Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off features the two most recent Premier League champions Chelsea and Leicester City. The former failed to defeat the latter on both occasions last year, with Claudio Ranieri coincidentally claiming the title at Stamford Bridge.
Nevertheless, Leicester’s return to Stamford Bridge presents additional pressure towards the reigning champions considering the Foxes have conceded four goals against two of the traditional top four sides away from the King Power Stadium. While Chelsea’s form remains somewhat inconsistent – despite a bounce back away win at Hull – Antonio Conte’s switch to a 3-4-2-1 has been effective following humbling defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal.
The main selection issue for Conte rests in who plays behind Diego Costa alongside Eden Hazard. It’s uncertain that Willian will feature following the sudden passing of the Brazilian’s mother, so Conte could turn to Victor Moses direct running or Oscar’s guile and creativity on the right. Conte’s recent system alteration has left Oscar without a place in the current XI, but his dynamism and tireless work-rate could result in a potential recall.
Frankly there shouldn’t be any changes to the current Chelsea midfield bank: N’Golo Kante enjoyed freedom playing slightly ahead of Nemanja Matic, and should feature in that role against his former employers. Meanwhile, Marcos Alonso should continue at left-wing back, and the return of John Terry would push Cesar Azpilicueta to right wing-back.
“It’s important for me to see every day the shape, every day the situation,” said the Italian.
“Tomorrow I have four central defenders and I have to take a decision for three, I have to value the situation – one must go on the bench.”
Elsewhere, Conte will be hoping Terry’s potential return will provide stability to a back-four that’s been unconvincing since his injury. With that being said, Gary Cahill will feature on the opposing side of David Luiz, as the Brazilian will be expected to build attacks from the back. The Blues will rely on Luiz’s passing from deep with Cesc Fabregas on the bench and it will be interesting to see whether Islam Slimani and Jamie Vardy will step forward to negate the Brazilian’s productivity.
In terms of individual battles, Chelsea’s key men are unsurprisingly their best attacking players in Diego Costa and Hazard. Costa is currently the highest goal-scorer in the league and should relish individual battles with centre-backs Robert Huth and Wes Morgan, who have been thoroughly exposed against direct attackers since Kante’s departure.
On the other hand, Hazard’s role behind Costa offers the Belgian freedom to drift into pockets of space in central areas if he’s not positioned towards the left flank, but here, he should dominate either way. Daniel Amartey hasn’t performed poorly in midfield, but his partnership with Danny Drinkwater still witnesses the duo concede far too much space in central areas. The possible inclusion of Andy King – a midfielder renowned for making late runs into the box – would leave Drinkwater further isolated in midfield and Hazard shouldn’t encounter difficulties receiving the ball in dangerous areas.
Likewise, one of Leicester’s weaknesses stems down their right flank due to Riyad Mahrez’s reluctance to protect right-back Danny Simpson. Simpson can prove to be a liability in 1v1 situations, and unless protection from midfield or Mahrez is provided, Hazard and Alonso’s overloads could be the decisive factor.
There shouldn’t be any major changes to Leicester’s shape or their personnel, but Ranieri’s attacking quartet could shape the general tempo of the match. Islam Slimani and Jamie Vardy are expected to start from the front and the latter’s runs into the channel could trouble Cahill or Terry in exterior centre-back positions. If Kante plays further forward to press Drinkwater and prevent long diagonals towards Vardy, Matic’s positioning will be key in terms of bypassing the duo’s pressing and ensuring Slimani doesn’t isolate David Luiz.
Ranieri could summon Ahmed Musa towards the left to peg back Azpilicueta, but with Chelsea likely to dominate possession he may prefer the diligent Marc Albrighton. If Leicester can quickly facilitate possession into wide areas, Slimani may be instructed to target the struggling Gary Cahill to win aerial duels in the box.
“Conte changed everything, and now it’s important that the [Chelsea] players follow him,” said Ranieri.
“It will be another tough match,” he added. “Conte has changed the shape of Chelsea so we have to fight.
Although Chelsea have been underwhelming in open play when presented the task of breaking down organized opposition, Leicester remains vulnerable defending set-pieces. Conte may opt to designate set-piece duties elsewhere due to Willian’s significant decline in this area, as Chelsea possess ample aerial threats that could exploit Leicester’s deficiencies.
Perhaps Leicester have stumbled against the traditional English elite thus far, but Chelsea’s issue creating chances and inefficient finishing suggests that they won’t be blown out at Stamford Bridge. However, the Foxes’ poor away record and predictable attack should ensure that Chelsea will cope better with their threat this time around due to improved defensive structure under Conte.
Neither side are the defensive giants that claimed the Premier League title in previous seasons so there will be goals, but it’s vital that Leicester score first – they have yet to showcase their ability to turnaround a result on the road this season – if they intend on claiming maximum points.