Chelsea can expect a more strenuous test of their Premier League title credentials when they visit Goodison Park to take on Everton on Saturday. Having started the campaign as favorites to win the championship, Chelsea have done nothing to dampen those expectations with opening wins against newly promoted duo Burnley and Leicester City. But Chelsea will be all too aware of the threat posed by last season’s fifth-place finishers.
In the same fixture last season, Everton inflicted the first defeat of Mourinho’s second spell in charge. While Chelsea won by the same 1-0 score line at Stamford Bridge later in the campaign, it required a desperately late free-kick from Frank Lampard that sneaked freakishly into the net. Lampard has since departed, of course, as part of a summer transfer window that Mourinho hopes will provide him with the weapons he lacked last season.
The early signs have been good. Cesc Fabregas supplied a sublime assist against Burnley, while Diego Costa has been in the right place at the right time to convert a scrappy goal in each match. The former Atletico Madrid striker’s goal against Leicester City seemed particularly significant. For more than 60 minutes, Chelsea struggled to break down lesser, stubborn opponents at home. It was precisely the scenario that had prevented Chelsea from lifting the Premier League trophy in May. This time, though, they had Costa, who showed the penalty-box predatory to fire home and help his side to what turned into a comfortable win.
It comes as a major blow then that Costa has suffered a hamstring injury in training this week. While there is no accurate prognosis as yet, it will be a particular concern given the Brazilian-born Spain international’s similar fitness issues at the end of last season. Mourinho is not exactly flush with options to replace Costa. Fernando Torres has being strongly linked with AC Milan in recent days, meaning that Saturday could well see a first start in his second spell at the club for Didier Drogba.
The Chelsea legend’s name in the starting lineup would be intriguing enough, but it is greatly enhanced by the fact that he would, slight toe injury permitting, be lining up against Romelu Lukaku. As a child Lukaku owned shirts bearing Drogba’s name and slept with a poster of the Ivorian above his bed. When stepping out onto the pitch as a youth player he wore the same boots as Drogba. As he began to make a name as a teenager, developed physically beyond his years, at Anderlecht, the comparisons between he and his idol were instantaneous and obvious. When Chelsea spent a sizable sum to sign Lukaku in 2011, the expectation was that he was the heir-apparent to Drogba’s striking crown at Stamford Bridge.
Things did not work out that way. After a season learning from Drogba and then a further campaign on loan at West Brom, when he fired 17 Premier League goals, Lukaku was shipped out again, this time to Everton, where he again scored at an impressive rate. Mourinho claimed that Lukaku only wanted to be first-choice, a criticism he repeated when Lukaku’s time at Chelsea came to a permanent end as Everton smashed their transfer record to secure his services last month.
Ironically, it was perhaps his idol’s return to Stamford Bridge that spelled the end for Lukaku’s hopes of becoming his permanent replacement. The previous summer another veteran had been signed in Samuel Eto’o and now Lukaku was facing up to being behind Drogba in the pecking order. Lukaku could hardly be blamed for believing that he didn’t exactly feature highly in Mourinho’s thoughts.
Last season he was unable to play against his parent club, but on Saturday Lukaku will get a chance to show Chelsea and Mourinho that he could have been a lethal spearhead to their attack. Last weekend, the 21-year-old gave a fine example of his pace and physicality when storming through Arsenal’s ranks before setting up Steven Naismith to put Everton 2-0 up. At that point it appeared there would be a repeat of Everton’s emphatic win over Arsenal in the same fixture last season and an early sign that Roberto Martinez could again get his side to challenge better-funded clubs at the top of the table. But, just as against Leicester City on the Premier League’s opening weekend. Everton faded late on and emerged with just a point. The ambitious and proactive Martinez will be targeting all three against Chelsea.
Prediction: The two teams had reverse fortunes last time out, with Chelsea starting slowly and impressing in the second half and Everton letting a lead slip. Mourinho is likely to take a more cautious approach at a venue that he suffered defeat last season and the two teams may cancel each other out for long periods. Everton can certainly live with the best teams in the league on a one-off basis and, with Chelsea likely missing Costa and Drogba not likely to be as sharp, a draw could be on the cards.
Everton 1-1 Chelsea
Kickoff time: 12.30 p.m.
TV channel: NBC
Live Stream: NBC Sports Live Extra