Both sides are almost at full strength, but the major absentee is a key one, not merely in terms of what he offers to his side on the pitch, but how his suspension has dominated the narrative in the build-up to the Capital One Cup final.
When Nemanja Matic was sent off for retaliation after a bad tackle by Ashley Barnes in Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Burnley, it seemed he would be banned for three games for violent conduct. That was reduced on appeal to two, but he will still miss Sunday’s game. His energy and positional sense at the back of midfield will be missed – all the more so with Mikel John Obi injured – but just as significant has been how Jose Mourinho has used the incident to raise the barricades higher as he insists Chelsea are the victims of a major conspiracy.
It was in their 3-0 win over Tottenham at the beginning of December that Chelsea’s flaws first became apparent. When Harry Kane ran directly at Gary Cahill he caused panic, and Spurs were much the better team until Eden Hazard struck against the run of play after 19 minutes. After that, it was a familiar story of Spurs implosion. At White Hart Lane on New Year’s Day, though, Kane and Spurs were brilliant, at least going forwards, taking their chances to win 5-3. Breathtaking as the occasion was, though, once the dust had cleared Mauricio Pochettino must have been concerned by how open his side was, particularly in the full-back areas.
KANE AND THE CHELSEA VULNERABILITY
Chelsea at least now are forewarned about Kane. His incursions in the 5-3 have led to Cahill being replaced in the centre of the Chelsea defence by Kurt Zouma, but the flaw has not disappeared as, for instance, Philippe Coutinho showed for Liverpool in the Capital One Cup semi-final. And that was with Matic in the side. Without him and Mikel, Raires will presumably play in front of the defence, but he doesn’t cover the ground as Matic does, which means Fabregas will have to play in a deeper role than usual, limiting his creative impact.
For a long time, it had seemed that Chelsea would walk the league title and, although they remain five points clear at the top of the table, they are not quite the awesome force of the late summer and autumn. Opponents, perhaps, have worked out that if Fabregas can be stopped, Chelsea rhythm can be disrupted. The flow of his assists, certainly, has been checked: he hasn’t set up a goal in six games. Diego Costa, meanwhile, hasn’t scored in four games and has registered just six in his last 16, having scored 11 in his first 13 matches this season. Oscar, as he did last season, has faded since Christmas. None are playing atrociously, but equally none are in quite the form they were in the early part of the season.
By common consent, the conditioning work down by Pochettino has left his side as perhaps the fittest in the Premier League, something that in part explains how they’ve picked up 13 points with goals scored after the 85th minute. The latest of those came in the 2-2 draw against West Ham United. Although Kane levelled with a 96th-minute penalty, Spurs’ performance generally was weary, as though they were feeling the effects of the 1-1 draw against Fiorentina three days earlier. In that regard Thursday’s 2-0 defeat in Florence takes on great significance, even if Kane appeared only as a substitute.
THE TOTTENHAM FULL-BACKS
Although Danny Rose scored in the 5-3, the defensive capacity of the Spurs full-backs is an obvious deficiency that renders them vulnerable to the pace and directness of Eden Hazard and Willian on the break. Hazard was Chelsea’s most threatening player both in the 3-0 and the 5-3 and the likelihood is he will expose Kyle Walker again. Both Walker and Rose, intriguingly, were rested on Thursday.
Tottenham to win at 5.50 looks startlingly long and there must be a temptation to back them on the basis that the price looks far too high. Realistically, though, they look a tired team and that must induce caution. Chelsea at 1.65 doesn’t look particularly attractive either, though.
The two league games between the sides yielded a total of 11 goals but with Chelsea deep in the bunker of their siege mentality and Spurs likely to be tired, a tight game is likely, making under-2.5 goals at 2.00 attractive. The logical corollary of that, if you want something a little more adventurous, is to back Chelsea to win 1-0 at 7.50