Chelsea will go into Saturday’s clash with their closest rivals for the Premier League title without leading scorer Diego Costa. José Mourinho’s league leaders take a five point lead into the meeting with second placed Manchester City at Stamford Bridge. But they have been dealt a major blow by Costa receiving a three-match ban for his apparent stamp on Liverpool’s Emre Can during the sides’ highly charged Capital One Cup semifinal second leg on Tuesday.
The charge will have done little to improve the mood of Mourinho. The outspoken Portuguese described the incident as “absolutely accidental” after the match and railed against what he saw as the latest campaign to undermine his side. Mourinho only recently received a fine for making similar comments regarding his side’s treatment by referees earlier in the season and could now face further disciplinary trouble after failing to appear for his press conference ahead of Saturday’s top-of-the-table encounter
Even by Mourinho’s theatrical standards, it has been an eventful week at Stamford Bridge. It started with the spectacular ending of Chelsea’s quest for an unprecedented quadruple when blowing a 2-0 lead to lose 4-2 at home to League One outfit Bradford City in the FA Cup fourth round. They got back on track, though, with a 1-0 win over Liverpool in a breathless 120-minute encounter to secure a place at Wembley and a meeting with Tottenham for the first silverware of the season. A win on Saturday would go a long way to ensuring that the Premier League title heads to Stamford Bridge for the first time in five years.
A loss to go eight points behind and it would be hard to see Manchester City keeping hold of their crown beyond May. A 2-0 home defeat to Arsenal two weeks ago means that Manuel Pellegrini’s men have precious room for error until the end of the season, not least at Stamford Bridge. Yet the Manchester City boss insists that a defeat wouldn’t be fatal to their title hopes.
“I think it’s a very important game, but not the game that will decide the title because after that we have 45 points more to play for,” he said. “If you remember this group won the title after being eight points behind Manchester United. In football you never know but it’s a very important game and it’s important for us to try to close that gap as soon as we can.”
Like Chelsea, Manchester City were on the receiving end of an FA Cup upset last weekend. The team lost 2-0 at home to Middlesbrough amid much scrutiny over the decision to have the squad return from a winter training camp in Abu Dhabi less than 24 hours before the fourth round clash. On Saturday, City will again be unable to call upon the influential presence of Yaya Toure. The midfielder’s stay at the African Cup of Nations has been extended after the Ivory Coast progressed into the quarterfinals on Wednesday. It also means that City will have to wait a little longer to hand a debut to January signing Wilfried Bony. City could also be without Eliaquim Mangala, who is struggling with a shoulder injury, although Samir Nasri is back in contention for a place in the squad.
Chelsea, as well as missing Costa, have their own injury problems. Cesc Fabregas, forced off against Liverpool, is a major doubt, while the availability of full-backs Branislav Ivanovic and Filipe Luis is similarly in question. It looks highly unlikely that either Andre Schurrle or Mohamed Salah will be involved, with the attacking duo thought to be close to moves away from Stamford Bridge ahead of Juan Cuadrado’s expected arrival from Fiorentina.
Prediction: Mourinho is the master of creating a siege mentality within his squad and that particular skill has gone into overdrive in recent days. Expect Chelsea to be incredibly fired up, especially as they seek to avoid an unthinkable second successive home loss. Chelsea will certainly miss the aggression and ruthlessness of Costa up front and potentially the creativity of Fabregas in midfield. However, putting a more defensive-minded midfielder alongside Nemanja Matic should prevent the openness Chelsea have displayed occasionally this season, particularly of late.
City will similarly be more compact without Toure, but could sorely miss his attacking dynamism and ability to link midfield and attack. Much could depend on whether Sergio Aguero has rediscovered his sharpness and can punish a Chelsea defense that can be slow on the turn. Expect an extremely tight contest, but with the superior tactical acumen of Mourinho and Chelsea’s greater mental resolve to potentially give the leaders a vital narrow win.
Chelsea 1-0 Manchester City
Kickoff time: 12:30 p.m. EST
TV channel: NBC
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra