Match Odds: Everton 2.90, the draw 3.35, Chelsea 2.40
Chelsea's trip to Everton at the weekend is a potentially huge clash with regards to the top four battle, which has become increasingly tight in recent weeks. There are several teams competing for the Champions League spots with Everton, Spurs and Arsenal the main challengers for fourth place.
Everton's home form has been good this season and they have overcome a recent run of draws, recording three wins in their last four. Chelsea on the other hand are experiencing a mini resurgence under Rafa Benitez, having won three on the spin to go within four points of Manchester City in second, with a game in hand. Victory over a tough Everton outfit will give Chelsea real momentum and confidence going into the second half of the season.
Fellaini will continue his suspension for his head butt on Ryan Shawcross. Mirallas is also an injury concern for Everton and Gibson will be unavailable, despite having appealed his recent red card at West Ham. This leaves Everton fairly light, particularly in the goal scoring department which could see a return to action for Anichebe, who scored a vital goal against West Ham last weekend. The Nigerian will be paired up top by Jelavic, last season's impressive January signing.
For Chelsea, Mikel returns from suspension, whilst Terry and Romeu will be out injured. Luiz will likely continue at centre-midfield, meaning Chelsea go with the same back four that kept back- to-back clean sheets against Norwich and Villa. Hazard will also probably come in, probably for Oscar who wasn’t up to his usual high standards against Norwich. This would also be in line with Benitez’s policy of rotation.
Chelsea's right versus Everton's left is going to be a key battle in this game. Everton focus the majority of their play down Baines’ flank with 43% of their play down the left, compared to just 30% down the right. The reason for this is that Baines has emerged as their most creative player, despite being a left back.
In fact, Baines has created more chances this season than any other Premier League player, astonishing for a full-back. His influence on this game and Chelsea's ability to handle him will be key. Baines will venture forward at will in this fixture, at times getting beyond Pienaar and Osman to spark Everton attacks. If we observe his average position from the game against West Ham last week we can see this:
Baines (no. 3) is in the position we'd expect of a left midfielder, in the opposition half and almost level with Pienaar, the actual left midfielder (no.22).
Azpilicueta will face Baines if, as expected, he is selected. This will be an interesting battle between two very attacking full-backs. Azpilicueta has got better at defending since arriving at Chelsea and can also give Baines something to worry about going the other way. Moses will have to work hard to protect Azpilicueta if he is involved, failure to do so will heap pressure onto Chelsea in what will be a very tough fixture to win. Baines and Pienaar will work tirelessly to double up on Chelsea's right back but this combination may leave space in behind Everton's back line for Moses to exploit with his pace and power going the other way. The battle between Chelsea's right and Everton's left could well decide this fixture with Baines acting as Everton's foremost creative outlet.
Chelsea's midfield balance
The attacking trio has been an area where Rafa Benitez has tinkered quite frequently. Benitez doesn’t seem to feel that Hazard, Mata and Oscar are best suited to playing together as the three are, in his view, quite similar. As a result Benitez might opt for Moses as one of three, which can have the effect of doubling up on Baines if Moses operates primarily from the right, as he did versus Villa - although he popped up mainly on the left at Carrow Road.
Moses offers a wider option than Mata or Oscar, who come central and can overcrowd Chelsea’s play, whereas Moses will stretch the play by taking up wider positions. We also saw Moses, Mata and Hazard work effectively against Villa in the 8-0 romp last weekend. A look at his average position from the game against Villa demonstrates this with Moses appearing in predominantly wide right areas at number 13:
Azpilicueta was also eager to overlap as we can see wide right (no.28) which ties into the earlier point about Chelsea's right versus Everton's left.
With regards to Chelsea's defensive pivot there are also question marks. David Luiz has played well in this role since being converted to defensive midfield from centre back. Lampard has also performed well when called upon. Mikel, back from suspension, started with Luiz against Norwich but his slow build up play does not suit Benitez’s more direct approach and thus he could be benched for the Everton game.
The likely holding pairing against Everton could be Luiz plus Ramires. Luiz is able to distribute the ball better than Ramires, who will probably be more of a screen and midfield runner. This dynamic could work really well and will be vital in watching the runs of Pienaar inside. Unfortunately due to suspension we have been denied the clash between Luiz and Fellaini that could have developed in this area.
Two ‘off’ form strikers
Neither Torres nor Jelavic have been on great form this season. Jelavic hit the ground running in the last campaign after signing in January, but has not found the same form this season - regularly firing blanks. Torres looks to have shown improvement, netting six goals in his last five outings for Chelsea in domestic and European football, but he looked a bit limp against Norwich and certainly is inconsistent in what he produces for Chelsea over 90 minutes.
For Everton, the suspension of Fellaini, their top scorer, will be felt even more, unless Jelavic can find his shooting boots over the festive period, having scored just 1 goal in his last 8 Premier League appearances. This tie will likely be quite tight which means that it could come down to one of these off form forwards. As we’ve already mentioned, the loss of Fellaini will impair Everton, who usually play a more direct style, getting the ball up to him quickly. His absence may benefit Jelavic however, due to a likely change in approach, with more ground and build up play from the home side.
With the battle for third and fourth so open, this is a crucial game, despite it being only December. Everton saw off Spurs at home as well as holding Arsenal to a 1-1 draw, so a victory over Chelsea would really highlight their Champions League credentials. Chelsea simply have to improve on last season’s sixth place finish and need to string together a series of wins under Benitez to demonstrate an improvement and show that they can move on.
In a game of this importance we should see whether Chelsea have actually improved and also whether Everton really are Champions League contenders. The contest down Chelsea's right will be of pivotal importance as will the midfield battle. Victory for Chelsea would give them great encouragement, especially now there is genuine hope that they can move into second place after recent slip ups by Man City.
Amit Singh is Editor of Think Football, the thinking person's football website.
You can follow him on Twitter @think_football