It could be deemed the clash of the most unpredictable and the most predictable of the title challengers. The meeting of the big-game specialists and the masters of the smaller matches. That may sound as though Chelsea are damned with faint praise.
Quite the opposite. Theirs looks the perfect recipe to win the title. Because whereas Tuesday’s opponents Liverpool sit at the summit of the mini-league of the top six and are alone in not losing to any of their immediate rivals, Chelsea have already been beaten by the Merseysiders, Arsenal and Tottenham.
What sets them apart is not their record against the best, but their results against the rest. They dropped two points in a 2-2 draw with Swansea in September, a game so long ago that the Swans have sacked two managers since then. It remains the lone exception: Chelsea have played 16 games against teams placed between seventh and 20th. They have won 15 of them. They have taken 46 points from a possible 48. They are virtually flawless in such games.
They have conformed to a profitable formula. Manchester United became champions in 2009 despite losing home and away to closest challengers Liverpool. It mattered not. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side took 70 points from a possible 72 from the 12 weakest teams in the division. They could afford to stutter in tougher tests.
In 2000-01, Ferguson’s side lost home and away to Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool, who came third. They were beaten once by runners-up Arsenal. They drew twice with Chelsea. They took 13 points from 30 against the top six and 67 from 75 against the rest, before losing the final three games when the title was already secured.
Ferguson’s last title, in 2013, came with a respectable 14 points from 30 against the top six and a remarkable 75 from 84 versus the rest. Ferguson was the man who knocked Liverpool off their perch. Yet he proved that beating Liverpool is not actually a prerequisite to that: collect enough points against the minnows and the mid-table teams and the supposed six-pointers can decide little.
Winning titles can be about eliminating errors and averting upsets. Last season, Leicester went unbeaten against the bottom 12. This season, Liverpool have lost to Burnley, Bournemouth and Swansea. If Jurgen Klopp is plotting a path to glory, it is the rocky road. Chelsea’s seems the smoother route, rendered easier by the near-guarantee of victory when they are clear favourites.
Winning the winnable games sounds entirely logical. Yet if it was that easy, everyone would do it. Chelsea have been masters of efficiency. In a season when the top six have pulled further away from the rest, they have nonetheless been more clinical than anyone else. Not for them the damaging draws suffered by Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal.
*Not for them the capacity to concede against anyone and everyone that Manchester City have showed. Since changing shape to incorporate a back three, they have only let in a league goal to one side outside the top six, Stoke City.
Their ruthlessness in either penalty area has brought a relentlessness. Whereas Liverpool have been accused of lacking the right mentality against the lesser that lights, the same criticism cannot be levelled at Chelsea. They have had consistency of approach, results and selection – only 13 players have begun any of their last 16 league games – which is aided by their European exile. They have had preparation time which is apparent in their understanding and recuperation time which is evident in their fitness. They have been able to use Conte’s favoured double training sessions, which the Italian films so he can be even more rigorous. They have borrowed from Leicester’s blueprint last season: find a first 11 and stick with them.
They have prospered because of original thinking. Much as Jose Mourinho’s first Chelsea team benefited from adding a third central midfielder and outnumbering teams playing 4-4-2 in the centre of the pitch, Conte has confused opponents unaccustomed to a 3-4-2-1 formation and unsure who should track two No. 10s
Source: Yahoo Sport UK