Chelsea FC will come up against a Watford side fielding a traditional 4-4-2, and the Blues must deal with the combination play of forwards Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney to get a result at Vicarage Road.
Interim manager Guus Hiddink has yet to lose a game since he replaced José Mourinho in December, and the Dutchman will want his side to build on the momentum gained from a morale-boosting win over bitter rivals Arsenal FC, as well as the thumping FA Cup fourth round win over MK Dons on Sunday.
Few would have predicted at the start of the season that Watford would host the Premier League champions leading them by four points, but that is the position the hornets find themselves in at the start of February. Quique Sánchez Flores has done an excellent job while playing quintessentially ‘English’ football, and that has paid dividends in terms of results, and consequently their league positions.
Wednesday’s battle will be one between two contrasting styles, with Chelsea FC trying to keep the ball on the ground and attempting to break down the Watford defence, while the home side try and upset the Blues’ rhythm with their direct football and their aerial strength — particularly up front with the likes of Troy Deeney.
Quique Sánchez Flores v Guus Hiddink
Although both managers have coached in Spain before — Valencia the employers of Flores and Hiddink at different times — they have never been there at the same time, and as such, the only meeting between the two remains the 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge earlier this season.
The Dutchman will feel his side did enough to win the game, but it was the attacking duo of Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney that stole the show at SW6, with the latter a constant thorn in the Blues’s side due to his physical presence.
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Quique Flores will once again try to capitalise on the understanding between his strikers
A strong argument can be made for Ighalo and Deeney being the best strike partnership in the Premier League this season. They are a ‘partnership’ in the true sense of the word — their telepathic understanding and instinctive movement from hours of playing together evident in every match. Hornets’ skipper Troy Deeney has created 26 chances for Ighalo this season — more than any other player has for a team-mate in the 2015-2016 Premier League.
Flores will try and take advantage of this understanding once again — as he has been doing all season — when Watford welcome Chelsea FC to Vicarage Road on Wednesday. The Spaniard will play his favoured 4-4-2 with the strike duo up front, and will ask his midfielders and defenders to target Deeney with aerial balls, while Ighalo makes runs off his partner.
The space just in front of the penalty area will be crucial given that the Hornets’ midfielders will look to take advantage of any loose balls there and have shots on goal. Ighalo’s goal at Stamford Bridge came about because the Nigerian peeled cleverly off Terry into a pocket of space between the Blues’ defence and midfield just outside the box, before then running at Cahill and firing a deflected shot into the back of the net.
Hiddink will look to free Fàbregas given Spaniard’s excellent form
The former Netherlands manager hasn’t changed all that much since his arrival at Stamford Bridge, sticking with the 4-2-3-1 formation, but replacing Serbian Nemanja Matić with the more conservative John Obi Mikel. The Nigerian’s superior positional play and reticence to advance further up the pitch has allowed Cesc Fàbregas to play with more freedom.
The former Arsenal FC captain is in excellent form at the moment, and was once again dominant against MK Dons, creating chance after chance for his team-mates. His passing ability from deep is absolutely vital to the side given the type of striker Diego Costa is, and the former Atlético Madrid striker himself has benefited greatly from the improved service, as well as his individual improvement in terms of his movement in the box.
Hiddink’s attacking focus against Watford will be to ensure Fàbregas has the time and space to pick out his passes, and as such, Mikel is once again expected to partner the Spaniard in the centre of the pitch, while the likes of Oscar and Willian provide additional defensive cover as the first line of the Blues’ press.
Troy Deeney v John Terry
This individual match-up is important enough to decide the outcome of the game on its own. Deeney arguably got the better of John Terry at Stamford Bridge, winning five offensive aerial duels compared to the former England captain’s two. His ability to knock the ball on for Ighalo or other Watford midfielders to run on to will be crucial for Watford, and the Blues’ defence will have to focus specifically on dealing with such situations.
As the leader of the defence, Terry will have an absolutely crucial role to play. Even if the 35-year-old loses the first aerial duel, he has to make sure he organises the defence to face the consequences of it. Tracking Ighalo’s movement while dealing with Deeney’s physicality will be a challenge, and if Chelsea FC want all three points from the game, it is one they must come out on top of.
Odion Ighalo v Kurt Zouma
As the more mobile of the two centre-backs, Zouma will be tasked with marking Ighalo, who will constantly look to run in behind the defence and feed off Deeney’s knock-ons, or indeed pick up the ball in between the lines and run at the defence, as he did when he gave Watford the lead at Stamford Bridge.
The young Blues’ defender has the pace to recover from his positional errors, as also if he gets beaten by his man, and his role on Wednesday will largely be to track Ighalo’s every move in and around the penalty area. Gary Cahill played in the previous meeting between the two sides, but Hiddink may have seen the benefit of using a more proactive defender like Zouma against someone as physical yet technically sound as Odion Ighalo.
Diego Costa v Craig Cathcart/Miguel Britos
The Brazil-born Spain international has been in scintillating form for Chelsea FC of late, and grabbed a brace when the Blues met Watford at Stamford Bridge in December. Quique Flores will have learned the lessons from that game, and will try and ensure that his centre-backs Cathcart and Britos do not give Diego Costa breathing space in behind the defence.
The former Atléti hitman’s intense, intelligent runs off the shoulder of the last defender have got him many goals for the Blues thus far, and with someone like an in-form Fàbregas providing the service from deep, the striker will once again be the Blues’ main goalscoring threat. Watford will likely switch between tracking his runs and trying to play him offside, but Cathcart and Britos will have to show great understanding and focus to do so for the full 90 minutes successfully.
Blast from the past
Chelsea FC hosted Watford at Stamford Bridge in March 1988 looking to climb up the table and avoid a relegation play-off. Watford too were contenders for relegation, but it was the Hornets who went ahead at Stamford Bridge through Stuart Rimmer, who was making his top-flight début.
The Blues’ side featured legends such as Kerry Dixon and Pat Nevin, but it was forward Collin West who brought the home side back on level terms. Unfortunately, neither side were able to find a winning goal, and both ended up being relegated at the end of the term — Chelsea via the second-division play-offs.
Here are the highlights from what was a riveting game played on a typically mud-adorned pitch:
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