After a hard fought draw against Watford, West Ham are set to go up against Chelsea. By this point, the story of Antonio Conte’s league leading team is well known. The Italian got off to a stuttering start before a loss to Arsenal forced a formation switch. From that moment on, the Blue’s have been flying.
West Ham have already played Chelsea twice this season and both games finished two to one. The first meeting, on the seasons opening day, ended heartbreakingly for the Hammers. Eden Hazard scored a penalty, only for a James Collins wonder strike to even the score. The Hammers seemed set for a positive result, before the double blow of an injury to Andre Ayew and a late Diego Costa finish kicked off a nightmare run of form for West ham.
Later, facing off in the EFL Cup, Chelsea sent out a mixture of youth and reserve players. It turned out to be a rare misstep from Antonio Conte, as West Ham’s full strength side ran rampant. Goals from Kouyate and Fernandes gave Bilic’s men a 2-0 lead, before Gary Cahill scored a last second consolation goal.
The draw against Watford was a disappointing result, especially considering the Hammers gave up a first minute penalty. Against Chelsea, mistakes like that will be punished ruthlessly. Should concentration lapse early on, the game could be out of reach before half time.
Chelsea’s success this season is, in part, down to their impressive injury record, and this game proves no different. Apart from a slight injury Eden Hazard in training (One that, presumably, will not keep him out of the match) the blues are not missing anyone.
Chelsea are coming off a 3-1 victory against Swansea, a match which saw Pedro continue his incredible scoring form. The Spaniard will start alongside his countryman, Diego Costa, and another goalscoring threat in Eden Hazard. Behind them, Conte faces his only real question. N’golo Kante is, of course, a lock to start, but choosing his partner is a harder task. Nemanja Matic provides a strong defensive shield, while Cesc Fabregas provides for a more free flowing, attack minded set up.
In the wingback slots, Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso are ever present, both providing dangerous attacking outlets down the flanks. Meanwhile, the trinity of Azpilicueta, Luiz and Cahill will hope to protect Thibaut Courtois’ goal.
With Michail Antonio suspended after his red card against Watford, the main striker role has been vacated once again. Luckily, a hero has stepped forward, in the form of Andy Carroll, back after a long injury lay off.
Don’t expect much to change behind the big Englishman. With Antonio missing out, the big question is whether Andre Ayew gets a start after scoring last match. Any of Lanzini, Snodgrass or Feghouli could drop to the bench.
It is also possible that Bilic would prefer to pay a more defensive option, by sliding Kouyate into midfield at the expensive of an attacking player.
One of the few areas in which Chelsea have shown weakness this year is in dealing with back post crosses. Azpilicueta and Moses have suffered against the likes of Fernando Llorente and Dele Alli. With the hulking mass of Andy Carroll to deal with, a window of opportunity appears available for the Hammers.
Facing off against the Premiership’s best defensive midfielder is an unenviable task, but it’s the one Pedro Obiang and Mark Noble must negotiate on Monday. Facing the overwhelming destructive power of the diminutive Frenchman, caution may be the safest option. Expect plenty of backward and sideways passes, as well as a few punts towards Carroll, as duo try to escape pressure.
Against the fluid, rapid attack Chelsea have put in place, constant focus will be key. Any of Hazard, Pedro or Costa can and will drop deep to receive possession. Unless the midfield retains absolute focus, the defense could be exposed.
Going forward, a key point will be the Iron's ability to retain possession. Careless passes will give the ball straight to Chelsea’s lethal front three, allowing them to run unopposed at the relatively slow West Ham backline.
Darron Randolph should continue in goal, while the Reid and Fonte will again form an experienced pairing at the heart of defense. Outside of those two, things will be interesting. Arthur Masuaku and Sam Byram are fight again, and looks like the latter that could be thrust into the starting lineup.
Byram would replace Kouyate, who has looked out of place at right back this season. It would be asking a lot of Byram to come back into the side and match up against Eden Hazard, but it would be an even more egregious error to start an obviously uncomfortable Kouyate up against the Belgian Superstar.
Prediction: Chelsea 3-1 West Ham
It’s tough to be very upbeat for this match. Chelsea have strong together an incredible run of form, and don't look like slipping up any time soon. West Ham have done well to claw their way back into contention for the European spots this year, but this match looks to be a bridge too far.
Still, wherever there is a chance for Andy Carroll to head the ball, there remains hope. While the initial signs may look foreboding, West Ham have the quality to beat any team in the league. Despite the undeniable mismatch in terms of form, Chelsea have shown at times that they are vulnerable to complacency. If the Hammers can keep their resolve and determination, an upset could be on the cards.