Tuesday 21 November 2017

Chelsea vs Manchester City is the first serious battle in the war for this season's Premier League title

Those who know Guardiola say that he really does consider Conte possibly the best manager in the world, adding even more intrigue into this weekend's must-watch match

In this composite image a comparision has been made between Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea (L) and Josep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City. Chelsea and Manchester City meet ina Premier League fixture at Stamford Bridge on April 5, 2017 in London,England. ***LEFT IMAGE*** STRATFORD, ENGLAND - MARCH 06: Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea looks on during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Chelsea at London Stadium on March 6, 2017 in Stratford, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images) ***RIGHT IMAGE*** LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 19: Josep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City looks on during the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Manchester City at Selhurst Park on November 19, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)
In this composite image a comparision has been made between Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea (L) and Josep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City. Chelsea and Manchester City meet ina Premier League fixture at Stamford Bridge on April 5, 2017 in London,England. ***LEFT IMAGE*** STRATFORD, ENGLAND - MARCH 06: Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea looks on during the Premier League match between West Ham United and Chelsea at London Stadium on March 6, 2017 in Stratford, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images) ***RIGHT IMAGE*** LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 19: Josep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City looks on during the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Manchester City at Selhurst Park on November 19, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)

Miguel Delaney

If the feeling around the Premier League now is that Manchester City are in better form than Chelsea and thereby possibly a better team, Pep Guardiola himself knows better than to read too much into such early-season results.

That is for reasons far greater than the fact there was a similar feeling last year only for Antonio Conte to then become the first ever manager to beat the Catalan twice in a single league campaign, to show it was wrong to think that title race was going to be centred in Manchester.

It is because those who know Guardiola say that he really does consider Conte possibly the best manager in the world. His pre-game words in fulsome praise of Chelsea were more than easy platitudes.

“I admire the Chelsea manager and the way they play,” Guardiola said. “They can play amazing counter-attacking football.

"They control all the aspects of the game and that is why they won the Premier League and why they won against a good team [Atletico Madrid] three days ago."

A little like with Jurgen Klopp, Guardiola greatly respects the fact Conte has developed such a distinctive and adaptable style of play, that has cut its own path between the old 2010 dichotomy of reactive pragmatic football against the Catalan's own proactive possession football.

Guardiola already thought the challenge of figuring out how to play against Conte one of the most difficult in the game before they faced each other, and that was made concrete afterwards.

He was still trying to figure out a solution to that challenge this week, and that is just one other element that charges Saturday’s meeting at Stamford Bridge, a match that feels the first serious battle in the multi-fronted war for this season’s title.

If that sounds a little harsh on Tottenham Hotspur given that they were second last season and have already faced Chelsea, it is only because that was so early in the season, and so much has already changed and evolved since then.

City suddenly clicked to rapidly become the most creatively destructive and free-scoring side in the Premier League, while Chelsea have more gradually rediscovered last season’s groove. They're not quite as rampant as Guardiola’s side but arguably more resilient for it.

Even from those recent surges, though, a few things have changed for this specific game. Eden Hazard has returned for Chelsea, while City will be without Sergio Aguero and long-term absence Benjamin Mendy.

The conclusion from that might be that it is City weakened, but it isn’t necessarily that simple.

Aguero and Gabriel Jesus have been brilliant for Guardiola this season, and it’s difficult not to think having two such scorers in the box is one reason why they have been so gluttonously plundering the kind of chances they were missing last season.

There is still the suspicion that it has involved an element of compromise from the City manager, though; that selecting both isn’t necessarily his idealised team. How he approaches the Chelsea game will thereby tell a lot, especially if he moves away from a three-man central defence as well as a strike partnership.

This might seem sacrilege considering everything Aguero has done for the club, but there is even an argument Mendy is a bigger loss, because of how important width is to this Guardiola side; because of his unique attacking invention from ‘full-back’ - if that even is a fair description of his position - and because it is now harder to shuffle the team around the French international's absence.

Without Aguero, after all, the Catalan can still just rearrange that array of attacking talent - put in an extra number 10 maybe rather than extra striker.

Conte on Friday insisted the absence of Aguero doesn’t really change his planning for the game, and while that might be a naturally deflected response to a tactical question, it stands to reason that Chelsea can themselves be that more front-loaded and assertive with a flying Hazard back.

He has already struck up what seems an instinctively incisive partnership with Alvaro Morata, and the wonder will be how City stem that flow.

“When they have one chance, they are killers in that situation,” Guardiola argued. “That is why Chelsea are a good team.”

They are also a slightly different team to when their attack so often cut through City in their games last season, when Diego Costa caused such problems for their defence with his ability to suddenly sprint from a position of having his back to goal.

Morata doesn’t quite play like that, and is more dependent on the ball coming to him in the box. That however could put even more importance on a player that has been questioned a lot in these kinds of fixtures: Nicolas Otamendi.

While he has often looked stretched in such games because of his lack of pace, especially in the first half of the 5-0 win over Liverpool, his tendency to stand more solidly could now be a virtue. That is because he will likely be the one marking Morata.

Otamendi will be the defender responsible for responding to those ghosted moves in the box that have allowed the Spanish striker to be so prolific with his head.

It would certainly be a different type of duel to those that David Luiz and Aguero have engaged in over the past few years, and it is a little twist that both South Americans are missing on Saturday, the Brazilian through suspension after his red card in the 0-0 draw against Arsenal.

Their confrontation at the end of December’s game saw an electrically fast match end with tempers quickened too, and a dismissal for the Argentine.

That may have been unsavoury, but it ensured Chelsea’s 3-1 victory had everything as a match. It had a very strong claim to be the best game of last season, to go with it being one of the most consequential. The victory allowed Chelsea to open up a decisive gap over City, and effectively killed Guardiola’s debut-season title chances there and then.

This match is too early in the campaign to have that kind of effect, but could still have similar influence, and a similar exhilarating speed.

If City win, it will open up the same type of gap between them and the champions as then, just in reverse, as well as offering the type of properly momentum-setting victory in a top-six game that kept eluding Guardiola last season. If Chelsea win, it will again set what had seemed a rampant City back, and greatly congest that top end of the table.

The onus, right now, is on Guardiola figuring out how to untangle Chelsea before getting into a situation when he has to untangle that.

Independent News Service

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