Britannia Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent, England
August 14, 2011, 1230 GMT
The wait is finally over, as the Premiership season kicks-off this very weekend. Chelsea travel to the Britannia Stadium to take on Stoke City – a game which cannot be considered a walk in the park by any stretch of imagination. Especially, when one considers the extent of damage that injuries have already done to the Chelsea first team squad.
This season will be about how Andre Villas-Boas handles the sheer burden of expectations, that comes along with the Stamford Bridge job. For the sake of the club and the man himself, at least he’s not in denial and knows what lies ahead in his path. Chelsea finished second last season behind Manchester United, but the failure to match up to Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, both in Europe and in the league, led to Carlo Ancelotti’s departure. Villas-Boas will know that even if his team doesn’t win the league this season, the manner in which they go about doing their business will go a long way in cementing his position in South-West London. Chelsea have to be consistent, have to show desire and team-spirit, at the same time the helplessness, which had crept into the first team ranks between November and February last season, shouldn’t resurface again.
Tony Pulis, on the other hand, has done remarkably well ever since leading Stoke to the English Premier League. In three years, he has managed to transform Britannia into a fortress, where teams such as Arsenal dread to visit. They may not be flamboyant, but are extremely efficient at what they do. They have managed to reach the FA Cup final last season, and will play now in Europe. Stoke will look to improve in two departments in this campaign – performing better away from home and scoring more goals.
Team News and Tactical Brief
Tony Pulis has stated that he wants to add another dimension to Stoke’s game, while retaining all the characteristics of their physically imposing style of play, which has served them so well in the Premier League. However, the only addition that the manager has made to his squad have been two central defenders, Jonathan Woodgate and Mathew Upson, on free transfers. He’s yet to sign a midfielder who can add some fluidity to their game, while scoring the odd goal, occasionally.
Ricardo Fuller and Danny Higginbotham are suffering from long-term injuries, and are expected to be out until September end. Stoke will line-up in a familiar 4-4-2 shape, with the reliable Begovic between the posts and a back-line consisting of Huth-Woodgate-Shawcross-Wilson. The signing of Jonathan Woodgate has broken the extremely successful partnership of Huth and Shawcross in the center of defence, as Pulis has played the ex-Tottenham defender with Showcross, while deploying Huth at right-back in the Europa League qualifiers. The midfield will consist of Delap, Whelan, Pennant and Etherington, with Jones and Walters forming the strike-force.
Stoke, as usual, will be a threat at set-pieces, with Huth and Showcross joining their teammates at every available opportunity, and Delap launching his traditional long throws. The injury-hit Chelsea defence will have to be extra careful, and a lot will rest on the shoulders of Petr Cech if Chelsea are to return from Britannia unscathed.
Probable Starting Line-up: (4-4-2) Begovic, Huth, Woodgate, Shawcross, Wilson, Delap, Whelan, Pennant, Etherington, Walters, Jones.
The Chelsea line-up on Sunday will look very similar to what we have been seeing over the past few seasons. This is partly due to lack of activity in the transfer window, as the club is yet to sign a creative midfielder or wide players. Out of the three players that Chelsea have signed or almost signed, 19-year old goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has been sent on loan to Atletico Madrid, Oriol Romeu is yet to return from the U20 World Cup, and Romelu Lukaku’s signing will only be completed next week. In addition to that, Daniel Sturridge, who could have started on the right side of three-pronged attack, is suspended for the first three games, after being sent off while playing for Bolton last season. Torres suffered a concussion while playing for Spain, and is doubtful, despite participating in the last training session at Cobham. David Luiz has not trained for a while because of a minor knee problem, and is expected to be out for another week or so. While, Ivanovic and Mikel are also doubtful for the game this weekend.
This is certainly not a situation Andre Villas-Boas expected himself to be in, before a awkward trip to Stoke City, but who said managing Chelsea would be an easy joy? The sooner he faces such tough challenges, the better prepared he will be for tougher tests later on.
Villas-Boas mainly deployed two formations during the pre-season – 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. The major difference being in the way the central midfielders were set-up. If Mikel is fit for the game, he will definitely play, as against an physically intimidating Stoke team, his presence would serve the team well. Mikel will play in front of the back-four, as a destroyer, allowing Lampard and Ramires to play further upfront. However, if the Nigerian is not available, then the manager can opt for a double-pivot in a 4-2-3-1 shape by playing Lampard and Ramires deeper, with someone like Benayoun playing in front of them. Josh McEachran may play a part in this match, but from the bench in all likelihood.
In the absence of Sturridge, Lukaku, and probably Torres, the attack is expected to comprise of Malouda, Drogba, and Anelka.
Probable Starting Line-up: (4-3-3) Cech, Bosingwa, Alex, Terry, Cole, Mikel, Lampard, Ramires, Malouda, Drogba, Anelka.
TheHardTackle’s PLAYER TO WATCH OUT FOR
John Terry (Chelsea)
With Ivanovic, Luiz, and Alex not 100% fit, a lot will rest on the Chelsea captain to take his team through this game. He will have to be at his defensive best, organizing the defence and nullifying Stoke at set-pieces.
Stoke City 1-2 Chelsea
It’s always difficult to beat Stoke at the Britannia, and with Chelsea hit by a slew of injuries, the task just got tougher. However, Chelsea have never lost at the stadium and will look to extend their unbeaten run to 11 games. In addition to this, the Blues have won the last 9 opening day fixtures, which should inspire the team to get the job done, yet again.–
TheHardTackle’s BLAST FROM THE PAST