Contrasting styles, diametrically opposed philosophies and two mangers with a rich personal history all add to the mix of what promises to be an intriguing top-of-the-table clash between Manchester City and Chelsea.
City hold a three-point edge in the Premier League and will return to the summit with a victory at the Etihad Stadium on Monday. For Chelsea, a defeat would leave them with an uphill task in the remaining 14 matches of the season.
What the two teams share is a fine run of form coming into the fixture -- City have won 18 and drawn two of their last 20 matches, while Chelsea are undefeated in nine games -- but it is the contrast in how they have achieved those results that makes this encounter setup for a potentially classic duel.
With a stunning array of attacking talent at his disposal, Manuel Pellegrini has decided to play to his side’s strengths. It means City breaking with the modern trend and playing with two strikers, while essentially having their front six players all looking to get forward. Alvaro Negredo has adapted seamlessly to the Premier League, while Sergio Aguero is displaying the world-class ability on a consistent basis that he has long promised. While Aguero will unfortunately be ruled out through injury on Monday, Edin Dzeko and the returning Stevan Jovetic provide able deputies. Still, Aguero’s turn of pace in the box will be missed against the slowing legs of John Terry, who will be in a greater comfort zone against the more physical threats of Negredo and Dzeko.
Behind the front two, City have a potent mix. A key addition this season has been the pace and width of Jesus Navas, which complements the playmaking talents of David Silva cutting inside from the left. The Spaniard reveled in the space afforded him in a 5-1 mauling of Tottenham last week, but Chelsea’s midfield will surely not be so acquiescing.
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The center midfield battle could be crucial. It is one where City previously had a huge advantage, with the strength, technical quality and dynamism of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho able to overpower most midfield trios.
The January signing of Nemanja Matic has addressed one of Chelsea’s key needs, though. The Serbian has the ability to be a natural pivot at the base of the midfield, with both the physicality and ability on the ball to break up and start attacks. He could well become a key fulcrum for the side. Under Jose Mourinho, Chelsea are, of course, all about thwarting the opposition going forward before looking to his quickly on the break from deep.
For all his protestations of a new Mourinho being seen this season and his wanting to embrace English football values, he fundamentally, for better and for worse, remains unchanged. Indeed, his outspoken criticism of West Ham’s negative tactics in earning a goalless draw against Chelsea in midweek were so hypocritical that it suggests he was dipping into the territory of self-parody.
Yet, Mourinho, who was the Galactico manager brought into Real Madrid in 2010 after the demure Pellegrini had been cast aside, is undeniably a master at getting his players to 100 percent buy into his values and philosophy. In recent weeks, that has been the key to Chelsea’s upturn in results. Having weeded out those deemed too unreliable -- namely Juan Mata and Kevin de Bruyne -- regardless of their talents, he now has a team working diligently without the ball and looking to be more ruthless in their hurting of the opposition when with it.
His strategy has been epitomized by Eden Hazard and Willian. The two wide men can be relied upon to track back and do their defensive duties but then once the ball is won back having pace to threaten on the break. There is a clear intention on Mourinho’s part to mold Hazard into a man both he and Pellegrini coached at Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo, in terms of his directness with the ball at his feet. Three goals in his past seven appearances and some match-winning performances besides illustrate that the work is paying off.
Both Hazard and Willian will be key if Chelsea are to expose the weakness that City undeniably still have in defense. Pellegrini has decided to cover up their failings by using attack as the best form of defense, but the failure to sign a central defender in January could yet prove costly. Mourinho will doubtless be looking to get his virile attackers breaking against the rickety legs of Martin Demichelis.
Yet, Chelsea lack a ruthless striker in the box, while it also remains to be seen whether they will commit enough numbers going forward to take advantage of their opponents’ weakness. At both Old Trafford and the Emirates Stadium, Mourinho settled for a goalless draw before a ball was kicked. Against even greater firepower at a stadium where City hold a 100 percent record, averaging almost four goals a game, in the Premier League this season, it has to be expected that he will try to repeat the trick. That could see Ramires coming in for Oscar and providing more two-way energy in the midfield.
The key for City to try and break through the expected barricade will be starting at and maintaining a high tempo. They will have to move the ball quickly through midfield and prevent the visitors from reducing the match to a labored affair where one mistake or piece of individual brilliance could tilt the match their way.
Whoever can impose their style on the opposition could go a long way, not only to determining the outcome of Monday’s encounter but to deciding who will be lifting the Premier League title in May.
Where to watch: The Barclays Premier League match will kick off at 3 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by NBCSN, with a live stream available via NBC Sports Live Extra.