A Blue Up North previews our trip to Burnley as we try to close in on 4th spot.
On Thursday evening, The Blues travel north to Turf Moor to play their rearranged Premier League match against Burnley. The original tie was postponed from mid March due to The Blues’s involvement in the fifth round of The FA Cup away at Leicester City.
It may seem a long time ago now, but it was The Clarets who Chelsea lined up against in the opening round of Premier League matches this season in the reverse fixture. Saturday 12 August saw The Blues get off to a nightmare start to the defence of their title. 3-0 down at half time and 2 red cards turned the champions into a shambles. But it was a match that set 2 precedents.
That opening match showed to everyone a weak vulnerability within The Blues which has been exploited by oppositions far too often this season. Chelsea may have come close to levelling the match but the damage was too severe and beyond them.
However, we also saw a resilient, energetic and disciplined Burnley side that day. That may come as no surprise, but it was their skilful and ruthless nature, especially in the first half, which has now seen the unfancied Lancashire side arrive at the verge of European qualification.
With only 5 league matches left this season, a win for Burnley on Thursday evening will see them leapfrog Arsenal into 6th place and stretch to fully 12 points clear of Leicester who are in 8th. With the possibility of 7th place earning the final Europa League slot, Sean Dyche’s side could be looking forward to international opponents come July.
Meanwhile, after Spurs’s draw at Brighton on Tuesday, The Blues have the opportunity to reduce the gap to 4th place down to only 5 points with 4 matches remaining. It still seems very unlikely, but Chelsea’s hopes of qualifying for The Champions League is still a possibility.
Chelsea do actually go into this match on the back of an away victory last time out. Yes, The Blues had slumped to a 2-0 deficit, but they fought back to a thrilling 3-2 win at Southampton. This was their first league win since a 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace at home all the way back on 10 March.
In the build up to this match, a fair amount of newspaper space has been about one player. Left wing back Marcos Alonso has had a busy couple of days off the pitch. On Tuesday he was charged with violent conduct by the FA for an alleged stamp on Shane Long in the win at Southampton. But then on Wednesday the Spaniard was named in the 2017/18 PFA Premier League Team of the Year.
Assuming Alonso accepts his charge, he will be missing for this match and that will create Antonio Conte’s first decision. Will he revert to back up left wing back Emerson Palmieri or install Davide Zappacosta on the left and recall Victor Moses to the right flank. Other decisions will be whether he recalls Antonio Rudiger in defence, keeps with Cesc Fabregas in midfield and which of his 2 strikers start.
Olivier Giroud was impressive in his substitute appearance at Southampton as he instigated the victory from the jaws of defeat. His battling abilities and his link up play gave his teammates the belief and impetus to be more direct in their attacks. And the Frenchman reciprocated with 2 glorious finishes as he finally got his Premier League goal tally off the mark for his new employers. Will this showing give him the nod to lead the attack as The Blues come up against the 3rd best defence in the league.
Burnley may be missing Ben Mee but Kevin Long and especially James Tarkowski have been extremely resilient in defence. With Nick Pope in goal also in fine form, The Clarets have only conceded 29 league goals in 33 matches this season (less than Chelsea, Liverpool and the media’s favourites Tottenham Hotspur). Only the 2 Manchester clubs have conceded fewer.
That fact becomes even more staggering when you consider that The Clarets’s entire wage bill is around £37m, about 1/10 of the 2 Manchester giants. Burnley’s march towards a top 6 spot in their second season in the Premier League is remarkable and it shows how a well run club can achieve far more than they otherwise would be expected to. A board that has kept an eye on the purse strings, taken care of the ‘behind the scenes’ running of a football club and have hired a quality manager who epitomises the club’s philosophy deserve far more praise than they receive in the media.
Burnley go into this match on the back of 5 consecutive victories, the first time they’ve ever achieved that in the Premier League and striker Chris Wood has now scored 5 and assisted 1 goal since returning from injury in those 5 victories. Strong at the back, effective in attack whilst being rugged and determined in midfield are all the ingredients that has helped Sean Dyche’s side potentially qualify for Europe for the first time since 1966. Not only was their last campaign pre Europa League, but it predated the UEFA Cup as well. Their last european campaign was in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup which included The Battle of Naples in February 1967.
However, Chelsea and Antonio Conte will be focusing on their unexpected fight back at Southampton as they attempt to finish the season with a flourish including their much anticipated FA Cup semi final this coming Sunday. Olivier Giroud proved last time out that a strong performance this week could see their name on the team sheet at Wembley this weekend. As almost every player should not be guaranteed their semi final place, most of the team who step out at Turf Moor will need to cement their place.
So a match between 7th and 5th with both sides having a lot to play for should be an enticing affair. For The Blues to flourish, N’Golo Kante will need support in his defensive duties in midfield, Eden Hazard and Willian will need to be a their most devastating in their forward play and the back 3 with Thibaut Courtois behind them will need to remain focused and resilient from the off and for the entire match.
However, with Wembley places to play for, we can hope they all play to the best of their ability and The Blues can enjoy back to back away Premier League victories for the first time since November.
Written by Jon Ellis. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue