Youth was at long last served last time out for Chelsea, but whether Maurizio Sarri sticks with his young charges for a second straight match in Monday’s London derby with West Ham United at Stamford Bridge is a big point of intrigue.
As the Pensioners (19-6-7) vie for a Champions League spot via a top-four finish or through the Europa League, much has been made of Sarri’s stubborn and borderline obstinate ways in sticking with a starting XI and entrenched substitution patterns, especially with young academy players Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi seemingly doing enough to merit match action in league play.
Both were given an opportunity in Wednesday’s match versus Brighton and Hove Albion and seized it. On the hour, Loftus-Cheek set up a goal by Eden Hazard, and the Belgium international returned the favour three minutes later for Chelsea’s well-taken third. The 18-year-old Hudson-Odoi set up Chelsea’s first goal on 38 minutes, firing a cross from the right that Olivier Giroud touched home.
What made Sarri’s press conference Friday interesting was the first-year gaffer – still with no real guarantee he will be back for a second season – wants to have a deep enough squad to rotate through between domestic and Europa League play despite his entrenched methods.
“We have played 51 matches, and in the last part of the season I want 20 players completely involved in our targets,” Sarri said with an eye on Chelsea’s first-leg quarterfinal Europa League tie at Slavia Prague on Thursday. “I don’t know (if Callum Hudson-Odoi will start). I have to decide who is going to play against West Ham and who is going to play against Slavia.”
It cannot be denied Hudson-Odoi has made the most of his opportunities when given the chance to start. He has four goals and five assists in his nine starts for Chelsea across all competitions, and arguably should have had a goal versus Brighton. The youngster is clearly brimming with confidence after a standout performance and is happy he has earned Sarri’s trust.
“He told me before the game to do what I normally do and express myself and be the best you can be,” the winger explained. “I feel comfortable and when you go through the game you feel more and more confident to get the ball and hopefully I did well.”
The youngster and Giroud also appear to have budding chemistry, a by-product of their more extensive action together in the Europa League. The France international made the most of just his seventh league start, though it would not be surprising to see him in a reserve role for this match given his lethal proficiency in Europa League play with seven goals in nine matches.
“He is working well in training. He is improving. He has got huge potential,” Giroud said of Hudson-Odoi after Wednesday’s win. “He’s still young and I am sure he will become a top, top player. He needs to play more games but it’s coming.
“He is a very good player but a good man as well in the dressing room. I like his mentality, so England can be happy to have him.”
West Ham United (12-6-14) are angling for a top-half finish as they enter this match in 11th place and five points out of seventh in Manuel Pellegrini’s first season in east London. The Irons have struggled with consistency all term, and so it continued last match day with a 2-0 defeat at home to Everton.
Pellegrini’s side have alternated wins and losses in their last six league matches but are also looking to end a miserable run outside of London Stadium in which they have lost six of seven while claiming a solitary point in league play (0-1-5).
“Chelsea are in a battle for the top-four, but we need to go about our business as well,” recently minted England international and Irons midfielder Declan Rice said to the club’s official website. “I watched their game against Cardiff last weekend and we can take the positives from Cardiff’s performance.
“We’re going to Stamford Bridge for this derby and we’ve been good in the big games this season. We’re looking forward to going there and hopefully coming away with three points. I remember last year we got a point at Stamford Bridge. We’ve had some great results against Chelsea in the past few years and all the lads are fired up for this game.”
Pellegrini will have more attacking options available for this match as Felipe Anderson, Samir Nasri, and Ryan Fredericks are all expected to be available after missing the loss to Everton through injury. It was the first match Anderson missed in league play, and the Brasil international leads West Ham with nine goals in all competitions.
Though not missing, Marko Arnautovic has been in a poor run of form and will attempt to end an eight-match run without a goal. The Austria international has not found the back of the net since his fiasco of trying to force a move to China during the January transfer window and has just one assist in that stretch.
Pellegrini, though, came to his striker’s defence after he was booed off the pitch following his substitution in the 67th minute.
“He’s absolutely involved with our team, what happened in December about China is finished, it’s over,” the gaffer told the Evening Standard. “So if someone is thinking Marko does not want to be here or he doesn’t want to play for West Ham, they are wrong.
“Maybe he needs the support more than punishment. I am always talking with Marko and he wants to do things better.”
The teams played to a scoreless draw in the reverse fixture which was also Pellegrini’s first home point with West Ham after they stumbled out of the blocks with four losses. The Irons have had a lengthy run of misery at Stamford Bridge, going winless in 12 matches (0-4-8) since Paulo Di Canio’s goal on 85 minutes provided a 3-2 victory in 2002.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: CHELSEA 2, West Ham United 0.
(Olivier Giroud photo courtesy Chelsea official Twitter account)