They say bad luck comes in threes. Better batten down the hatches, Chelsea fans.
First came the controversy surrounding the treatment of first team doctor Eva Carneiro, then came a public humiliation by title rivals Manchester City at the Etihad last weekend. What comes next? Miss out on John Stones? Get a thumping by West Brom on Sunday? It wouldn’t be the first time for the latter; the Blues slumped to a 3-0 defeat at the Hawthorns in May. As for Stones, money talks and £40 million is a lot of cash.
This has been Chelsea’s worst start to a Premier League season since 1998, long before Russian money transformed the club into a European powerhouse. Despite sitting in 16th, already five points adrift of City in the fledgling Premier League table, it is frivolous to say that Chelsea are in crisis. The signing of three-time Champions League winner Pedro on Thursday will go some way to cheering up the Chelsea faithful, not least due to the nature of the transfer; stealing the 28-year-old from right under Louis Van Gaal’s nose. That said, it’s not all peaches and cream, and the failure of the players to pick themselves up and deliver swift retribution upon the Baggies on the 23rd could have severe ramifications.
It will not be an easy game for the reigning Champions. Tony Pulis’ sides are known for their well-drilled, disciplined nature, and a 0-0 draw at newly-promoted Watford last weekend will give the Baggies some confidence after an opening day mauling by Manchester City. The two sides have vastly differing targets this year, but both will be equally eager to pick up their first win of the season.
The meetings between the two sides have been surprisingly equal since the Albion ‘boinged’ back into the big-time. The record stands at 5-2-3 in favour of the Blues, but they haven’t mustered a win in the Black Country since a 3-1 triumph in 2011. Sunderland will go down in the history books as the first team to beat Mourinho’s Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, but any Albion fan will tell you it should have been them. Back in 2013, an injury-time penalty from Eden Hazard broke the travelling fans’ hearts after a controversial decision by referee Andre Marriner. The game finished 2-2, with Mourinho referring to the Baggies as a ‘Mickey Mouse’ club. The relationship between the two clubs has been understandably frosty ever since.
For the superstitious amongst you, two previous Chelsea managers have been sacked by Roman Abramovich following defeat at the Hawthorns. Andre Villas Boas faced the chop following a 1-0 defeat in March 2012, whilst Roberto Di Matteo was given his marching orders after a 2-1 reverse only 8 months later. Watch your back, Jose!
For the even more superstitious amongst you, Mourinho’s last six league defeats have been at the hands of managers whose names begin with ‘P’: Pulis (twice), Poyet, Pardew, Pochettino and Pellegrini. The Special One comes up against Pulis and Pardew in his next two games. Make of that what you will.
It will be interesting to see if Saido Berahino has been affected by a recent £15 million bid by Spurs for his services. If Saido’s head is in the right place, I expect Pulis to stick with the England U21 international up front with new signing Rickie Lambert. That said, with Albion still awaiting their first goal of the campaign, it could be tempting to take a gamble on record-signing Salomon Rondon, who made a brief cameo at Watford last time out following his move from Zenit St Petersburg. With Ben Foster the only long-term absentee for the Baggies, Boaz Myhill looks set to continue between the sticks.
One of the only positives from Chelsea’s disastrous trip to Manchester was the performance of stand-in ‘keeper Asmir Begovic. Despite shipping three, the Bosnian stopper produced a string of top-class saves to keep out Sergio Aguero in the first half. With Thibaut Courtois still suspended, Begovic will once again be called upon. The ‘little’ injury that prevented Oscar from featuring last weekend is not as little as anticipated. He faces a spell on the side-lines. There are no other injury concerns for Mourinho’s men, with Diego Costa likely to lead the line.
The jury is out on whether Pedro will feature, and if another new signing Baba Rahman will replace Branislav Ivanovic at full-back.
Claudio Yacob – As team news started to filter through for the first MNF of the season, Albion fans were left somewhat bemused upon their approach to the Hawthorns. The sight of Claudio Yacob on the bench for the game against Manchester City left many scratching their heads. A tireless and tenacious worker, Yacob makes the Baggies significantly harder to beat. Left in the cold by Alan Irvine last season, the Argentinian’s performances since being brought back into the fold by Tony Pulis have been sensational. A midfield anchor to partner Darren Fletcher, Yacob is under no illusion over his role in the side. His main focus is to break down play so he can distribute the ball to more creative, attacking players. Without him in the side, Silva, Sterling and Yaya Toure were able to run riot in the middle of the park. Albion succumbed to a City masterclass. The following week could not have been more different, and Yacob‘s inclusion in the Albion XI at Vicarage Road was rewarded with a clean sheet. He showed just how important he is to this West Brom side, and he’ll have to put in a similar shift on Sunday to keep Chelsea’s attacking threat at arm’s length.
Cesc Fabregas – Whilst Yacob knows his remit to the letter from first whistle to last, the same cannot be said for Cesc Fabregas. Don’t get me wrong, there is to be no denying who is the more technically gifted footballer, but the Spaniard struggled at the Etihad last Sunday and didn’t seem comfortable with the position he had been asked to play. Normally deployed ahead of two holding midfielders, Fabregas was placed alongside Nemanja Matic for the City game, with Ramires more advanced on the right hand side. The last time the two sides met, Ramires and Matic made a solid defensive-midfield pairing, with Fabregas given clear license to roam forward. Switching Fabregas and Ramires around left the former Barcelona man in two minds. Should he drop deep and defend, or push on and attack? His uncertainty was obvious. He looked lost, allowing Silva and Aguero to cut through the Chelsea defence with consummate ease. WBA is a different kettle of fish to Manchester City, so we may see Fabregas returned to his usual position. If so, he could provide the creative spark required to open up a typically stubborn Pulis back-line.
I just can’t see Chelsea bottling this. They’ve been under a lot of scrutiny, so Mourinho will have his players fully focussed on the job in hand. They should have enough to get the better of a West Brom side who, to their credit, are usually quite hard to beat at home. This isn’t the kind of game that determines whether they will stay in this league, but it is the kind of game that could cost Chelsea the title.
West Bromwich Albion 1-2 Chelsea