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Ahead of Sunday’s visit of Manchester United, Chelsea find themselves under real pressure after the club slipped to a 3-0 humbling in Rome on Tuesday evening.
Antonio Conte described the Blues’ performance as ‘really, really bad’ and it leaves the Italian with several questions ahead of a hugely important Premier League match.
There is a degree of negativity around Chelsea ahead of this fixture; much of it actually centres around a sale they made during the summer. Nemanja Matic was deemed surplus to requirements and Manchester United quickly pounced. Jose Mourinho recruited a player he had worked with closely before and the Reds are an infinitely better team for it.
Chelsea still have N’Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko, but neither do the specific job that the Serbian did at Stamford Bridge.
It is normal in life to need a new environment, Chelsea supporters were beginning to bemoan Matic’s performances and there were accusations that he was too slow and not as effective as he had been in previous years at Stamford Bridge.
Since he has arrived at Old Trafford though, he has been Manchester United’s most consistent performer. He has added an element of control to Mourinho’s midfield and prior to Paul Pogba’s injury, he allowed English football’s most expensive player to flourish in a role which had more freedom.
Where Chelsea have missed Matic, United have embraced him. The Reds have been far more defensively solid than last season, losing just one of their opening 16 matches in all competitions this term.
The defeat in Rome seems like another watershed moment for Conte, much like the 3-0 defeat at the Emirates Stadium was in his first season in charge. This prompted the Italian to switch to a three at the back system; it will be interesting if he has a surprising tactical tweak in store for Manchester United on Sunday.
Chelsea currently sit four points behind United and nine behind league leaders, Manchester City. They can’t really afford to lose on Sunday, potentially being 12 and seven points behind the two Manchester clubs heading into mid-November would be a really difficult position for the champions.
Every challenge the club has faced this term, they have been able to overcome, right from the disastrous opening day defeat to Burnley. People expected Chelsea to crumble after a transfer window of mixed successes, yet they didn’t.
There is a resolve about the current group that should please supporters, but you do not want to face one of your title rivals in the midst of such a bad moment. Not only did the midweek clash in the Italian capital go disastrously wrong, there are several key players who are out of form.
Alvaro Morata hasn’t scored a goal since September with the Blues forced to rely on mixed cameo appearances from Michy Batshuayi. One moment the Belgian can be brilliant, the next you wonder if he will ever score for Chelsea again.
This is exactly the sort of weakness that Mourinho preys upon, he will have done more than his due diligence on Conte’s charges and he will be a motivated manager with revenge on his mind.
If April’s 2-0 win over Chelsea at Old Trafford helped the Portuguese coach move past his Chelsea hang-ups, then victory on Sunday will go a long way to help him forget the 4-0 embarrassment he suffered on his first domestic return to the ground where he enjoyed so much success.
Mourinho will not have forgotten a single moment of that fixture, he won’t have forgotten a single face of the home fans goading him, he won’t have forgotten the Italian coach’s flamboyant celebrations at the fourth goal, he will have been planning this revenge since the full-time whistle.
The reality is that he is well placed to do it, United head to London on the back of two important results. The 1-0 victory over a Tottenham Hotspur side that demolished Real Madrid on Wednesday was a major result for the Reds. Victory over Benfica in mid-week also kept morale up as United all but booked their place in the knockout phase of the Champions League for the first time since the David Moyes era.
Chelsea on the other hand need to find some confidence ahead of Sunday. Whether that comes on the training pitch or from the players themselves, it needs to happen.
The 2017/18 Premier League title race is shaping up to be a proper one and Chelsea can’t afford to slip out of it before it has even truly begun.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @cmwinterburn
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