Friday 30 January 2015 23:34, UK
Who will emerge on top out of John Terry and Sergio Aguero? Eden Hazard and Pablo Zabaleta? Nemanja Matic v David Silva?
Ahead of Saturday's crunch clash between title rivals Chelsea and Manchester City, we look at the key battles that could decide the result – and the destination of the Premier League trophy...
The main surprise with Zabaleta’s sending off in the reverse fixture in September was that it wasn’t for a foul on Hazard. The Chelsea winger is as tricky as they come and has already completed 106 dribbles in the Premier League so far this season – 30 more than anyone else. With Zabaleta having made more tackles than any other City player, placing him among the top 10 in the country, this should be another fascinating battle.
In the corresponding fixture last season, Hazard had Zabaleta worried throughout – even memorably causing the Argentine to do the splits when bamboozling him with his twists and turns. But it was the full-back who had the better of things in the World Cup quarter-final last summer, Hazard being substituted, so this is far from a one-sided contest. Such is Hazard’s creative importance to Chelsea – he’s fashioned more chances from open play than any Premier League player this season – how Zabaleta deals with the Belgian could be a decisive factor in the result.
Terry is in fine form and was badly missed last weekend against Bradford. Evidently, Chelsea remain alarmingly dependent on their captain since Jose Mourinho succeeded in getting the defender back to his best form following a difficult spell under Rafael Benitez. Facing Aguero will still be a huge test, however, with the nippy striker’s precisely the sort of opponent that can expose those ageing legs.
The concern for Manuel Pellegrini will be whether his star striker is at his best. Not only has Aguero failed to score in over 200 minutes since returning to fitness, but City have also failed to score in home defeats to Arsenal and Middlesbrough. “The problem is that we had to change our style of play because we didn’t have the strikers for around a month,” said Pellegrini last week. “After that the strikers are coming back. Of course, they need time to have their best performance and we have to return to the way we normally play. That will take time.” Unfortunately, City don’t have time.
With Chelsea likely to defend a little deeper to combat Aguero’s pace that could open up space for Silva to pull the strings in midfield – a worry for Mourinho. According to Opta, Silva has created more clear chances than any Manchester City player so far this season despite missing five games through injury. With Yaya Toure unavailable, the Spaniard will be the main man once again and that puts a lot of responsibility on Nemanja Matic to stop the diminutive playmaker.
It’s a role that Matic has relished since returning to Stamford Bridge a year ago. While City supporters might take encouragement from the Bradford result, it’s significant that the Serbian was rested for that one and their record with him in the starting line-up is formidable. Chelsea have won 19 of their 22 home games with Matic in the starting line-up, keeping 17 clean sheets in the process. If Matic can get close to Silva and be his dominant self then that record should continue, but Silva only needs a small pocket of space to punish any opponent. This is a battle both teams must win.
Ultimately the game could come down to the tactical tweaks of the coaches and while Mourinho might deservedly boast the better reputation of the two men, this feels like a huge game for the perceptions of how the two clubs are faring this season. Chelsea have surrendered leads five times so far this season including late equalisers against City and Manchester United. If they’d held on in those two games, the title race might already be over. As it is, City can reduce the gap to two points with a win on Saturday.
Just as in Rome in the Champions League, this experienced side might relish the opportunity of a second chance to make up for those early slips. In Frank Lampard, Pellegrini has his ace in the pack but how will he play the card? Can he find the right blend in attack? And what is the best shape in midfield to find penetration in the absence of Toure? The weapons are there to hurt Chelsea but Mourinho usually finds an answer – he’s beaten Pellegrini seven times in 11 meetings, losing only twice. Who will be smiling on Saturday?
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