In what could be the match to watch out for in this opening round of Premier League fixtures, West Ham make the short trip to Stamford Bridge to take on their old rivals under their new manager.
Chelsea and Antonio Conte look to the start of a new era, an era which was preceded by the sacking of their most successful manager, Jose Mourinho, and their lowest finish under their billionaire owner. A lot, therefore, has to be made right for Conte’s men.The Italian steps into the merry-go-round of Chelsea’s managerial seat and is looking to emulate, if not better, the Portuguese’s trophy laden spell. The Blues come into this match on the back of a “healthy” pre-season as compared to the one in 2015. Eden Hazard, one of the failures of last season, was the cynosure of all eyes in the Euros as well as the build-up to the season. He will be crucial if Chelsea are to have any title ambitions.
The Hammers, on the other hand, have been on the up. They finished in the top-half last season and looked good for a Champions League spot, but failed to get there in the end. A move to the 60,000-seater Olympic Ground followed by a prolific summer where they signed the likes of Andre Ayew and Sofiane Feghouli should be enough for the fans to be excited about. If, however, they manage to hold on to their most prized asset in Dimitri Payet, they will consider it to be one of the “signings” of the summer.
Team news and tactics
The home team will have a new man in the dugout to begin the season, yet again. Italian taskmaster Conte is set to don his Chelsea blue for the first time in a Premier League match and is afforded a clean bill of health on his debut. Kurt Zouma is the only member of the squad he cannot call upon, while the rest – barring a few who returned later than others – are ready for action.
The question is what formation the Italian imprints on this Chelsea side in the end. He has tried a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1 in pre-season. The players looked comfortable in the latter formation, but whether the Italian will take them out of their comfort zones and plays with 2 strikers up front remains to be seen. The personnel that fill these positions are some of the biggest names in football, especially Eden Hazard. The Belgian looks like he is back to his best and will have the responsibility of carrying the team on his shoulders yet again.
The signings of N’Golo Kante and Michy Batshuayi add more pace to the team. A trait that Conte seems to prefer, not only because of their attacking abilities but also their pressing game. An Italian, who has been a part of the great Azzuri teams built around defence, will be doing the same to all his teams. An attacking West Ham team against an unchanged, even aging, home defence will not be a contest for the purists. There will be nasty tackles but yes, there will be goals conceded too.
Probable lineup (4-2-3-1): Courtois (GK), Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta; Kante, Fabregas; Hazard, Oscar, Willian; Costa
In terms of decisions, Slaven Bilic has the bigger headache of the two managers. Star player Payet is not fit enough to play the entire game while new signing Ayew will have to prove his fitness to make it to the team. Regulars from last season, Aaron Creswell and Manuel Lanzini are also on the injury list with complaints about their knees.
New stadium, same old style of play. At least that is what the fans will be hoping. An attacking, easy-on-the-eye and fast-paced style of play otherwise known as the ‘West Ham way’ should be expected from the team even this season. West Ham is built on solid defence and balanced by attacking players that always fight to the finish. Andy Carroll, in what will be a crucial season for him in terms of national team ambitions, will be hoping that normal service resumes from where it left off last season. Add to that his record against Chelsea and we are in for a match.
Perhaps no one embodies the spirit that the Hammers show more than their captain, Mark Noble. He sits in front of the defence in West Ham’s usual 4-2-3-1 formation and marshals his troops around. West Ham’s defence is led solidly by Winston Reid who is ably supported by the likes of the aforementioned Creswell. What they lack in star names, barring a few, they make up for in solidity and an indomitable team spirit. And they will be hoping their opposition, some of the marquee names of football, are up for a fight on Monday night.
Probable lineup (4-2-3-1): Adrian (GK), Byram, Obgonna, Reid, Antonio; Noble, Kouyate; Payet, Ayew, Feghouli; Carroll
Player to watch out for
Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
The diminutive Belgian is back to his best, or so it seems. He showed shades of his form the season before last in the Euros for his nation and continued it into the pre-season. He knows Chelsea’s hopes of returning to the glory of the Premier League rest on his shoulders, and from the looks of it, he is ready to take that responsibility.
- Chelsea are unbeaten in their last 10 league games versus West Ham at Stamford Bridge, their last loss was back in September 2002.
- West Ham went undefeated against Chelsea last season (W1, D1) , their first time in 14 years.
- Chelsea are unbeaten in their last 13 opening fixtures at home, winning 10 of them.
- Dimitri Payet scored or assisted 11 goals in his last 12 appearances for West Ham
Chelsea 1-1 West Ham
Although the Hammers will be a tough fight for any team on their day, the Blues should be able get at least a point from this fixture. Two teams built on similar foundations of defence and attack will make for an entertaining match.