Chelsea are facing a difficult test on Sunday as they travel to face relegation-threatened Cardiff City. Based on the strength of the two squads, an away win will be expected, but anything can happen at this stage of the season. In their last outing, the Blues were beaten by Everton and Neil Warnock can take plenty of confidence from that result. Although they have a talented squad, the West London side have struggled to show an incisive cutting edge and that has held them back, especially away from home.
They were written off by many at the beginning of the season, but Cardiff have competed admirably in the Premier League and are the team in the relegation zone most likely to escape the drop. There are concerns about the quality available to Warnock, but the British manager has placed faith in those that earned promotion to the Premier League and he deserves praise for that. The fortunes of Fulham show the danger posed by investing too much in the playing staff. If the Bluebirds don’t avoid relegation, their long term prospects will be much brighter due to the way they have managed this campaign.
The race for the top four is hotting up with two places realistically available. The future of Maurizio Sarri is uncertain, but Champions League qualification is imperative if he is to keep his job. The one positive for the Blues is they can also target this via the Europa League. They have been given a relatively kind draw in the quarter-finals against Slavia Prague and it will be interesting to see if there is a change of focus over the coming weeks.
Cardiff City went in at half-time with a lead for only the second time this season in the Premier League during their last match against West Ham United.
Chelsea attempted 17 shots during their defeat to Everton, which shows the struggles they are encountering in front of goal.
The Cardiff goalkeeper has been excellent this season and his reputation has soared as a result. Few would have expected this improvement from Etheridge, especially after the signing of Alex Smithies. It was thought that the Philippines international would become a back-up at the Cardiff City Stadium. However, Warnock remained faithful to the shot-stopper that helped the club into the top-flight and he has reaped the rewards. A few notable penalty stops and consistency between the sticks has helped the Bluebirds remain in touching distance to the clubs ahead of them. Chelsea may struggle to score goals, but they do create a lot of chances. Etheridge will be busy this weekend and the team will need him to perform well if they are to earn something from the game.
It isn’t fair, but there is a feeling that the success or otherwise of Chelsea’s success will be dependent on how Eden Hazard finishes the season. There is no doubting his ability and he should be praised for the consistency he has shown without much support. However, questions remain over his end product. Those doubters will be pointed towards his contribution for the season, as he has got 13 goals and 11 assists in the Premier League. That is a remarkable return and underlines the influence he has on the pitch. This season will be considered an excellent one for the Belgian based on his individual stats, as he is averaging 2.6 shots, 2.6 key passes and 3.2 dribbles per game. However, as there aren’t any players of a similar calibre, the team need him to push them to success over the coming games.
Callum Paterson will be out for the rest of the season, which is a huge blow to Cardiff. Harry Arter and Joe Bennett are doubts for the home side. Sol Bamba remains on the sidelines.
Chelsea will be hoping that Ruben Loftus-Cheek will be available after he picked up a knock over the international break. Callum Hudson-Odoi will be pushing for his first Premier League start following his England debut.
This is a game that Chelsea must win if they are to finish in the top four. They can’t relent over the coming weeks as two of the top teams will miss out on Champions League qualification through the league. They have an important week ahead against two teams battling at the bottom of the table and they can’t drop silly points at this stage of the season. A lot will depend on team selection. Sarri needs to be bold and place faith in Hudson-Odoi in the same attacking line-up as Hazard. If he does, they should prevail.