Another round of international fixtures have come and gone, and the Premier League is back in full swing this weekend. Chelsea travel to Selhurst Park on Saturday to face Crystal Palace, hoping to rebound from their defeat to Manchester City in their last Premier League fixture.
Meanwhile, Crystal Palace have had a nightmare start to the season, having failed to register a single point from their first seven Premier League matches, as well as failing to score a single goal in the league this season.
Injuries are a major subplot to this match.
It’s actually hard to figure out how this match will be played because of the players that will be missing due to injury on both sides.
For Chelsea, Alvaro Morata limped off with a hamstring problem after 30 minutes in their match against Manchester City, and while he did not join up with Spain, he has not yet recovered and will not be available.
The international break also took its toll, with N’Golo Kante also suffering a hamstring injury that could rule him out for at least a month. With Danny Drinkwater just returning to training from his time out due to injury, it will leave Antonio Conte short of central midfielders again and giving him a couple problems to solve.
Crystal Palace also has injury problems to worry about. Goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey picked up a knock at the end of Ireland’s World Cup qualifying match against Wales and is a question mark to start against the Blues. Christian Benteke suffered a knee injury against Manchester City and will not feature against Chelsea, robbing them of one of their main threats. Less problematic is the absence of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who would be ineligible to play against his parent club.
One positive for Palace is that Wilfried Zaha returned to training after a lengthy absence because of a knee injury. As to what part Zaha might play in Saturday’s match is unknown, but he will likely feature in some way.
Benteke’s injury compounds one major area of weakness for Crystal Palace — goals.
There is a debate to be had over whether Benteke has really been that effective for Crystal Palace this season or if the system played under Frank de Boer really suited his talents, but there is no debating the fact that if you don’t score goals, you won’t win matches.
Right now, Palace’s goal drought stands at seven matches, and if they can’t find a way to get on the scoresheet against Chelsea, it’s likely that they’ll have no points after eight matches and looking firmly at the possibility of relegation.
The absence of Benteke means that Bakary Sako will likely lead the line, though that may depend on the fitness of Zaha for this match. Regardless, Palace will need to create enough chances for whoever starts up front on Saturday, and that’s something that they’ve really struggled to do this season, despite a decent number of total shots per match.
Chelsea have their own conundrum up front.
Alvaro Morata’s hamstring injury against City was the last thing Chelsea needed, and it was interesting to see how Antonio Conte reshuffled his attack on that day to compensate for the Spaniard’s absence. The duo of Willian and Eden Hazard was completely ineffective and kept the Blues pinned in their own half for nearly two-thirds of the match. It was a tactical decision to retain shape and still give Chelsea a platform to counter, but it backfired because Chelsea couldn’t find the correct out ball without a striker on the pitch.
The question for the Palace match is whether or not he’ll again try to play Hazard as a striker, but this time with Pedro and Willian flanking him, or if he’ll go for a more traditional centre forward in Michy Batshuayi, whose goal-scoring record is very good this season despite not always being as well-positioned tactically as the manager would like.
Against Palace, though, it shouldn’t really matter how Conte chooses to approach the match. Palace have managed to concede goals to virtually every style of play thus far in the season, and it’s just a matter of Chelsea’s attackers putting in a performance. But other big decisions further back on the pitch may also influence Conte’s choices up front.
Antonio Conte has a big decision on how to handle the midfield
Chelsea’s biggest fear was realised when N’Golo Kante pulled up holding the back of his leg after 33 minutes against Bulgaria. If there is one player in the midfield whose absence might force a tactical rethink, it’s the diminutive Frenchman, simply because there’s no one like him in the squad.
With Danny Drinkwater still out due to injury, Chelsea have just two central midfielders fit in Tiemoue Bakayoko and Cesc Fabregas. Because of a small sample size, it’s not quite clear how Fabregas and Bakayoko would work as a two-man midfield in a 3-4-3, so it might prompt Conte to think outside the box tactically.
With David Luiz returning from suspension and Andreas Christensen being in good form, Conte may opt for a system similar to how the Blues set up against Tottenham, with Luiz at the base of a 3-man midfield, though Conte does prefer Luiz as a defender instead of a midfielder.
Conte also suggested that Kyle Scott and Ethan Ampadu are also available for selection, though it’s most likely that one or both will be on the bench in case of emergency. Stranger things have happened, though.