The Big Match

Football: Chelsea face test of depth

Blues' quest for a 12th straight victory may be hindered by loss of key men Costa and Kante

Title tilts tend to test a club's strength in depth. Chelsea's has been an exception. They have reeled off 11 straight league wins with eight ever-presents and just 13 players beginning matches.

Now, albeit temporarily, their resources are stretched as they search for a club-record 12th consecutive triumph.

Victory over Crystal Palace last week came at a cost. Arguably Chelsea's two most important players collected their fifth bookings that equated to bans: Diego Costa is their leading scorer, N'Golo Kante their top tackler.

Antonio Conte will be stripped of the duo, and against a Bournemouth team who won at Stamford Bridge last December.

It was Jose Mourinho's penultimate defeat in charge, helping create the situation where Conte was headhunted and represented the greatest result in Bournemouth's history; then, if not now.

A surprise second victory on Chelsea turf could take them to seventh, the highest position in their 117-year existence - although, as Eddie Howe's team have won only once on the road this season, it is rather improbable.

Yet Costa's absence ought to foster hopes they can end Chelsea's victorious surge. Conte's side have only prevailed 1-0 in each of their last three meetings and the Spain striker has scored two of those goals.

It shines a light on Michy Batshuayi, the second-most expensive player Chelsea have ever bought, but one Conte did not grant a league start even before he changed formation to 3-4-2-1.

The Belgian scored 17 French Ligue One goals for Marseille last season, but his only strike for Chelsea came at Watford in August.

He faces a Bournemouth defence shorn of the ineligible Nathan Ake, the goal-scoring centre-back borrowed from Chelsea. It also means Howe could field the back four that kept a clean sheet at Stamford Bridge last season.

Bournemouth's preferred method of preventing goals is to keep the ball. Only the current top seven average more possession this season.

It means Kante could have been crucial for his ball-winning ability. Without him, the complexion of the team changes. Nathaniel Chalobah would be the closest thing to a like-for-like replacement, but the more static Cesc Fabregas' greater creativity ought to get him Conte's vote.

Chelsea have not scored before the 40th minute in their last six games, so a slow start may be on the cards. As opponents grow warier of Conte's team, they have to display more patience or cleverness to break them down.

As Chelsea have conceded only twice in 11 matches, few concentrate on attacking against them. Bournemouth's best hope may lie in the pace on the break of Joshua King and Callum Wilson.

Yet the probability is that this will be an attack-versus-defence exercise at the other end. Bournemouth have beaten second-placed Liverpool, but in a 4-3 thriller. This promises to be very different.

CHELSEA V BOURNEMOUTH

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2016, with the headline 'Chelsea face test of depth'. Print Edition | Subscribe