Time: 12:45 PM PST (4:45 AM PST), Saturday September 25th.
Location: City of Manchester Stadium, Manchester
Preamble: Billed by many as our first real match of the season (I note with some amusement that most of these 'many' were also claiming Chelsea would start slowly due to a poor pre-season), this is a top-of-the-table clash with a team favoured to qualify for the Champions League. Make no mistake, this match will be far more difficult than Chelsea are used to, and Manchester City's defence might pose real problems for the Blues, especially in light of Chelsea's injury list. However, at the current juncture Chelsea lie four points clear of both Arsenal and Manchester United; dropping points or even losing wouldn't be the end of the world.
Opposition: Manchester City have invested hundreds of millions into revamping their squad, hoping to become one of Europe's elite teams. They're not there yet, but they're getting close. In the past eighteen months, they've replaced their entire starting eleven, and while there have been games in which they've been outstanding, City also have a tendency to misfire. They've already lost away to Sunderland and drawn 1-1 at home to Blackburn while also dropping points at White Hart Lane, but they tend to up their game against strong opponents and took all six points off Chelsea last season. Striker Carlos Tevez has been a major thorn in our side lately, scoring in his last four matches against the Blues and generally being a major headache. Tevez likes to drop deep and drag central defenders out of position, but he'll find his favourite operating area already occupied by Jon Obi Mikel.Mikel will have his hands full dealing with one of the world's premiere attacking talents - it's time to see if those gains he seems to have made are real.
The City midfield is pretty interesting, and it's been totally overhauled since we last met it. Yaya Toure, David Silva, and James Milner were all major purchases, and when you add them to the already formidable base of Gareth Barry, Nigel de Jong, and Adam Johnson things get fairly interesting. Roberto Mancini seems to favour a split team against high level opposition, with Toure, Barry, and De Jong all hanging out fairly deep (although the first two have license to break forward) while two wingers support Tevez. It hasn't worked out too well - although City have only conceded two goals so far this year, that's more to do with Joe Hart having a magnificent time of things in the net than having a superior defensive strategy. It's also led to a few problems scoring goals, as well: City have just six goals so far this season, five of them coming in two games. Playing so deep in the midfield seems to lead to problems going forward, as the forwards have to drop back to pick up passes from the ball-winners.
If tactics is a thorny issue for City, it's not nearly so bad as their defensive problems. They have no less than three full-backs injured right now, with even more defenders doubtful, and they were never too solid at the back in the first place. Vincent Kompany and Kolu Toure are going to have their hands full coping with Didier Drogba, which leaves Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka free to make runs inside. Fortunately for City, I'd expect Ashley Cole to pose less of an attacking threat than usual, as he'll be sitting deep so as to avoid being burned by whichever winger Mancini decides to deploy on his right flank.
Chelsea: Chelsea's lineup has already been announced, and it's the same team that was fielded against Blackpool with two exceptions: Nicolas Anelka is in for the injured Salomon Kalou, and Branislav Ivanovic replaces Paulo Ferreira. Anelka played the full 96 minutes in the 4-3 loss to Newcastle on Wednesday, but there's really nobody rested and available to play right wing (at least, nobody more senior than Fabio Borini); Chelsea will just have to hope that their mercurial striker can deal with it. Ivanovic for Ferreira is an obvious choice as well, as the Serbian is far more capable defensively than his Portuguese counterpart.
The injury list for the Blues is long and painful: Frank Lampard is still out, as are Jose Bosingwa, Gael Kakuta, Salomon Kalou, and Yossi Benayoun. The lineup, then, will look like this:
It's pretty close to a full-strength XI, but there's an alarming lack of depth due to all the injuries sustained lately. Let's hope the players come through this one unscathed.
Stat Report: This is the closest match Chelsea have played so far, and with home field advantage going City's way, we can't expect to roll them over like we've been doing in all of our games so far. City are expected to score about 1.47 games per game, while Chelsea should manage 1.55. In other words, it's very close, and while the statistics point to a 2-1 Chelsea win I'm going to be a pessimist and call it a 2-1 loss.
Win/draw/loss probabilities stand at 39.7%, 24.2%, and 36.1% respectively, and our point expectancy is a touch above 1.4. I'd be happy with a draw and thrilled with a win. Hopefully the game tomorrow will be worth waking up to watch!