Chelsea’s Champions League win away to Maccabi Tel Aviv on Tuesday came at a cost, with John Terry turning his ankle during the game and Ramires picking up a knock in training. Both are major doubts for Sunday. Thibaut Courtois is still out, while Radamel Falcao has a muscle injury.
Tottenham will be without Dele Alli, suspended after stupidly picking up a fifth yellow card of the season for shoving Mark Noble in Sunday’s win over West Ham. Nabil Bentaleb and Nacer Chadli are both injured, but there is a slight chance that Erik Lamela could return from his groin problem.
Wins over Norwich and Maccabi have at least lifted some of the gloom at Chelsea but it’s a sign of how bad things have become at Stamford Bridge that those games were regarded as anything other than near-formalities. Three successive defeats in the league before that suggest just how vulnerable Chelsea remain.
Tottenham are unbeaten in the league since the opening day of the season and Harry Kane’s burst of goalscoring form has alleviated the problem they were having converting domination into wins. He has nine goals in his last six games for Spurs, and they’ve scored 13 in their last four league games.
It was in this fixture last season that Kane really announced himself, his direct running unsettling Terry and Gary Cahill as Spurs romped to a 5-3 victory. That defeat prompted Jose Mourinho into lockdown mode, Chelsea conceding only eight goals in the following fifteen games until the title was sealed.
The meeting at Stamford Bridge four weeks earlier had resulted in a 3-0 win for Chelsea that, although ultimately comfortable, had offered hints early on that Kane might be able to upset Terry and Cahill. Chelsea were comfortable 2-0 winners over Spurs in the Capital One Cup final.
Assuming Terry is out, that presumably means that Cahill will be paired with Kurt Zouma. That means a little more pace at the heart of the defence, but after what happened last season Chelsea’s main concern is finding a way to stop Kane.
Essentially, they cannot allow him to turn and get a run at the centre of defence, and that probably means the use of two holding players at the back of midfield: one to fill the space and pick up the number 10 (Christian Eriksen or Mousa Dembele), and one to track Kane as he drops off and drifts wide. It would be a surprise if Cesc Fabregas were to be trusted with that level of defensive responsibility, so there must be a possibility that he takes the advanced central midfield role with Nemanja Matic and Mikel John Obi behind him.
Branislav Ivanovic returned for Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Norwich last week, but Cesar Azpilicueta was switched to the right with Baba Rahman at left-back for the win in Israel on Tuesday. Whichever pairing Mourinho goes for, Tottenham must regard the side Azpilicueta isn’t on as an opportunity.
Either Eriksen or Lamela, both candidates to play on the left, could devastate Ivanovic for pace, while Lamela or Son Heung-Min, the candidates to play on the right, could take of advantage of Rahman’s occasional lapses of positional sense.
Compounding that issue is the attacking intent of the Spurs full-backs. The nature of the game means it will probably be Eden Hazard on the left and Willian on the right, with Pedro relegated to the bench. The aggressive nature of Kyle Walker and Danny Rose means there could be opportunities to counter-attack, but Chelsea’s wide men will have to be on their defensive mettle.
Mauricio Pochettino wasn’t hugely successful last week at hiding his irritation at Alli getting himself suspended, and understandably so. He has fiddled with his midfield triangle so Dembele and Alli have both taken turns at the tip, but that trio have arguably given Spurs the best central midfield in the league this season.
There seem two ways for Pochettino to replace Alli. He could bring in Ryan Mason to play alongside Eric Dier with Dembele advanced, or, if Lamela is fit, he could take the far more adventurous stance of playing Dier and Dembele deep, with Eriksen advanced, Lamela on one flank and Son on the other.
It’s a long time since Tottenham went into a home game against Chelsea with such a sense that they ought to win, and it says much for the stereotypes of both clubs that Spurs are as long as 2.55 to record that victory.
That seems excellent value. Two wins – neither hugely convincing - in two games against moderate opposition isn’t enough to start believing in Chelsea again.