With Chelsea’s return to the Champions League not due until next week thanks to UEFA’s curious staggering of the first knockout round, the Blues will have had a full seven days' rest before they face Everton in the Premier League on Saturday.
Following the disappointments at West Bromwich Albion and Manchester City, Jose Mourinho will have been glad of the time to spend both recharging the batteries of his players and fine-tuning certain aspects on the training ground. If any extra motivation was needed, it should be remembered that the Blues' first defeat of the campaign came at the hands of the Toffees, so they will certainly not be taken lightly, especially with Roberto Martinez’s men playing an expansive yet effective brand of football.
There are plenty of positives for Mourinho to draw on, however. The 1-0 reverse at Everton was a setback, though it wasn’t the result of being second-best. Chelsea dominated the match and should have been over the horizon by the time Steven Naismith gave the hosts the lead on the stroke of halftime. The inability to finish off a glut of goal-scoring chances was Chelsea’s undoing, but their general play, particularly in the first half, was excellent.
That match was played some five months ago, so it is hard to know how much bearing it will have upon the managers’ thinking for this weekend’s clash. Mourinho will know, however, that Everton’s recent away record has not been great. Winless on the road in two months and having lost their past two, their early season capacity for springing surprises might be a thing of the past. That said, Everton were by far the better side a fortnight ago at Tottenham, where they lacked a cutting edge not dissimilar to Chelsea’s fate at Goodison Park in September.
Given Martinez’s footballing philosophy, it is all but unthinkable that Everton will park the bus, which should provide a boon for Chelsea. Recent draws against West Brom and West Ham were partly the product of space being denied to Chelsea’s attacking players, with the chances created not being taken. That Everton will not be inclined to maintain an entrenched position or focus on being especially compact should provide Chelsea’s creators with a greater freedom than they are afforded by more conservative teams.
The Toffees’ forward-thinking approach should provide the most intriguing battle with arguably the two best pairs of full backs in the Premier League facing each other. Much of Everton’s attacking thrust comes from the dynamism of Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman, who rarely need an invitation to get forward in support of an attack. They will provide a significant threat and will test the mettle of Cesar Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanovic. Willian and Eden Hazard are always detailed to help cover their flank defensively and you can be sure that thsis point will have been drilled home with extra emphasis this week.
Conversely, the ambition of Baines and Coleman might play into Chelsea’s hands. Mourinho’s use of his full backs was one of the key aspects of the 1-0 win at Manchester City at the beginning of the month and he might seek to adopt similar tactics on Saturday. Concerned about the pace of Jesus Navas and the interplay with Pablo Zabaleta, he instructed Azpilicueta to sit deep on the left and rarely cross the halfway line while on the other side he opted to push Ivanovic forward to exploit the space left behind Aleksandar Kolarov, whose natural game is to get forward. The consequence was that Navas was virtually anonymous and Ivanovic netted the winner.
Whether exactly the same strategy will be used is debatable, but one can certainly expect Hazard, Willian and Oscar to break quickly into any areas vacated by Everton when their attacks break down. Equally, using the same players to press the full backs high up the pitch could help nullify their threat at the source before it can gather momentum.
With title-chasing Chelsea playing host to a team with a positive mindset, it promises to be an enthralling encounter that the home side will be desperate to win. As the match kicks off at lunchtime, the Blues have a chance to take three points and extend their lead at the top of the Premier League before their rivals have even taken to the field. Fellow challengers Arsenal and Manchester City have suffered exhausting and traumatic experiences in the Champions League, both having been reduced to 10 men in 2-0 home defeats. The physical and mental tiredness might just affect their performances this weekend. So it is imperative that Chelsea make the most of any advantage and crank up the pressure with a win.
It will not be straightforward, but then, winning the Premier League title never is.