For all the talk of the debilitating nature of the Christmas fixtures, Tottenham and Chelsea both go into the game with only a player each doubtful – and both of those because of illness rather than injury. Chelsea seemed to miss the guile of Oscar in drawing at Southampton on Sunday, while Benjamin Stambouli did a solid job of deputising for Nabil Bentaleb at the back of midfield. Both Oscar and Bentaleb are likely to return if fully fit.
Chelsea ended up comfortable winners at Stamford Bridge at the beginning of December, but the 3-0 scoreline was far from an accurate reflection of the game.
Tottenham began by far the better, with Harry Kane heading against the bar before Eden Hazard struck with Chelsea’s first attack after 19 minutes. Three minutes later Didier Drogba added a second and the game was effectively over as a contest.
It’s part of Chelsea’s strength, of course, that they have a defence capable of withstanding pressure and players who can conjure a goal from nothing, but those opening minutes were full of encouragement for Spurs.
Last season at Stamford Bridge it had been a similar story, Tottenham playing well for 55 minutes before two goals and a red card in quick succession tipped the game decisively Chelsea’s way and they went on to win 4-0 (see video above).
Tottenham could also feel things might have gone better in the last meeting at White Hart Lane, in September 2013. Gylfi Sigurdsson put Spurs ahead and Paulinho hit the woodwork before a half-time change of shape from Mourinho, bringing on Juan Mata for Mikel John Obi and switching from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 changed the game. John Terry headed an equaliser and Fernando Torres was sent off late on.
CHELSEA’S AWAY FORM
Chelsea’s lead at the top of the table is still three points and the probability remains that they will win the title fairly comfortably - they’re 1.38 favourites, with Manchester City 3.60 - but the title race has not developed into the procession many thought it would. In part that’s because of City’s recent resurgence, but it’s also because Chelsea have taken just five points from their past four away games.
Although they won a battle at Stoke, they were held 0-0 at Sunderland, 1-1 at Southampton and lost 2-1 at Newcastle. To an extent, that’s down to bad luck, most obviously in the penalty they should have had for the foul on Cesc Fabregas at St Mary’s, but it also suggests that the problems in breaking down doughty opponents that bedevilled them last season may have returned. In part, that’s because opponents have realised that shutting down Fabregas affects the whole rhythm of how Chelsea play.
It’s taken a long time coming but Spurs, on a run of five games unbeaten in the league and having reached the Capital One Cup semi-final, at last look as through they’ve begun to grasp what it is Mauricio Pochettino is asking of them.
Their pressing game does risk leaving them exposed to the pace of Hazard and Willian on the break, but equally it should be able to pressure Fabregas, assuming he reverts to a holding midfield role. If Chelsea have a defensive weakness, it’s a lack of pace in the centre so if Kane can get a run at Terry and Gary Cahill – as he did repeatedly earlier in the season, he could be a major threat.
Where Chelsea have a clear advantage over Spurs is on the flanks. Kyle Walker will presumably return for Vlad Chiriches at right-back for Spurs having been rested against Manchester United, but he faces a major headache dealing with an in-form Eden Hazard. Ben Davies impressed against United but Willian’s pace and directness will challenge him.
At the other end, Nacer Chadli’s defensive mettle will be tested as he has to try to counteract the forward surges of Branislav Ivanovic, and Spurs’ selection on the right will be a key indicator of Pochettino’s mood: does he release Erik Lamela to attack Cesar Azpilicueta, or go for the safer, more disciplined option of Aaron Lennon?
Given their recent upsurge in form, Tottenham look long at 4.75 to win. There is a concern that Chelsea could destroy them in wide areas, but the last three meetings between the sides offer Spurs hope, even if they’ve only taken a point from them. With Chelsea a little uncertain away from home, I’d back Spurs +0.5 at 2.12 on the Asian lines, with perhaps a small covering side bet on Eden Hazard to score at anytime at around 3.00.
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