It is truly remarkable how one’s fortune can quickly change in a short space of time. Less than eight months ago, Chelsea faced relegation-threatened Leicester City at the King Power Stadium, sitting 16 places above and having 41 points more than the Foxes in their quest to secure the league title.
Fast forward to December, the faltering champions meet the same opposition at the same venue just two points above the relegation zone with 15 points gained from 15 matches. The Foxes, on the other hand, are flying high under Claudio Ranieri, sitting two points clear at the top of the table and boasting a 17-point lead over the Londoners.
Despite the constrasting form, the Blues desperately need to pick up the three points and here are five thoughts ahead of Monday’s trip to the Midlands.
1. Which Chelsea will turn up?
It is a question that is no doubt in the mind of every Blues fan right now. Jose Mourinho’s men have been terribly inconsistent this season and last weekend, they reached arguably their lowest point in years, losing 1-0 to Bournemouth – a side who saw Manchester City and Tottenham put 5 past them – following another listless display – both in attack and defence.
But the Londoners responded in midweek by producing a solid, if not unspectacular performance to dispatch Portuguese giants Porto in the Champions League. While it is dangerous to reach too much into one game, the Blues did look more like their usual selves.
Defensively, they were resolute and solid – closing down spaces, blocking shots, intercepting passes and forcing Porto to take harmless shots from distance. On the offensive front, they looked menacing and capable of scoring any time they went forward, with Diego Costa and Eden Hazard running rings around helpless Porto side.
There have been many false dawns in this campaign – a series of positive results and performances is usually followed an abject defeat and display – but if the Blues are serious about climbing up the standings and making inroads into the top four, then they must start to turn up every week and pick up the victories needed. A repeat of the performance against Porto on Monday and beyond and the Champions League places might not be too far away.
2. Will Cesc Fabregas return to the starting XI?
The exclusion of Fabregas on Wednesday became a huge talking point as Mourinho opted to partner Ramires with Nemanja Matic to ensure the midfield was not lightweight against a physical Porto side. And sure enough, the decision paid dividends as the Blues not only handled themselves but also denied Julen Lopetegui’s side from controlling the game like they usually do.
The question now is would Mourinho restore the Spanish midfielder back into the starting XI. The 28-year-old’s form has completely nosedived since the turn of the year and he has shown no sign of getting back to what he did best in the first half of last season. At his best, Fabregas is a glorious playmaker, capable of dictating the match and cutting the opposition’s defence into pieces. But at his worst, the ex-Barcelona man does not contribute offensively and is a huge liability defensively.
Against a hard-working and pacey Leicester side, the Blues need everyone to match home side in every department and cannot afford any passenger in the side – Fabregas’ form makes him one at the moment. So, what will Mourinho do?
3. Countering the counter
Leicester’s rise to the top of the table is the most surprising story of the season and they should be commended for their achievement. Their approach, however, to get where they are now is largely unsophisticated – Ranieri has largely set up his side to play on the break and why not when you have hardworking and quick players like Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez in your ranks.
The Foxes’ average possession is 44.2% and that is the third lowest in the Premier League. Only Sunderland (43%) and West Brom (42.3%) have a worse record. But despite the low amount of the possession, Leicester take 14.4 shots per game – which puts them sixth in the table – with 5.1 shots on target per game – fourth highest. This suggests Ranieri’s men are accurate in front of goal, a characteristic that is further backed by their 32 goals scored in 15 games – more than anyone else.
Hence, it would be interesting to see what approach Mourinho would adopt at the King Power Stadium. Even though Leicester are not big side by reputation, the Portuguese might take a cautious approach – like he usually does against the big teams – and play on the break. He would not want his side to open themselves up and get exposed on the counter – as Garry Monk and Swansea found to their cost last weekend and in turn, this would provide a test for Leicester, asking them if they have the creativity and capability to break a side that sit back against them.
4. Ranieri renews rivalry with Mourinho
The two experienced managers finally cross path again after their last encounter in Serie A five years ago. Mourinho and Ranieri often traded barbs with one another when they were at Inter Milan and Roma respectively and while the rivalry threatened to go over the top at times, it appears the two have reconciled with the Italian claiming his Portuguese counterpart welcomed him back to England after being appointed as Leicester boss.
But the 64-year-old is unlikely going to forget some of the less than exemplary comments made by Mourinho in the past and he would probably love nothing than to crank up the pressure even further on the man who replaced him at Chelsea in 11 years. Mourinho was reportedly on the brink of being sacked before Wednesday’s Champions League tie with Porto but the win appeared to have bought him some extra time.
Another defeat, however, and it could be curtains as that would put the club dangerously close to the bottom three and far away from where they want to be in table.
5. Will the Premier League Manager of the Month award curse strike again?
Ranieri picked up the November Manager of the Match prize on Friday after steering Leicester to the summit of English football. But getting the award does not always turn out to be good for the manager as their teams tend not to win in the following match.
And that is exactly what happened to the two previous winners – Arsene Wenger and Mauricio Pochettino. The Frenchman got his October prize on November 10 and Arsenal went on to lose 2-1 at West Brom while Tottenham boss Pochettino collected his September award on October 16 and his men drew 0-0 with Liverpool the following day.
Only Manuel Pellegrini has won after picking up the manager of the month award (for August). He was presented with it on September 11 and City proceeded to beat Crystal Palace 1-0 at Selhurst Park.
Claudio and Leicester, you have been warned.