The Big Match

Football: Chelsea may end up on wrong side of history

Chelsea's Andreas Christensen and Cesar Azpilicueta look dejected after Burnley's Sam Vokes scores their third goal, on Aug 12, 2017.
Chelsea's Andreas Christensen and Cesar Azpilicueta look dejected after Burnley's Sam Vokes scores their third goal, on Aug 12, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

Champions' poor start set to continue as they miss key stars for 1st EPL game at Wembley

The first English Premier League match played at Wembley promises to be historic. Yet there are different ways of making history, and they are not always admirable.

Chelsea could equal a record for English clubs by getting a red card in four successive competitive games. They could become the only reigning champions to lose their opening two Premier League fixtures.

Remarkably, it may rank as a surprise if they do not. Whereas Chelsea have spent £130 million (S$228.71 million), Tottenham Hotspur are the only club yet to buy and are without both first-choice full-backs.

They have a wretched record in competitive games at Wembley and a dismal tally of five league wins in 27 years against Chelsea, but they begin as favourites.

Spurs' summer has been imperfect, but Chelsea's has been far worse.

They were shambolic and ill-disciplined when beaten by Burnley last week. They are without the injured Eden Hazard and Tiemoue Bakayoko, the suspended Cesc Fabregas and Gary Cahill and the troublesome Diego Costa.

They are desperately searching for someone to play central midfield. Perhaps, for the first time under Antonio Conte, David Luiz will be used in the centre of the pitch.

Predicting the Blues' team was simple last season. Now it is altogether more difficult.

Their resources may be so stretched that the 21-year-old Jeremie Boga, a shock debutant against Burnley, starts again.

They may look back enviously to April, when they beat Tottenham 4-2 at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final, aided by a trio of influential substitutes: Fabregas, Hazard and Costa. Now their bench will be packed with rookies.

So this is a rare opportunity for Tottenham. They tend to begin seasons slowly under Mauricio Pochettino. Momentum is more important now, given their tendency to freeze at Wembley.

If few are tipping them to replicate their second-place finish, it is because they are not expected to boast the outstanding home record this season.

Wembley's wider pitch suits them less than White Hart Lane's tight confines. Perhaps, though, it bodes well that they defeated Juventus 2-0 in a recent friendly at England's national stadium.

And perhaps Pochettino can draw upon memories of last season.

While Tottenham lost two of three meetings, they troubled Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and beat them at White Hart Lane, copying the Italian's 3-4-2-1 formation and getting Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen into space behind Chelsea's central midfielders.

Reverting to that system - Spurs played 4-2-3-1 when they beat Newcastle last week - could be the key again, not least because Chelsea will have a different defence without captain Cahill.

As last season's top two renew acquaintances in August, it seems strange to talk of crisis. But Chelsea have been so petulant and so poor that if they lose their heads and lose another game, it will be a historically bad start.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2017, with the headline 'Blues may end up on wrong end of history'. Print Edition | Subscribe