a team forward, but doing this and winning trophies are two different things. Steven Gerrard was able to drive Liverpool forward, but not far enough to consistently win trophies. Most of the Liverpool teams he played with lacked the requisite quality. Thierry Henry was able to do that with Arsenal too but surrounded by the likes of Bergkamp, Overmars, Pires, Vieira et al, his Arsenal secured a number of trophies. Similarly, Hazard has a good supporting cast at Chelsea.

He has help in the form of Pedro who is thriving under Conte’s man-management. He relieves the creative burden on his teammate, adding his own guile to the Chelsea attack; and in Costa, they have a forward that they can rely on to score goals, make space and a general nuisance of himself. His contribution so far has been invaluable and not limited to scoring tap-ins. On Saturday, he used his strength to breach the City defence where Hazard’s finesse had so far failed. His muscular style and eleven goals in fourteen games are invaluable to Chelsea’s progress this season.  

Chelsea has depth in Fabregas and Willian as well. Both made the most of their appearances, Willian scoring, and Fabregas assisting with a defence splitter of a ball for Costa to equalize with.

Further back, however, is where the problems begin for Chelsea. When both are fit, Matic and Kanté combine to create an excellent and solid spine. If one is missing, as Matic was on Saturday, Chelsea’s weak underbelly can be left exposed. In light of Matic’s absence, perhaps it is not such a surprise how City managed to get at Chelsea’s defence with ease.

Contrary to most people’s verdict, Luiz has been a revelation for Chelsea this season. He may not have the discipline to play in a back four, but he’s perfect for the sweeper type role he is tasked with, and the freedom it allows him to ‘head for the sound of the guns’ without having the responsibility to worry about what’s behind him. By default (Cahill not being fast enough), that has become Azpilicueta’s job.

Cahill’s continued presence in the Chelsea defence is the only question still hanging over this team. Kurt Zouma should be available soon; he reportedly played his first game in nine months in October and if Conte has his doubts about the young centre-back, then a defender of the quality of Southampton’s Van Dijk must be a priority during the January transfer window.

Chelsea have some glaring defensive frailties, but without an opposition good enough to take advantage it becomes less of an issue. Manchester United couldn’t, Everton’s powerful attack couldn’t, Spurs found a way through only to concede two at their end and now we can add City to this list. Three points clear and without European distractions, Chelsea’s road ahead looks clear. By the time they meet Arsenal or Liverpool again they could be out of sight; because the way they are playing now, it doesn’t look like anyone can get near them.

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