Chelsea maintained their 100 percent start in beginning their Europa League adventure with a victory, but Maurizio Sarri wants his side to be closer to perfection as they resume Premier League play Sunday with a London derby at West Ham United.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Blues (5-0-0), who lead the Premier League on goal difference over Liverpool, kicked off play in the second-tier continental tournament with a 1-0 victory at Greek side PAOK on Thursday. Willian’s goal in the seventh minute stood as the match-winner with Chelsea dominating the proceedings, but the lack of finishing beyond the Brasil international’s goal left Sarri pondering his attacking options going forward.
“We were in control of the match for 90 minutes,” Sarri told Chelsea’s official website. “We had a lot of opportunities, we missed them, so I am really happy with the three points and the performance but not the result, because when it is time to kill the match, we have to kill the match.”
Some of the lack of finishing can be attributed to Alvaro Morata, who led the line but failed to put any of his seven shots on target. The Spain international’s lone goal came against Arsenal on Aug. 18, and it would not be surprising to see Olivier Giroud restored to the starting XI after he assisted on pair of goals in last weekend’s 4-1 romp past Cardiff City.
“Morata has to gain confidence with one, two or three goals. I am not able to give him confidence,” Sarri noted. “In this game he had three or four opportunities, he was unlucky. I hope in the future I can try to help him, but the confidence comes only with goals.
“But I have to say also that for the first time this season he was very ready in the box. He was on the ball, he was active.”
Also expected to return to the starting lineup is Eden Hazard, who did not make the trip to Greece along with central defender David Luiz and midfielder Mateo Kovacic. Luiz should also return to the back four, but Kovacic was forced off versus Cardiff with a knee injury, which makes room for either Ross Barkley or Ruben Loftus-Cheek to join Jorginho and N’Golo Kante in the midfield.
Though Pedro suffered a shoulder injury late in a collision with PAOK keeper Alexandros Paschalakis, Sarri said the injury was minor and the Spaniard should be available. If not, Willian would slide into the right forward role in Chelsea’s 4-3-3 formation.
West Ham United (1-0-4) relieved some of the pressure on Manuel Pellegrini last weekend with a 3-1 victory at Everton, moving off the foot of the table and into 16th place. Andriy Yarmolenko justified his manager’s faith in being given his first start with a first-half brace, and Marko Arnautovic sealed the win with a goal just after the hour.
“I said at the start that Andriy needs a few weeks to get used to playing in the Premier League,” Pellegrini said at his Thursday news conference. “He has a lot of quality, we know that, but in this league you can’t just play with quality. You need pace and be prepared tactically to be an important part of the game.
“He demonstrated against Everton that it was the correct moment. He did it very well. After this performance, we must demand him to give more, because he’s able to be a top player for us.”
The Ukraine international may have to lead the line since Arnautovic is carrying a knock to his knee and may be relegated to the reserves list for this game. Fellow striker Chicharito Hernandez is still feeling the effects of a virus and also unlikely to feature, and midfielder Jack Wilshire is out due to an ankle injury.
Wilshire’s absence led Pellegrini to use a 4-1-4-1 set-up in which teenager and Ireland international Declan Rice played in front of the back four, forming an effective midfield triangle with Mark Noble and Pedro Obiang. Another option for this derby would be to start Michail Antonio as the lone forward and keep Yarmolenko underneath.
“A derby has a little bit more importance, of course,” Pellegrini said. “I know, here in London, there are a lot of derbies with different teams. Our first at home is against Chelsea, the team at the top of the table, so I think that is one more motivation to try to beat them.”
West Ham took four of the six points between the sides last term, including a 1-0 victory at London Stadium on a goal by Arnautovic six minutes in. The Irons have just three wins in the last 24 league matches between the teams (3-5-16).
Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are solid favourites to continue their perfect start as they are listed at 6/10 odds to win. A draw is a 3/1 option while West Ham are longshots to protect their pitch at 17/4 odds.
Oddsmakers fancy a Chelsea win with more than 2.5 goals, listing it as the most likely outcome with 6/5 odds. The Pensioners also have 15/4 odds to win the contest by a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline, while a draw with either zero goals or two returns 19/4 odds. For those liking the Irons, there are 13/2 odds for a win over 2.5 goals and longer 12/1 odds they will post a clean sheet while winning 1-0 or 2-0.
The Chelsea trio of Hazard, Morata, and Giroud are joint-favourites to score the first goal of the match at 4/1, with Pedro lagging behind them at 11/2. Despite his injury, Arnautovic remains the top choice for the Hammers at 13/2, sharing those odds with Willian. Yarmolenko is listed at 17/2 to stake West Ham to a lead for the second straight contest.
Oddsmakers are all but convinced Hazard will continue his goal-scoring run as he leads the line with 23/20 odds for a marker over the 90 minutes. Morata and Giroud are right on his heels at 5/4, while Pedro (13/8) and Willian (2/1) round out Chelsea’s usual suspects. Arnautovic is the top pick for West Ham at 19/10, trailed by Chicharito (2/1), Lucas Perez (12/5), and both Yarmolenko and Antonio (13/5).
Chelsea are the only team in Premier League history to have won their first five league matches and claim the title, doing so in 2005-06 and 2009-10. This time around, it will obviously be more difficult given the class of both reigning champions Manchester City and Liverpool, but the early returns on the Pensioners are they are at least viable for a top-four finish and could give the aforementioned squads a run for the trophy.
Sarri took no chances in Greece, fielding as strong a side as possible given his decision to leave Hazard, Luiz and Kovacic behind. Playing Barkley the full 90 minutes with Kovacic injures was an interesting decision by the Italian, more so in light of Pedro’s injury, even if it is not deemed serious. An intriguing option would be to play Willian behind Hazard in the 4-3-3 set-up if Pedro is healthy, but given how Sarri appears comfortable plugging in players at certain spots, it would not be surprising to see Barkley remain the starter and have Ruben Loftus-Cheek see his first action as his understudy.
This has the feel of match where Giroud finally moves the goal meter, having played a brilliant hold-up role last weekend versus Cardiff City while Hazard ran riot. Given the back line issues the Irons have had all season, Chelsea would be wise to funnel their attack through the pair. The France international’s low-maintenance ways and the Belgian’s nous in the final third have given Sarri all the time he needs to unlock the riddle of getting Morata going.
One wonders if Pellegrini will tinker with what worked after the Irons looked so appealing in thrashing Everton at Goodison Park. Arnautovic’s knock could throw a spanner into the works, but the Chilean at least does not lack for replacement options thanks to the £100 million spent in the offseason. Yarmolenko will have to be at his best to help keep Marcos Alonso from roaming forward from his left back position, and Anderson will at least need to be cognizant of Cesar Azpilicueta’s long-ball skills on the other flank.
While Rice performed well as the holding midfielder in front of the back four versus the Toffees, it would not be surprising to see Pellegrini shift to a 4-2-3-1 set-up in which the Ireland international teams with Noble or Obiang to form a bulwark against the Chelsea middle three.
This should be an entertaining derby, but Chelsea look too irresistible right now, especially against a West Ham back line that have yet to prove themselves in back-to-back matches and yet to record a clean sheet.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: West Ham United 0, CHELSEA 2.