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FK Qarabag vs Chelsea Preview: Blues Looking to Secure Champions League Progress

European football is back on the agenda for Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, who make their longest-ever Champions League away trip as they head to Azerbaijan to face FK Qarabag. The home side have adapted to life in Europe’s premier club competition well after a difficult start. The Blues sit second in Group C, one point behind group leaders Roma and can secure their qualification for the knockout stages if with a win – provided other results go their way.

N’Golo Kante Hamstring Problem Adds to Chelsea’s Injury Woes

Fresh from his maiden Ballon d’Or nomination, N’Golo Kante has suffered a hamstring injury on international duty with France, leaving Antonio Conte desperately searching for positives.

At first glance, the international break couldn’t have come at a better time for Chelsea, with the Blues still reeling from being completely outplayed in the 1-0 defeat to Manchester City. Record signing Alvaro Morata limped off in the first half of the loss with what has been confirmed as a month-long hamstring injury, with Kante’s issue heightening the ill-feeling around the Bridge even further this week.

Early season beset with injuries

For much of last season, Chelsea were blessed by a lack of injuries within the squad, a situation that allowed Conte to retain a familiar side on a weekly basis in the Premier League. This term, however, has posed different problems, with Eden Hazard missing the first month of the new campaign through an ankle injury and new signing Danny Drinkwater yet to be fit enough to feature for his new employers.

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The squad’s relatively clean bill of health was cited by most observers as a major factor in the Blues winning the title last term, along with the absence of any European football. Indeed, having a larger fixture list already looks to be taking its toll on the squad this term.

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Kante didn’t feature in the 5-1 demolition of Nottingham Forest but has still played 12 games in 56 days – a greatly increased workload on last season – and his all-action approach looks to have got the better of him momentarily. Morata’s injury is similar in nature and the Blues medical staff will be sincerely hoping that the increased amount of injuries is nothing to do with the training methods used by the staff at Cobham.

Irreplaceable talent?

Morata and Kante have been the two star performers for Chelsea already this season and replacing both of them would be a huge challenge for Conte. Injuries are inevitable and squads are built to fight on four fronts – which is something Chelsea are looking to do this campaign.

During his time in the Premier League, Antonio Conte has shown himself to be an innovative coach that can deal with the ever-changing environment of English football. Whilst he and the Chelsea faithful will be praying Kante and Morata’s injuries are not as serious as they first appear, finding a tactical answer to the problem could be the Italian’s biggest test to date at Stamford Bridge.

Header image by @cfcunofficial (Chelsea Debs) (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Chelsea’s Early Form Continues to Defy Critics

Despite what looked to be a precarious situation for Antonio Conte and the West London Blues, Chelsea have grown into their early season form over the opening five games of the domestic and European season.

The cracks probed after an opening day loss to Burnley left the Premier League champions, who were so imperious last term, feeling vulnerable.

Discord with their powerful goalscorer Diego Costa, defensive rock Gary Cahill dismissed to the stands and electric talisman Eden Hazard struggling for fitness all seemed to be pointing to a long season.

Things were also amiss in the transfer market, as strangely, a side who have won two out of the last three league titles, back in with the European elite, could not get their transfer targets over the line.

But underestimate the Italian manager at your peril. He is not a man to get on the wrong side of, as even the villain Costa has found out.

With much of the title talk focused on the Manchester clubs, as United are finally back to fighting form and City off to their usual silky August performances, Conte’s men have flown under the radar, producing hard-fought wins over Spurs, Everton and Leicester. Not straightforward opposition but dealt with firmly to move up to third place in a classic granite-like Chelsea style.

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What’s changing?

Largely, the squad remains unchanged from the championship winning side, with any new faces slotting in comfortably. Alvaro Moratta looks confident and assured leading the line, providing some power with a deft touch. Fabregas looks back to some more regular form after and in-out season last year and Willian is a match winner that can cover for Hazard. You have to think he will be disappointed if he drops to the bench upon the Belgian’s return.

Defensive switches have been adept after the suspension of Gary Cahill, and Davide Zappacosta sparkled on full debut, helping secure a 6-0 win over Qarabag.

The loss of Nemanja Matic continues as an area that needs finessing over the coming weeks, and a large piece of the jigsaw could be slotting Danny Drinkwater’s ball retention back in with N’Golo Kante’s Duracell energy.

Not too many are tipping the Premier League trophy to remain at Stamford Bridge for another year now that the extra stress of Champions League football is on the horizon. Squad depth is still to be fully tested but the form is building slowly. A test again Arsenal is always a good measure of confidence and crunch encounters with Atletico Madrid and Roma will really provide the evidence of how Chelsea shape up for the bulk of the season.

Arsenal, Look Out: Eden Hazard is Back!

 

Following the opening day defeat to Burnley, most of the Stamford Bridge faithful were keeping their fingers and toes crossed for an imminent Eden Hazard return.

The subsequent four games have produced 12 points (three league wins and a Champions League triumph) and the return to full fitness of Chelsea’s number 10 is adding to the feel-good factor around Stamford Bridge at the moment.

When Hazard broke his ankle on international duty back in June, few thought he would be anywhere near ready to play with just four rounds of Premier League fixtures completed. But the Belgian has made two substitute appearances as he steps up his full recovery and this weekend’s clash with Arsenal looks to have provided the perfect opportunity for the 2014-15 PFA Player of the Year to return. 

What Eden Hazard Brings to This Chelsea XI:

‘Attacking the Opposition’

Few players were as effective as Hazard in the Premier League in forward areas last season, and he created, on average, over three chances per game for his team – in addition to his 16 league goal contribution. A massive part of Hazard’s game is his ability to beat a man in tight areas – he averaged over five successful dribbles per game last term, which was an essential element of Conte’s title-winning 3-4-3 formation.

‘Floating Role’

Despite the departure of Nemanja Matic, Chelsea have recruited in holding midfield positions, with Danny Drinkwater and Tiemoue Bakayoko brought in to lighten the load on N’Golo Kante. Whichever combination Conte opts for in the middle of the park, the system is designed to give Hazard the freedom to roam wherever he wishes in between the lines of the opposition. 

‘World Class Talent

For as much as Chelsea have a wealth of attacking options at their disposal, Hazard is the one player in the Blues line up that genuinely strikes fear into the opposition. His shooting accuracy was 21% last season and he achieved 74.5% of his attempted dribbles successfully and that ‘X’ factor makes him one of the first names on Antonio Conte’s team sheet. 

‘Proven Winner’

During his time at Stamford Bridge, Hazard has won the Premier League twice, the League Cup and the Europa League and is driven to succeed at the highest level. After the departure of John Terry this summer, Chelsea are looking for leaders on the field and the enigmatic 26-year-old leads by example with his all-action performances.

Whether or not Hazard is fully fit to play 90 minutes against Arsenal on Sunday remains to be seen, as his only competitive minutes so far this season have been for Belgium and substitute appearances for Chelsea, but having their number 10 back will come as a huge boost for the Blues and their fans.

If he can replicate his performances from last season and lead Chelsea to a second consecutive Premier League crown under Antonio Conte, Nemanja Matic and Diego Costa will be long forgotten about on the King’s Road.

Header image: “Eden Hazard / Эден Азар” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Aleksandr Osipov