We face a Chelsea side on Monday, who, with 20 wins and 3 draws in their 26 Premier League games to date this season, have a ten point cushion at the top of the league, and are odds on with the bookmakers to repeat their title success of the season before last. Of course, last season they had a very disappointing time by their own recent standards, finishing tenth and therefore missing out on playing in Europe for the first time in the last twenty years. Perhaps their lack of European games is a contributing factor to their record this season?
We faced them at Stamford Bridge for the opening game of this campaign, and lost 2-1 in the closing minutes to a goal from Costa, who in my opinion should not have even still been on the pitch at the time. You’ll remember we had Antonio playing at right back and he gave away a penalty for their first goal. James Collins equalised a quarter of an hour from the end, and Ayew limped off early in the game, not to be seen for some time afterwards.
Far better to recall the EFL Cup game in October, when a marvellous Kouyate header from almost 18 yards put us one up after about ten minutes, and then a fine strike from Fernandes made it two in the second half. All Chelsea could muster was an injury-time consolation strike from Cahill. This victory came about against the odds based on form at the time, and we hoped it would kick-start our season. But it didn’t really. We didn’t win another game after that until Burnley were the visitors in mid-December and we managed a (lucky?) 1-0 victory.
Whatever you think of Chelsea, and I for one don’t particularly care for them at all, you have to say that they have had a magnificent season so far under their new Italian manager, Conte. After winning their first three league games in the month of August they had a miserable September, drawing with Swansea and losing at home to Liverpool, and 3-0 at Arsenal. But from that point they went on a tremendous run, winning all 13 league games in the months of October, November and December, scoring 32 goals in that period and conceding just 4. The run included victories over Manchester United (4-0), Everton (5-0), Tottenham (2-1), and a 3-1 win at Manchester City, all teams in the top seven in the table. Our EFL Cup win over them was their only defeat in the last quarter of 2016.
They began the New Year losing 2-0 at Tottenham, only their third league defeat of the season, but since then they have recorded four wins and two draws in the next six games. They have also progressed to the Quarter-Final of the FA Cup where they will face Manchester United next weekend. Their record is a formidable one, and shows the difficult task we have ahead.
It appears that we only have three players from the first team squad unavailable to play in the game. Ogbonna and Sakho are long term injuries of course, but it is disappointing that Antonio will miss the game through suspension due to being sent off at Watford for an innocuous hand ball offence. OK by the letter of the law we can have no complaints about the dismissal, but it does seem harsh that we have to face the champions-elect without Antonio because he handled the ball in the middle of the field.
Our all-time league record against Chelsea in the twentieth century was a positive one, and we beat them more times that they beat us. But since the turn of the century, and mainly as a result of the Abramovich effect, we have not done so well. Ironically we did the double over them in our relegation season of 2002-2003 with a 3-2 victory at Stamford Bridge, our goals coming from Di Canio (2) and Defoe, and then in our final home game, and the last time we saw Di Canio play at Upton Park in a competitive match, we beat them 1-0. Di Canio came off the bench to score the only goal of the game. It wasn’t enough to keep us up in the end and we were relegated with a massive 42 points. Trevor Brooking was our caretaker manager at the time.
We didn’t beat them again in the league until December 2012, when goals from Carlton Cole, Diame and Maiga helped us to a 3-1 victory. And of course we famously beat them last season with goals from Zarate and Carroll, who came on as a substitute to score the winner. This was another game where Mourinho was sent to the stands, and he was pictured looking forlorn standing in front of one of the boxes.
Without underestimating the task ahead, I am hopeful that we can become only the fourth team to beat them in the league this season. We beat them 2-1 last season, 2-1 again in the EFL Cup, so I am predicting a third 2-1 home victory in a row against them. What are the chances? Bookmakers will give you odds of around 17/1 on a 2-1 victory, and around 9/2 on a win by any score. It is about time we created an upset against one of the top teams this season, so where better to start than on Monday night?