League leaders Chelsea host the unbeaten Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford on Saturday night in a bid to maintain their lead at the top of the table. The London Derby is expected to be tightly contested with very less margin of error.
Spurs are chasing a place in the top 4 as they are just one point behind their North London rivals, Arsenal, who are at 4th. Chelsea themselves are only a point above title rivals Liverpool and Manchester City, and nothing less than a win will guarantee a top position at the end of the weekend.
While Antonio Conte has revived Chelsea and made them one of the major title contenders within months, Pochettino’s Spurs have struggled with the goals.
Conte had to motivate a struggling Chelsea squad at the start of the season after they finished last season at the 10th position. After a few initial hiccups and an unsatisfactory transfer window, Conte has converted this Chelsea squad into a juggernaut which is steamrolling every opponent which comes in their way.
They are on a 6 match winning run in the league, having scored 17 goals and without conceding a single one!
Spurs are still the only unbeaten side in the league but they have struggled to win matches, having won only 1 match in the last five. However, Pochettino’s men were the first team to defeat Pep’s Manchester City, back when City looked unbeatable. Spurs’ fans would be hoping for an encore this weekend.
While Conte’s and Pochettino’s tactical battle will be a talking point, there are numerous individual battles on the field which can be crucial. Here, we look at 3 individual key battles that may decide the result of this derby:
#1 Harry Kane vs David Luiz
Harry Kane had a frustrating start to the season with 3 goalless games. It seemed like he was getting back to his scoring ways after goals against Stoke and Sunderland in consecutive games. However, the joy was shortlived as he was sidelined for more than 6 weeks with an injury.
The injury was a big blow for Spurs as they struggled to score and won only a single match in October. His return against Arsenal in the North London Derby showed how important he is to the team as he scored the equaliser against the Gunners.
He has continued his scoring form with 2 goals in the dying embers of the match to overcome West Ham United. Kane has time and again proved that he is the best English striker as of now. Notably, he has also scored 3 times against Chelsea in the past.
David Luiz has often been seen as the perennially error-prone defender. After his shock move to PSG for £50m two seasons ago, he moved back to Chelsea for £34m in another shocking move. Under Conte, Luiz has turned a corner and has been much more reliable than what the Chelsea fans were used to. He has been instrumental in Chelsea’s flurry of clean sheets in the last 6 games.
Luiz will face one of his toughest tests yet with Harry Kane in his most threatening form with 5 goals in his last 4 matches. The margin of error for the Brazilian defender would be too small for comfort and it would be interesting to see how he handles Kane’s incisive runs off the ball.
#2 Eden Hazard vs Eric Dier
Hazard faced a lot of criticism last season as he struggled to replicate his form from the previous season and Chelsea suffered because of it. The Premier League Player of the year in 2014-15 during Chelsea’s league winning season was consistently inconsistent throughout the season and was also criticised for his attitude and fitness by the media.
Much like Luiz’s resurgence, Hazard has been a completely different player under Conte. He has been given more freedom to operate and the result has often been breathtaking. He has already scored 7 goals this season and has been Chelsea’s man of the match 7 times in 12 matches. He has also created 26 chances for his teammates and looks to be all set to have another great season under his belt.
Eric Dier’s change of position from centre back to defensive midfield has been one of Pochettino’s best decision as Spurs manager. He has been the mainstay of Spurs’ midfield, thwarting opposition attacks at will. He has made 52 defensive actions this season, at the rate of almost 5 per match. He shields the defence which grants freedom to more creative players in Eriksen and Alli.
With Hazard in scintillating form, Dier would have to be sharp as ever to minimise the damage to be inflicted by the Belgian attacker. Dier’s indiscipline while tackling and Hazard’s silky feet would be an interesting facet of the fixture. Dier will be trying to make sure he does not do any self-harm by picking up silly bookings but if Hazard has a good day, there may not be much he can do.
#3 Diego Costa vs Jan Vertonghen
Costa’s incredible start to his Chelsea career was overshadowed by the numerous controversies he found himself embroidered in, and his lack of goalscoring exploits during last season. However, Costa has worked hard as ever and has already scored 10 PL goals for the Blues this season.
The Spaniard currently leads the race for Golden boot. With a shot accuracy of 69%, Costa has been testing the opposition defence consistently. His performances often swing from one end of the spectrum to the other but when he is at his best, there are very few defenders in the world who can control him.
Jan Vertonghen has revived his career under Pochettino and has been one of the best centre-backs in the league this season. He leads the list of players with most defensive actions with 118 clearances in the league so far. His aerial superiority over most of the attackers well documented with 80% wins in headed duels.
Costa will be looking to continue his magnificent goalscoring form but he will be up against the league’s best defence and defenders. Jan Vertonghen’s discipline would be tested to its core against the ever lively Costa and his antics.