Chelsea will aim to take another step toward lifting the Premier League title when they host Everton at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. Hauled back to level on points with Manchester City on New Year’s Day, Chelsea have quickly reestablished a seven-point lead over the champions. Yet, while manager José Mourinho is happy to be the club others are chasing, he has reiterated his stance that the competitive nature of the Premier League means the title race remains far from decided.
“When you chase you have to win and at the same time you have to wait for your opponent to lose points,” he said, reports Chelsea’s official website. “In fact, every weekend, you play two matches -- your match and the other match. When you are top you play only one match and if you win, fine. I prefer to be top of the league. For example, against Aston Villa, I was celebrating my victory after the match. I didn’t even know the result of Man City.
“I’m confident we can win tomorrow. We go game after game, not thinking too far [ahead]. Seven points with 14 matches is a long way to go. We will try to be good tomorrow, play well, and try to win in front of our supporters.”
Chelsea needed a second-half winner from Branislav Ivanovic to emerge with a victory from Villa Park on Saturday, after Aston Villa defender Jores Okore had canceled out Eden Hazard’s early strike. Against Everton, Mourinho will again be unable to call upon top scorer Diego Costa, with the striker serving the final game of his three-match suspension for stamping on Liverpool’s Emre Can. Chelsea’s attacking potential will be boosted on Wednesday, though, by the return from injury of Cesc Fabregas, with Mourinho expecting the Spanish midfielder to go back into the starting lineup.
Even with Fabregas’ inclusion, it would be a major surprise were the clash with Everton to feature the same focus on attacking play as the sides’ encounter earlier this season. Last August, Chelsea won 6-3 at Goodison Park in a breathless end-to-end matchup that Mourinho has described as “everything but normal,” and is confident “won’t be repeated.”
That memorable contest came at a time when optimism was still high at Everton that they could push again for a place in the Champions League. But the defeat proved a sign of things to come regarding the side’s inability to keep out the opposition. Only four teams in the Premier League have conceded more goals than Roberto Martínez’s men this season. The return from injury of young defender John Stones has finally seen the club’s rearguard shored up in recent weeks, and Everton have kept three consecutive clean sheets to edge clear of being dragged into a relegation battle. And against Chelsea, they could be further boosted by the return of goalkeeper Tim Howard, who Martínez has confirmed has returned to full fitness and strongly suggested will return to the team in place of Joel Robles.
“Whenever Tim is fit he is our number one,” he said. “The experience that he has, what he represents in our squad -- I have got total faith in him. It’s great to see him fit again and training again and having a massive, massive influence on our squad. The goalkeeping position is a different one to any outfield position. The outfield positions is more about moments of form and ways of playing against opposition. In goal you need a bit of stability.”
Elsewhere the injury news is not so positive. Leighton Baines remains a major doubt, and Aiden McGeady, Leon Osman, Steven Pienaar, Christian Atsu and Tony Hibbert are all ruled out. James McCarthy could also miss the clash, having played 90 minutes on his return from a month out in Saturday’s scoreless result with Merseyside rivals Liverpool.
Prediction: Martínez showed with his tactics against Liverpool that he is focused on providing more protection for his defense. That is again likely to be the case at Stamford Bridge, where they could frustrate a Chelsea team lacking the cutting edge of Costa up front. But with Fabregas back, Chelsea should find a way through against an Everton team that has been fairly toothless going forward in recent matches.
Chelsea 2-0 Everton
Kickoff time: 2:45 p.m. EST
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra