Crunch time for Antonio Conte’s favoured Premier League leaders Chelsea against overpriced Tottenham Hotspur
The hosts deserve to be clear favourites at Stamford Bridge, but the visitors on the handicap and over 2.5 goals look the best bets
Has Antonio Conte come up with a title-winning formula for Chelsea, the new leaders of the English Premier League?
We will soon have more of an answer as Conte’s side host Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday morning (Hong Kong time) before travelling to face Manchester City next Saturday.
The question is there for Chelsea because they have played three of the other big six teams this season and lost twice at home to Liverpool and away to Arsenal while winning only once at home to Manchester United.
United are the weakest of the big six at the moment and both City and Tottenham are closer to the level of Liverpool and Arsenal, which suggests Chelsea might have problems.
But the counter-weight to that view is that Conte changed to a three-man defence only after the Liverpool and Arsenal defeats.
That system has carried Chelsea to six straight league wins including the 4-0 win over United and to the top of the table, with the next two games now serving as an acid test of whether Conte’s change has made them a genuinely better team.
The evidence of the last six league games is compelling, as not only has the reshaped defence not conceded a goal in that run, the attack led by Diego Costa and Eden Hazard has scored 17 goals. Both of those players have scored five goals in that run, with Costa scoring in five of the six games and Hazard in four.
It is also notable that Chelsea have blew away United at home before also downing Everton 5-0 at Stamford Bridge, who are the best two teams outside the current top five. That suggests the form of Conte’s side is genuine, although they were helped by an early goal against United and Everton’s perhaps misguided attempt to match their system.
Conte now comes up against two of the most tactically astute coaches in the Premier League, first Mauricio Pochettino and then next week against Pep Guardiola, and they will have given plenty of thought about how to counter his system.
Pochettino’s side have not tasted defeat in their opening 12 league games and are the only team still unbeaten, even though three have been against big six teams. They beat Manchester City 2-0 at home and drew 1-1 against both Liverpool at home and Arsenal away, with Pochettino’s tactics working well in all three matches.
Tottenham’s form has been questioned after their limp exit from the Champions League, as well as in the Premier League because of their tendency to draw too many matches, but their underlying record is solid, especially considering Harry Kane was unavailable for five league games three of which were draws.
Kane’s influence is clear from Tottenham’s record of 16 wins and five draws in the 21 league games when their main striker has scored since the start of last season, and those draws were all against strong opponents in Arsenal three times, Chelsea and Liverpool.
Tottenham could step up over the next couple of months now that Kane is back and this match might hinge on how he fares against Chelsea’s three-man defence. If Kane scores, the stats suggest Tottenham can take something from the match.
Chelsea deserve to be clear favourites at home and they might be thinking this is a good time to play Tottenham.
But only one big six team has beaten Pochettino’s side in 13 attempts since the start of last season and the visitors look overpriced and Tottenham on the handicap and over 2.5 goals look the best bets.
With those title rivals slugging it out, the other top teams have first-rate opportunities and it is hard to go against Liverpool, City or Arsenal.
United might be a different case, however, as West Ham United can still be a dangerous opponent and Jose Mourinho’s side have won only one of their four league games following a Thursday night match in the Europa League - a common affliction for teams who take part in that competition.
The best bets in the Premier League are in two of the least attractive matches on paper in Hull City against West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City against Crystal Palace.
Saving the best till last, but will Chelsea and Manchester United live up to their top billing and avoid another bore draw?
Hull and Swansea are arguably the worst teams in the division and, even against seemingly beatable opposition, they are difficult to fancy.
West Brom are a typically robust Tony Pulis side, but they have also shown more signs of adventure in recent games and have found a new match-winner in Matt Phillips, who has scored key goals in their last two victories.
Palace are on a bad run but those do not last forever and they still look a good side to back on the road against lower-level opponents.
Leicester City, Sheffield Wednesday, Espanyol
West Bromwich Albion on handicap
Look a better all-round team
Crystal Palace on handicap
Worth backing for return to form
Aston Villa home win
Going well under Steve Bruce
Cologne home win
Only dropped home points were against leaders Leipzig
Atalanta on handicap
Can extend unbeaten run to nine games
Games without a win for Swansea