Date: 4th March 2018 at 10:29am
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A Blue Up North previews our return to Manchester and our match against the leaders.

For the second Sunday in a row Chelsea make the trip north up the M6 to Manchester for an away match. But this time it is for the toughest of them all. Manchester City are the runaway leaders and they are just 5 wins away from deposing The Blues as champions.

Chelsea go into this match in 5th place in the table with Spurs, Liverpool and, their conquerors of last Sunday, Manchester United all now above them and all in good form. And after only 2 wins in their last 7 league matches, Antonio Conte will need a good run of results until the end of the season in order to finish in the top 4.

The good news for Conte is that 2 of his injured players, Ross Barkley and Tiemoue Bakayoko are back in training and should soon be pushing for returns to the match day squad. David Luiz remains out, while Ethan Ampadu is also unlikely to be involved afer picking up an injury while playing in the UEFA Youth League.

Manchester City played an extra match this week after they beat Arsenal in the League Cup Final last Sunday and then they repeated that win over the same opponents in the Premier League on Thursday evening. During that match Kyle Walker limped off early and is a doubt, while Fabian Delph is still suspended and both Fernandinho and Raheem Sterling are unlikely to be involved.

Despite these absentees, they still have an abundance of riches for Pep Guardiola to call upon. They have an incredible array of attacking talents which the Spaniard has honed into the most consistent match winning unit in the country. Some of their play this season has been the most exciting and breathtaking football seen in the English league. This has laid the foundations of The Citizens’s success and an outstanding record of 24 wins in 28 league matches, with their only loss coming away at Anfield has seen them march alone towards the title.

With the host’s confidence running at an all time high and Chelsea’s inconsistency, the result appears to be a foregone conclusion. However that doesn’t paint the full picture. The Blues played some outstanding football for most of their last 2 matches as they dominated both Barcelona and Manchester United. They just didn’t show the steely reserve after taking the lead in both matches to hold on and get the victory.

However, we just need to look back to Manchester City’s last home league defeat. In an open first half in which both sides had chances, City would have felt unlucky to end the half just 1-0 to the good. Then followed a second half in which the away side were solid in defence and counter attacked with blistering pace and lethal finishing. That away side was Chelsea, who’s performance that day was the quintessential example of why and how they became Champions.

The now departed Diego Costa played his part in that second half comeback, but it was the 2 players in top form currently, Eden Hazard and Willian who were the main instigators of the victory. How Conte would love for a repeat performance this term. I’m sure he will be focusing his side on how they were set up and the attitude they showed throughout that 45 minutes.

His biggest decision on his line up will be whether he starts with just Hazard and Willian up front or opts for a central striker in between them. Although Alvaro Morata hit the crossbar and had a perfectly good goal ruled out after an inaccurate offside decision, his general play was not good enough as he struggled to hold the ball up nor link play against The Red Devils. But will the manager have enough confidence to start with Olivier Giroud. It is more likely he will opt for an extra midfielder with Cesc Fabregas and Danny Drinkwater both lining up with N’Golo Kante, especially after both gave very good accounts of themselves in the last 2 matches. Another potential change could be on the right flank. Victor Moses was very ineffectual last Sunday and lost possession far too often – something any opposition to Manchester City can not afford to do at all. There is a real chance that Davide Zappacosta could be recalled.

Whatever formation and starting XI Conte goes with, it will be their attitude both individually and collectively that will be all important. A start similar to their last 2 matches will be a match for the host’s brilliance but it will be when City either take control or even score, that last season’s resilience and belief that they can win no matter what will be what is required for The Blues to return with any kind of result. If they tail away like they did late on against Barcelona and against Manchester United, Chelsea will have little hope of delaying losing their crown.

Or maybe it just may take a little bit of luck for The Blues, something they have lacked recently. Whatever happens, remember it is only 1 match and Chelsea’s last 9 league matches are a far more tasty affair when they go points hunting in order to get them back into the top 4.

Written by Jon Ellis. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue