The second half of the Champions League group stages starts on Tuesday night when Chelsea travel to the Stadio Olimpico to face AS Roma.
Just two weeks ago, the Blues and the Giallorossi played a 3-3 draw at Stamford Bridge in a thriller for the neutrals. It might have caused mangers Antonio Conte and Eusebio Di Francisco a couple sleepless nights as both sides surrendered leads in that contest.
The result wasn’t terrible for either team, as Atletico Madrid only managed a draw away in Azerbaijan against Qarabag, giving both sides a better chance of qualifying for the knockout stages.
Tuesday’s match could prove decisive. Another draw, and Chelsea will have to travel to Qarabag in a month’s time needing a win, and likewise Roma would likely need a win over Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano.
Antonio Conte admitted he got his tactics wrong in the first meeting. He needs to get them right the second time around.
In their last meeting at Stamford Bridge, Conte opted to play 3-5-2 with Eden Hazard playing off of Alvaro Morata and David Luiz in midfield in an attempt to make the midfield more solid, similar to the formation he played against Spurs earlier in the season. This time, however, it didn’t pay off nearly as well, in particular because of the absence of N’Golo Kante.
Against Spurs, Luiz was flanked by Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko who prevented the wing backs from being pushed deeper because both players are quick enough to help out defensively in the wide areas and also get forward when needed.
Against Roma, Kante was absent due to injury, and Cesc Fabregas started in his place. Roma took advantage of Fabregas’ lack of athleticism and discipline defensively, and Diego Perotti and Aleksandar Kolarov were able to easily isolate Davide Zappacosta and Cesar Azpilicueta down that flank. The Blues looked far more balanced when Pedro came on for David Luiz and the system was switched to 3-4-3, but Roma still enjoyed their attacks down the Chelsea right.
There are no simple solutions, particularly since Victor Moses still remains out due to a hamstring problem and Kante’s status won’t be determined until right before team selections are made, but if Chelsea are to get anything from this match, protecting the right side while maintaining the side’s balance will be crucial.
Edin Dzeko is playing like a man possessed.
If anyone needed a reminder that Edin Dzeko is a world-class forward, the last match at Stamford Bridge was it. Dzeko probably should have had a hat-trick, and his movement in the second half completely bamboozled the Chelsea back line.
So far this season, Dzeko has scored 10 goals in 13 appearances for Roma, which accounts for almost half of their total goals scored this season in Serie A and Champions League fixtures, meaning that if you stop him from scoring, you cut out a lot of the threat from Roma. In their last three Serie A fixtures, Dzeko failed to score and all three were narrow 1-0 victories.
If Chelsea are to give themselves the best chance of winning away from home, they must limit the service to Dzeko and force him to affect the game through his link-up play. While Dzeko is very good as a target man that links play, his teammates haven’t proven that they can consistently provide goals. You’d rather force other players around him to take their chances rather than having Dzeko on the end of those chances.
What do you do with Cesc Fabregas?
If you asked Antonio Conte, I’m not so sure he intended to have started Fabregas for this many matches to start the season. Due to injuries at various times to Bakayoko, Kante, and Danny Drinkwater, if he plays Tuesday night, this will be Fabregas’ 15th appearance so far this season with only two of those appearances coming from the bench. While there’s no doubt that Fabregas is a quality player, there have been times this season where his limitations defensively have been a problem.
Earlier in the season, playing alongside Kante helped Fabregas immensely since the diminutive Frenchman is capable of covering for anyone’s positional errors. But without Kante, the partnership of Fabregas and Bakayoko has looked rather shaky when protecting the back line, and Chelsea have conceded an alarming number of chances as a result.
With Danny Drinkwater now available for selection, it will be interesting to see how Conte deploys his midfield for this clash against Roma. Could he sacrifice Fabregas to play Drinkwater in the 3-4-3, or could he do what he did last season and play Fabregas instead of either Willian or Pedro as one of the two behind Morata? That’s something that the world will know on Tuesday night.