Chelsea FC have turned a corner under interim manager Roberto Di Matteo. His four straight wins in all competitions ties Andre Villas-Boas’ longest win streak during his tenure in charge at Stamford Bridge. When Di Matteo pulls off the victory against Manchester City this Wednesday at the Etihad Stadium, it will be the team’s longest winning streak on the season.
When the teams met for the first time back in December, Chelsea came away with a 2-1 win at home after City lost Gael Clichy to a red card. It was the first time City had shown weakness all season.
The trip up north will probably be a bit more difficult and it's unlikely the second-place team will play a man down again. However, the ultimate result will be the same—three points for Chelsea as they continue to push for that final Champions League spot and further embarrassment for the Sky Blues after folding under pressure.
Here are four reasons why this will happen.
Over the past two weeks, you would be hard pressed to find a team that is playing better than Chelsea have. Only Barcelona are comparable in form due to Lionel Messi's 50 billion goals.
In what was surely the toughest stretch of games Chelsea had played all season, they played four matches in 12 days. Three of them were elimination games and the other was a must-win in the league to keep pace with Arsenal for the fourth spot.
In that stretch they faced two good Championship sides, a very physical Stoke City and one of the better teams in all of Europe, Napoli. They handled all with the same kind of conviction and determination we used to expect out of this side.
It was more than just the winning; it was how they did so, outscoring their opponents 12-3, with all three of those goals against being nothing short of wonder strikes by the scorers. The defense was in vintage form—something to the liking of what we saw back in 2004, when the fortress of Stamford Bridge became a dead-ball zone for opposing strikers.
On the offensive side they have been equal to the back line. Not necessarily ripping the net away, they have been doing what they could not all season—making the most of their chances. They have finally found the net and though it is not “pretty,” it is the most effective attack in the Premier League over that stretch.
Compare that to what is going on at the Etihad.
The Citizens, who were once squarely in charge of their own destiny, have slipped as of late like so many novice clubs do.
In the same span of games as Chelsea, they find themselves with two losses and two wins. However, one of those wins was meaningless; their 3-2 victory over Sporting in the Europa League was not enough to make up the aggregate and they were knocked out of European competition for the second time this season.
The other win was a 2-0 win at home against Bolton. Though they came away with all three points, they needed an own goal by the Wanderers to keep it from being a nervy 1-0 contest.
A loss to Swansea in Wales had them dropping out of the top of the table as their supposed high-octane attack struggled to make anything happen against a mediocre defense at best.
The honest truth is that neither City nor Chelsea are the same as they were when they met the first time around. For the visitors, the change has been for the better.
It is interesting to see how much your leader in the back can make all the difference in your side. Injuries to John Terry in the middle of the season have now led to the firing of two managers, Carlo Ancelotti last season and Villas-Boas this one.
Right now, City are feeling a similar effect.
The absence of their captain and defensive leader, Vincent Kompany, is directly responsible for their slide. The Belgian picked up a calf injury in the first leg of their match against Sporting and has missed the last two.
He is one of the best defenders in the league, but his purpose on the pitch extends well beyond his technical ability. The back line of City looks distraught and disorganized when he is not there. Roberto Mancini has plenty of other talented defenders, but none that command the defense as well as Kompany.
With the Chelsea attack in its best form of the season, it is hard to see how this line that failed to keep the Swansea attack in check will deal with Didier Drogba, Juan Mata and Frank Lampard. Mancini may even be forced to play Edin Dzeko just for the added aerial defending to match Chelsea's size on set pieces.
Kompany will try to start the game, but if he is not 100 percent you can be sure the Chelsea forwards will sniff it out quickly and take advantage. Ultimately, things favor the Blues when it comes to the state of Kompany.
UPDATE: ESPN Soccernet reports that Chelsea have ruled captain John Terry out of Wednesday's match—a significant blow to the Blues.
Take a good look at the sidelines this Wednesday before kickoff and you will see an utter contrast in disposition. In one dugout will be an Italian growing more grey by the minute as he sees what was supposed to be a season to fill the trophy cabinet look like one that may keep it barren.
In the other you have a young, suave Italian, smiling with excitement and loose in the knowledge that the outcome of this game in no way affects the certainty of his future.
At this level of the game, the ability of a manager goes well beyond tactics and scouting reports. Every single one of these players knows how to play the game and they are all of world-class talent. A manager's job in many respects is simply to manage that talent, putting it in the best position to win games and making sure the players are ready to give it their all.
Often, the temperament of the manager manifests itself in the play on the field. Those who are uptight and stringent will have a team that performs as such; those who are loose and calm will get that in their team's play.
Of course, it is unfair to judge the two managers' current states of mind against one another. Di Matteo is with almost near certainty going to be gone in May, no matter what he does. Mancini, on the other hand, is attempting to finally bring vindication for the past few years of insane spending.
But all of that thinking and reasoning of the past and future matters little on Wednesday. The easygoing atmosphere that has enveloped Stamford Bridge has brought back the good times and will keep them going after the match.
A few weeks ago I wrote an article on how City’s loss to Swansea and subsequent ceding of the top of the table to Manchester United was the end of their title run. My argument was based on a history that shows the Red Devils to be vastly more experienced and possess the necessary qualities you need to make a title run.
The same philosophy will hold true Wednesday.
Chelsea may not be the more skilled team man-for-man, but they are certainly the more experienced one and know how to handle the late-season fixtures. Last season, the Blues made an improbable run from fifth to second place in the final stretch of the season, coming within a David Luiz error of repeating as English champs. They seemed destined to make the same kind of late run this year as well—perhaps not for the title, but certainly for a third- or fourth-place finish.
On the other hand, City found themselves losing three games to close out last year, with a relatively easy schedule.
Much is often made by the media and fans about the talent of the players on a team ensuring victory, but history will prove that to be only a part of what factors into the ultimate results of a season.
The Chelsea squad, for better or worse, is loaded with veterans who have been there before. With Chelsea winning a dozen titles under their play, they have developed the frame of mind and philosophy necessary to succeed in the long and arduous English season.
City is not there yet. They are a team with supreme talent, matched by none in the league and few in the world. But other than the Toure brothers, they lack the kind of intuition and wherewithal to close out a season on a high note.
The pressures of expectations become overwhelming and City fold, as they stop trying to beat the team they are playing and start trying to silence critics.
This is not to say that they will never get it. All teams start out somewhere before they reach this kind of peak. They are just not there yet.
On Wednesday we could see the ball spend most of the time in the Chelsea third. We could see a skewed shot count and possession percentage both in City’s favor. We could even walk away saying the Blues got lucky with that win.
But they will win, because they know how to when it really matters.
If you are looking at these reasons and wondering why they side a lot more toward the negatives of City than the positives of Chelsea, then you have begun to touch a philosophy of sports—the best team does not always win the game.
You would be hard pressed to find even the most ardent Chelsea fan that could make a substantial argument of why man-for-man Chelsea are going to win. But it is well within the realm of probability that for the reasons I listed above, City could beat themselves.
I have been doing very well in my predictions since Villas-Boas left. I hate to be this guy (not really), but I nailed Chelsea’s Champions League game and am well on my way to seeing Di Matteo meet all the goals I set for him. I am expecting that streak to continue Wednesday.
Do you? Do you think Chelsea will put together their longest winning streak of the season and go undefeated against City? Or will City keep the pressure on United with a resounding win Wednesday?
As always, please leave your comments below and thanks for reading!
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