Chelsea’s double target made easier with lack of European commitments
The league leaders can focus on domestic trophies as rivals such as Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester United are distracted by mid-week matches
The difficulties of fighting on many fronts were made clear again for Arsenal and Tottenham this week – catastrophically so for the Gunners – and served to emphasise that a key factor in Chelsea’s rise back to the top has been their relatively straightforward fixture list.
Chelsea are involved in this weekend’s FA Cup fifth round – as are Arsenal, Tottenham and the two Manchester clubs – but unlike those rivals Antonio Conte’s team do not have the additional burden of playing in Europe this season.
Even when the FA Cup rolls around, space is cleared in the Premier League schedule and Chelsea can switch focus to another competition without the midweek fixture congestion experienced by most of their title rivals (Liverpool, likewise not involved in European competition, are the exception).
This season Chelsea have played only six midweek matches, and several of those were in the minor League Cup where most clubs choose to rest their key first-team players. By contrast, Manchester United have had 14, Arsenal 13, Manchester City and Tottenham both 12 and Liverpool nine (their figure is higher than Chelsea’s because they reached the two-legged League Cup semi-finals and had to play an FA Cup replay).
Chelsea’s steady diet of weekend football, with plenty of time for work on the training field plus rest and recovery, has been a massive bonus for Conte in his first season in English football. When Chelsea were having early difficulties and Conte wanted to change to his preferred three-man defence, he had the time to drill his players to make the system work and the results have been obvious.
By contrast, the results of the other big clubs were bound to suffer at certain times when the matches piled up. Take Manchester United, for example: at one stage in mid-October they were away to Liverpool on a Monday night, played a Europa League tie on the Thursday night, travelled to play Chelsea on the Sunday, then had a League Cup tie against Manchester City on the next Wednesday, a Premier League game on the Saturday, another Europa League tie the next Thursday and another Premier League match on the Sunday.
That amounted to seven matches for United in a breathless 21 days, while in the same period Chelsea played a mere four times. It is little wonder that when United played away to Chelsea in the midst of that spell they were unable to cope with Conte’s all-action team and were beaten 4-0. The fixture congestion is not the whole reason for that result, nor for Chelsea’s big lead in the Premier League table, but clearly it has been a significant factor in the way the season has panned out.
Chelsea are in a good position to focus on the Premier League-FA Cup double, given that they will largely continue to play only on weekends for the rest of the season.
Tonight they are away to Championship side Wolves, who knocked out Liverpool at Anfield in the fourth round. In that same form Wolves would pose some danger but they have lost their last three games, scoring only once, and Chelsea should field a strong side.
Remarkably the eight remaining Premier League clubs all drew lower-league opponents in the last 16 and the two who may be vulnerable are Leicester at Millwall and Tottenham in their London derby at Fulham.
Leicester have won only twice in 18 away games in all competitions this season and the rot first set in with their dreadful record before Champions League ties (they are away to Sevilla on Wednesday). If their players are saving themselves for the big occasion, they could run into problems against Millwall, who have raised their game to knock out Premier League sides Bournemouth and Watford in home ties.
Tottenham lost at Gent in the Europa League and they face a quick turnaround at Fulham tomorrow. The hosts have a good home record (only one defeat in their last 11) and the derby atmosphere at a tight ground will make this a test for Tottenham.
Manchester City are away to an even better Championship side tonight when they visit third-placed Huddersfield, who have a Jurgen Klopp style of play and are back in top form. City could trip up, but they would have to fall a long way below the level of their recent resurgence and overall record against teams outside the elite.
Arsenal surely cannot fail away to non-league Sutton United on Monday night, but for a romantic touch Lincoln could push Burnley in tonight’s early match. Lincoln may be close to League One standard already and Burnley are generally low-scoring, which could make them vulnerable if the visitors make a breakthrough.