It was probably around this time last season when Antonio Conte took his Chelsea side to The Emirates stadium and they were battered 3 nil by Arsenal. In the eternal city of Rome, in midweek, they were brushed aside by the same scoreline but in this particular match, Chelsea were shambolic.
If it was a shock for a neutral like me watching that car wreck of a performance by the Premier League Champions, I wonder what it must have felt like for Chelsea fans. Roma are a lovely football playing side and have been for the past 3 seasons or so, however, the domination by their midfield trio of Kevin Strootman, Radja Nainggolan and Daniele de Rossi over the entire match was total. A cause for worry for Conte and his backroom staff.
On the back of such a terrible bashing, Chelsea welcome Jose Mourinho and Man United to the Bridge at the weekend. I dare say that this is going to be the biggest match of Conte’s coaching career. I know he won multiple Serie A title with Juventus and managed the Squadra Azzurri, but the feeling all summer has been that all is not well between the Chelsea Board and their manager so this is one match he can’t afford a defeat.
Frankly, anything less than a home win and the Champions’ grip on the Premier League crown will be loosened while Conte could be clinging on for his job. There are those who say the absence of N’golo Kante has been the biggest factor in the way they have been shipping goals. What has surprised me has been the choice of Cesc Fabregas to partner Tiemoue Bakayoko. The Spaniard is a play maker and in a team that has wing backs pushed high up with Eden Hazard near the striker, gaps will appear in front of the centre-backs and behind the wing backs.
Bakayoko is more of a box to box midfielder with enough dynamism, athleticism and physicality to mix it with the best in the league but he does not have that awareness to sniff out danger or to sit and allow others to go forward so he can protect his defenders. For this visit of United, Conte has to be pragmatic and play Danny Drinkwater alongside Bakayoko if Kante is not passed fit to play.
Manchester United sit in second place behind neighbours City and the stats will show a team that has scored 23 goals and let in only 4 in their 10 league games. Another team, another manager and perhaps in another league they will probably be hailed for their attacking and defensive prowess.
The visit to Stamford Bridge MIGHT present Mourinho with a conundrum I believe. Chelsea could be short on confidence following the mauling in the Rome Cauldron and just might be there for the taking if United go at them from the kick off. Historically, Mourinho is not a risk taker of a football manager; he actually thrives on punishing those who take risks. So it will be foolish of me or anyone to think/hope he will set up a team to attack Chelsea on Sunday.
On paper the match at the Bridge should be humdinger when you consider the players that both teams will parade but the wisdom here is to expect a borefest. The United manager will go there to stifle and hope to plunder on the counter – a perfectly legitimate tactic – so the onus will be on the home side to make the play.
In this fixture last season, an early Pedro goal set Chelsea up for an emphatic 4 nil win. For any chance of an entertaining match a goal just as early as that of last season will be exactly what the doctor ordered. There are those who will argue but I believe football is entertainment first and it is possible to have entertainment and winning together.
This is a much bigger match for Conte than it is for Mourinho and that is where it is a big, big problem for the Italian.