Chelsea’s trip to Manchester City tomorrow midday should have been a classic six-point in the title race.
Instead, even Thomas Tuchel’s side win won’t do much to suggest they can topple Pep Guardiola’s runaway Premier League leaders, with Liverpool arguably the team that will benefit. most if City’s relentless march can be stopped.
Tuchel is not yet ready to declare Chelsea’s title chase over, but the fact that victory at the Etihad would still leave the gap to the seven-point summit is a sobering reminder of the challenge facing German. The defeat would leave him 13 points behind Guardiola.
He was supposed to fight the Catalan this season after beating him three times last season, including the Champions League final in May. But a six-point lead at the top gave way to a 10-point deficit and history tells us City don’t let such dominance slip away.
As tomorrow represents Chelsea’s last chance to throw up any semblance of a challenge to the defending champions – the bigger question is whether they have the potential to break City’s dominance beyond this season, and what will it take? to deliver a first league title since 2017?
Romelu Lukaku was meant to be the last piece of the puzzle, but he struggled for fitness and form. Tuchel still needs to find the right balance up front, with a bloated list of attackers.
Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Christian Pulisic, Hakim Ziyech and Callum Hudson-Odoi still fail to produce on a consistent basis and tough decisions will have to be made this summer to refine Chelsea’s tip with quality rather than quantity.
First-class additions are needed in midfield and defense as well, with more fringe players unloaded.
Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp’s dominance in recent years has been due to their ability to wow their rivals, as Tuchel’s more pragmatic approach has proved insufficient on too many occasions this season.
While it is not fair to characterize Chelsea as an overly defensive team, solidity at the back seems to have taken precedence over a front line which has always been an issue under Tuchel. It seems unlikely that they’ll be able to seriously challenge City until that balance changes.
He is quite simply the best midfielder in the Premier League if not in the world and Chelsea just aren’t the same without N’Golo Kante.
But with the Frenchman increasingly sidelined from injuries, they must find a viable alternative.
Declan Rice isn’t a comparable replacement, but the man from West Ham is the type of dominant character who would help ease the pressure on Kante.
At City, Guardiola is able to cover Kevin De Bruyne’s absence with a host of world-class options with Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan. Chelsea don’t have such luxury.
Tuchel dismissed the idea of a December spell, but it was Chelsea’s mid-season slump that effectively ended their title hopes.
A year earlier this had cost Frank Lampard his job and it’s a constant theme that when rot sets in it’s hard to get out of it.
While Tuchel may report mitigating factors in the past month, such as injuries and a Covid outbreak, he has not failed to be alarmed by the soft underbelly that has been exposed as Chelsea squandered their lead at the top of the chart.
It’s the commodity rarely offered to Chelsea managers, but Tuchel is a proven winner with a long-term vision.
With the opportunity to build like Guardiola and Klopp, he could really build a team like him.
The question is whether this is what Chelsea want. After all, they have a winning formula.
But with their expectation that the title is now extended to six years, will they have to rethink this model to regain national dominance?
It’s not often that Chelsea are on the wrong side of possession statistics, but Tuchel accepts that City will dominate the ball.
That hasn’t stopped the German from enjoying the best of his rivalry with Guardiola in recent times, winning three of their four games since arriving at Stamford Bridge.
It’s all about patience and hitting City at the right time to tap into the numbers they’re pushing forward.
But Tuchel admitted his side were too passive in their 1-0 loss to the Champions in September, with Chelsea barely putting a glove on their opponents and beaten well, despite the narrow score.
The Moroccan winger has been a thorn in the side for Guardiola, although he continues to frustrate Tuchel.
He scored twice against City last season in FA Cup semi-final wins and the Etihad, his speed at the break exposing them on several occasions in those games.
He was an unused substitute in the Champions League final, as well as the September loss, but whether used from the start or on the bench, he has the potential to win the game.
Chelsea need their leaders to step up at the Etihad as they look to make a statement at the Champions’ home.
While victory is unlikely to change the course of the title race, it is an opportunity to set a milestone.
And they’ll need great performances from Kante, Thiago Silva and Antonio Rudiger if they are to stop City’s 11-game winning streak in the league.
Rudiger highlighted his influence on Chelsea with his impressive performance against Spurs on Wednesday – and the return of Kante and Silva from Covid means Tuchel has two of his most reliable lieutenants for such a vital game.