In recent years, Tottenham versus Chelsea has reliably been one of the most watchable fixtures of the season. Goals are always guaranteed, occasionally in high quantities, and the football is always of great quality and high intensity. This being one of the most highly-charged and closely-matched derbies in London, controversy is never far away either.
In 2008, Ashley Cole famously tried to divide Alan Hutton into two equal pieces and then incredulously stood with his back to Mike Riley as the referee booked him. Two years earlier, John Terry saw red for fouls on Dimitar Berbatov and Pascal Chimbonda, as well as for repeatedly swearing at Graham Poll – an activity that seems less reprehensible now that time has passed and dust settled.
On this occasion, the football media’s gossip pages should have no shortage of meat to chew on after the match. With even the lesser storylines looking pretty tasty – Tottenham’s potential to make a statement as potential title contenders and Chelsea’s continued marginalisation of Juan Mata and David Luiz to name but two – Saturday’s main narrative will undoubtedly be the first managerial duel between André Villas-Boas and José Mourinho.
Some four years after apprentice walked out on master at Internazionale, the two Portuguese meet in what should be a fiercely contested and close encounter. AVB’s men have won their last five Premier League games and have kept four consecutive clean sheets since losing the North London Derby. Despite their recent wobble, Mourinho’s men are undefeated in twelve of their last thirteen matches in the Premier League and have not lost to Spurs in any of their last seven meetings.
There is an argument for this being a fairly cagey, sterile affair: with the stakes so high, both coaches will be keen to avoid defeat and would surely take the long-term positive of sustaining momentum moving into autumn. As with Mourinho’s first battle with David Moyes at Old Trafford, it could be that both sides display a desire to keep things tight at the back and take a goal as a bonus.
The statistics illustrate how evenly matched the teams are – or, rather, how similar the matches they have played have been. So far this season, Tottenham have taken the highest number of shots per game in the league with 21. Chelsea are in second place with 18.4. Similarly, Tottenham have conceded the fewest shots per game with 7 and Chelsea the second fewest with 8.2.
That sort of domination is admittedly exaggerated by the fact that both sides have begun the season with more than one fixture against two or three teams that will almost certainly be in the division’s bottom five come May but, nonetheless, it proves that both are extremely talented and effective in the execution of their tactics.
It is likely that the two opposing systems will be near enough identical. Unless Mourinho decides to man-mark Christian Eriksen with a specialist holding midfielder, both sides will: line-up in a conventional ‘medium-block’ 4-2-3-1; field an athletic, box-to-box double pivot; focus passing centrally, through a supremely creative number ten; and utilise the intelligence of their wide-attackers, who will look to come inside and combine with said number ten.
Chelsea’s back five and first midfield band will probably be the same as that which started the away game to Manchester United in August. Until Thibaut Courtois returns from Atlético Madrid, Petr Čech’s place in goal is as secure as Fort Knox. César Azpilicueta appears to be rather too attacking for Mourinho’s safety-first sensibilities, so the rather more dependable Branislav Ivanović will continue at right-back. The English trio of Gary Cahill, John Terry and Ashley Cole will complete the back four.
Ahead of them, Ramires will start alongside Frank Lampard provided the Brazilian shakes off the knock he sustained away to Swindon in Tuesday night’s Carling Cup game. Should the injury rule him out, goal-machine John Obi Mikel will take his place. While Mikel and Lampard are both valuable players to Chelsea, fielding both against a midfield as dynamic and physical as Tottenham’s poses obvious problems and will be an option Mourinho tries to avoid taking.
Oscar will start in the central attacking berth, with his manager having publicly declared him Chelsea’s best player in this role (as an aside, neutrals the world over pray for Juan Mata’s eventual release/escape). It probably should be said that the baby-faced playmaker probably has been Chelsea’s stand-out performer this season but, with the greatest of respect, his teammates have not been pulling up many trees of late.
Either side of Oscar will be André Schürrle and Eden Hazard. The German is still looking for his first Chelsea goal following his summer move from Leverkusen while Hazard, whose telepathic relationship with Mata was Tottenham’s undoing in last year’s game at White Hart Lane, has barely got out of second gear this season.
While Mourinho will doubtless be pleased with most of their defensive work, six-pointers such as this one require them to do the rather more obvious task of creating and converting chances along with the team’s striker. Whether that will be Samuel Eto’o, Fernando Torres or Demba Ba is anyone’s guess. What is certain is that none of the Blues’ number nines have struck fear into the hearts of their opponents so far this season.
For Tottenham, the starting eleven will more or less pick itself. As previously stated, the back five has been excellent so far and can expect to be allowed the opportunity to keep that momentum going. Kyle Walker should shake off the knock he picked up in Tuesday’s 4-0 win at Aston Villa and his matchup with Hazard will be a measure of his progress, given how badly he performed against the Belgian last year.
This column highlighted Danny Rose as Tottenham’s likely match-loser against Arsenal and was proved right, so with a due sense of sorrow it feels dutibound to point out that Schürrle is the sort of player capable of making mince-meat out of makeshift left-backs. This will be as stern a test for Rose as any he will face this season.
At the other end of the pitch, Gylfi Sigurðsson’s role could prove pivotal, with Branislav Ivanović the game’s only full-back unlikely to be venturing forward at regular intervals. If Sigurðsson can be all-but relieved of defensive duties, he can overload the centre with Eriksen and/or focus on poaching in the six-yard box as crosses come in from the right. Not only has the Icelander form in this regard but Everton scored the only goal of their win over Chelsea by overloading the middle in this manner.
It appears to be touch and go between Erik Lamela and Andros Townsend as to who gets the wide-right spot but with the £25.7m having played 90 minutes against Swindon it seems that the more-integrated youngster will continue in the starting eleven. Do not rule out Lamela making a huge impact from the bench, as he did to match-winning effect in Cardiff last weekend.
Up front, Roberto Soldado has taken fourteen shots in his five Premier League games so far but is still waiting for his first goal from open play. He should have had it against Cardiff but instead found David Marshall in the form of his life. The phrase ‘due a goal’ comes to mind.
So, to conclude: two talented managers, twenty-two excellent players and a shedload of storylines to boot. Expect a 0-0.
Name - Rob Brown
Twitter - @Robbro7
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