Positive attitude can carry Chelsea past City

Posted by Phil Lythell

Chelsea face the biggest game of their season so far when they face Premier League leaders Manchester City on Monday night.

The match was already shaping up to be one of huge significance in the title race, though Wednesday night's draw with West Ham has heaped greater pressure on the Blues to get a positive result.

Had they earned the win that their dominance deserved against the Hammers, then a loss at the Etihad Stadium would not have been terminal, even if the psychological impact might have been heavy. But now that Chelsea trail the Citizens by three points, it is hard to escape the thought that defeat and the six-point gap that would ensue would be an almost unbridgeable chasm, even with just more than a third of the season remaining. Such is the momentum being created by Manuel Pellegrini's men.

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The big question facing Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho is what attitude to infuse into his team before they take the field in Manchester. Should they adopt a safety-first policy or try to beat the hosts at their own game by focusing on attacking football?

Given that City have won every single home match in the league this season -- averaging more than three goals per game in the process -- and that only European Champions Bayern Munich have managed to find a way past them at the Etihad Stadium, the overriding temptation for Mourinho must be to approach the game conservatively. Packing the midfield and hitting the opposition on the break is a tactic that he has employed with a certain degree of success this season already with draws secured away at both Manchester United and Arsenal.

Far from reprising the approach that West Ham adopted in midweek of sticking everyone behind the ball and hoofing it up to a physical centre-forward, Chelsea are able to contrast their compact defence with lightning-fast counterattacks by using the pace and incision of Oscar, Eden Hazard, Willian and Ramires. At the Emirates Stadium, even though they set themselves up defensively in a 4-3-3 formation, the Blues constantly looked like the more dangerous team while largely restricting the Gunners to shooting speculatively from distance. The problem with using this same tactic against City is the fact that they are overflowing with creators and goal scorers like no other team in the land. It was one thing to snuff out Arsenal; doing the same to City will be another thing entirely.

The sheer weight of goals that they have accumulated this season virtually guarantees that they will score on Monday night, meaning that Chelsea will have to go in search of at least one themselves. This opens up the possibility of attempting to take the game to the opposition and fight fire with fire. While that might at first seem like a crazy stance to take, it might just pay dividends. When the teams met at Stamford Bridge at the end of October, the Blues came flying out of the blocks and were on the front foot immediately with good chances missed by both Gary Cahill and Fernando Torres before the latter's devastating run set up Andre Schurrle for the opening goal. The Blues found the frenetic pace tough to maintain, and faced with the quality of Manchester City, it was obvious that their opponents would have their moments in the game as well.

Chelsea might have ostensibly won that game as a result of a defensive clanger from City, though the positivity flowing through the team -- and Torres, in particular -- was just as important to the final result. That positivity was the result not only of the mindset instilled in the players by the manager, but also as a product of being in a rich vein of form.

Fast forward three months and the Blues are arguably in even finer fettle, with the players more understanding of their roles within the team and of the demands of their manager. With Hazard, Willian and Oscar all currently operating at their highest level to date, Mourinho must surely be examining the possibility of unleashing all three in attacking positions on Monday. Defensively, Chelsea are also now much improved, which might give the Special One the confidence to play a slightly more expansive game than most expect, especially with City's defence by far the weakest area of their team.

Mourinho will also be buoyed by the fact that goal machine Sergio Aguero will miss the game with a pulled hamstring, while Alvaro Negredo is only just coming back from an injury layoff himself. Edin Dzeko has been scoring freely of late and will clearly be a threat along with David Silva, Samir Nasri, Yaya Toure and Stevan Jovetic, though the potential absence of their top two goal scorers will still be welcome news for Chelsea.

The Chelsea boss might have been publicly telling everybody who will listen about Manchester City's pre-eminence in the Premier League, though anybody who takes this as an admission of defeat will be wide of the mark. Mourinho will be more driven to win this match than any other this season, and, with the eyes of the nation focused upon the Etihad Stadium on Monday night, the Portuguese will be desperate to shine on the big stage.

Manchester City, although daunting opposition, are not unbeatable. However, the manager's tactics will need to be spot on, the players will have to be at their best and confidence will need to be coursing through their veins if they are to get the result they desire. It is all shaping up to be an enthralling game. Roll on Monday night.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell


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