City v Chelsea: could this be a title decider?

In possibly the most important match so far of the Premier League season, the competition's two new heavyweight managers face off to determine who the true early season favourite for the title is.

Conte & Guardiola

Premier League heavyweight managers Conte and Pep Source: Getty Images

At a time when the football community has been plunged into great sadness, it seems somewhat trivial to offer hyperbole about any match, anywhere.

However, the game itself will undoubtedly play a great role in the healing of our global football community. It is, after all, what brings us together in the first place.

To that end, all eyes will be on Etihad Stadium this weekend, the venue for what shapes as the most eagerly anticipated matches of the season: Chelsea’s visit to Manchester City (Live on SBS, 11pm Saturday night).

With over a third of the campaign completed, we know who is in contention for a title and what their strengths and weaknesses are. Neither City nor Chelsea shone last season, but they have roared back - as we expected, to be fair.

But what makes this clash so good? What makes it different from all the other “heavyweight” clashes that pop up in the English Premier League each weekend?

Both City and Chelsea are playing the kind of football that is scary to the rest of the competition. Both are playing football that, all things being equal, is good enough to win the league (and would have walked it in last season).

For the neutrals, brilliant as it was to see Leicester do what they did last, this is a title race where any slips are being punished. It’s riveting viewing, but make no mistake: these are the big two dogs challenging for top spot.

I’ve been a big fan of Jose Mourinho for a long time, and just as his duel with Pep Guardiola mirrored the Ronaldo-or-Messi question, I fear that he has been replaced as the top contender.

It’s almost impossible to remember the last time Antonio Conte put a foot wrong. In a decade in the dugout he’s had great success (getting Bari and Siena promoted, three Serie A titles with Juventus) with only one real stumble - an ill-fated spell at Atalanta where he spent a barely a few months before quitting after a fall-out with the club’s ultras.

Michael @Ballack looks ahead to tomorrow's game against Man City... pic.twitter.com/AfUog2ijOY — Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) December 2, 2016
How those ultras must regret getting on Conte’s back now. His ability to take Juventus to new heights and then re-organise a misfiring Italian national team (reinventing a 3-5-2 formation along the way) show a manger of extraordinary quality.

Now he’s doing it with Chelsea, in such a way that has rendered them a complete opposite of the broken team that took to the field last season. They’re genuinely exciting to watch, well-organised and capable of mixing tough defence with electric attack. The comeback against Spurs last week? Superb, but trademark Conte.

It seems fairly obvious that City will have the most amount of the ball on Saturday. Home advantage plays strongly into that theme but that’s just Guardiola’s style. Conte won’t stake nearly as much on needing to have the ball at all times.

That’s where this game will flourish as a tactical battle. City’s players will be flicking the ball around the park constantly, Guardiola asking his players rotate like a rubik's cube - until the puzzle is solved and a killer pass can be played.

Conte will be forever trying to prevent that; blocking the passing lanes and forcing City into the dreaded U-shaped movement that never actually gains territory. Indeed, give the ball away at any moment and everything becomes exposed.

In the 4-2-3-1 variation Guardiola has been adopting of late, expect ample licence to be given to the full backs to create overloads. Kevin de Bruyne surely has nothing to prove to his old paymasters but we all know how that usually works - he'll be jumping out of his skin.

Sergio Aguero, scorer of both of City’s goals against Burnley last weekend, won’t be given nearly as much space by David Luiz and Gary Cahill. Ilkay Gundogan and John Stones were given that game off in an effort to freshen both up for this clash, which looms as a wise bit of management by City's medical staff.

But what will City do about Victor Moses? Who would have have thought that the perennial loanee, a forgotten entity at Stamford Bridge, would emerge in such dramatic fashion. Add the brilliant form of Pedro, with Eden Hazard flying as well, and Diego Costa (leading the scoring charts with Aguero) - it’s a scintillating combination.

For two teams almost impossible to split, it’s matches like these that can define an entire season. And shape the eventual champion, too.

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5 min read
Published 3 December 2016 at 7:57am
By Sebastian Hassett