Chelsea will be without the suspended Thibaut Courtois, meaning Asmir Begovic, who made two excellent saves after coming on against Swansea City, will start in goal. Jose Mourinho admits he has no idea about the state of Diego Costa’s hamstrings, but there’s been nothing this week to suggest a recurrence of the problem that kept him out of the Community Shield. Yaya Toure should be fit for Manchester City, despite being taken off midway through the second half of Monday’s win over West Bromwich Albion with a tweaked groin.
City were by far the most impressive of the four realistic title contenders on the opening weekend of the season, winning 3-0 away at West Bromwich Albion, with Toure and David Silva both in sparkling form. Chelsea, meanwhile, continued in the sluggish vein in which they were beaten in the Community Shield the week before. Swansea looked slicker and sharper in midfield and, while it may make sense for Chelsea to look to peak later in the season rather than suffering the fatigue that so afflicted them in the title run-in last season, the danger is that they fall so far behind it becomes irrelevant. Were they to lose, the gap to City would be five points which, while far from insurmountable, isn’t insignificant. Both games last season finished in 1-1 draws, Chelsea dominating at the Etihad before Frank Lampard’s late equaliser last September. The return at Stamford Bridge in January was weirdly half-paced, both sides seemingly happy with a point.
Both sides look likely to field a 4-2-3-1, but the question is how they are made up. Given how well City played at West Brom, it would be a surprise – assuming Toure is fit – if Manuel Pellegrini made any changes other than to bring in Sergio Aguero for Wilfried Bony. That means Fernandinho and Toure together at the back of midfield, with David Silva creating in front of them. Toure was superb at the Hawthorns, and bullishly dismissed the suggestion he’d had a disappointing season last season, but the real test of him comes against a side that place him under defensive pressure: at 32 does he still have the legs both to support Fernandinho and to get forward to offer an attacking threat? Silva, meanwhile, will surely not be afforded the sort of room West Brom gave him in the first half.
The decision for Jose Mourinho is how proactive he intends to be, and the biggest clue will come from the make-up of his midfield triangle. Against Swansea, he deployed probably the most aggressive combination he could have, with Cesc Fabregas deep alongside Nemanja Matic and Oscar off Diego Costa. It may be, though, that against City he opts for Ramires – or even Kurt Zouma - as Matic’s partner, with Oscar left out as Fabregas pushes forward – which is how they began the Community Shield.
IVANOVIC v STERLING
Branislav Ivanovic endured a difficult start to the season last weekend, struggling to cope with the pace of Swansea’s Jefferson Montero. The last thing he needed was to come up against another lightning-fast winger this week but, if City start with a similar structure to Monday, he will be facing Raheem Sterling. The 20-year-old had a decent debut despite missing two one-on-ones against West Brom, and he should relish taking on a defender who, at 31, looks as though he may have become a little slow on the turn. That said, Ivanovic is likely to play deeper than against Swansea, which will mean less room behind him for the winger to attack.
How important is Mourinho’s mood? Even by his standards, he has been spectacularly grumpy of late, picking fights with all and sundry, including his own medical staff. Is that a reflection of his feelings about his side? Could his negativity infect his team as it did towards the end of the 2006-07 season? The likelihood is that Mourinho will look to kill the game from the off, something at which he is a specialist, but even then the 2.1 on City to win looks decent value. The alternative is to see Chelsea scrapping their way to at least a draw: Chelsea +0.5 is probably a touch short at 1.76 so the play would be Chelsea +0.25 at 2.06. That, though, is based largely on the assumption that Chelsea will rediscover the bite of last season. So poor have Chelsea been, though, so disaffected does Mourinho seem, so assertive were City on Monday, that a straight bet on them to win is probably the way to go.
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