On Sunday, it’s a return to Stamford Bridge for former Chelsea employees José Mourinho, Juan Mata, Romelu Lukaku, and Nemanja Matić. Manchester United will be hoping to keep pace with the Premier League leaders across the city, and the Blues will be hoping to bounce back from a rough mid-week Champions League loss. Ahead of the hotly anticipated and almost definitely very boring heavyweight clash, we spoke to our colleague Dávid Pásztor from Chelsea blog We Ain’t Got No History.
tBB: After last season's ruthless march to the league title, there seems to be something of a hangover for Chelsea this season. A big mid-week loss, plus you lot are LANGUISHING a full FOUR points behind United. What do you make of the season so far?
WAGNH: These days, when a sensationalist CRISIS lurks around every corner — "fallen to rabble" as the Guardian put it — it's hard to know when the actual problems do arise. Heightened expectations from last season aren't helping either. We all knew we were in for a tough season, with a busier schedule, the fact that no team has defended the title in a decade, and given that both Manchester clubs under-performed and threw more money at the problem and we didn't, or at least not to the same extent. And yet, now that we are having some difficulties, suddenly everyone's freaking out. The response to the Roma loss, bad as the 3-0 looks on paper, has been amazingly overblown, especially since Chelsea actually played better for large parts of the game than in the 3-3 draw against the same opposition a fortnight prior. That's not to say there aren't issues, but at the end of the day, we're still top four in the league and on course to qualify for the Champions League knockout rounds. Those are the reasonable set of expectations for any given Abramovich Era season, so patience and cooler heads are required, though of course those have been known to be in short supply at Stamford Bridge.
tBB: Thanks for Matić, by the way. I wasn't sure if his recent form at Chelsea was a sign of permanent decline, but he has been brilliant for us. Personally, I think the "What were Chelsea thinking?!" hysteria is overblown, given that Conte had his own ideas and signed a replacement that he wanted. How do the fans feel? Missing Nemanja, or is Bakayoko more than an adequate replacement?
WAGNH: When Bakayoko made his debut and put in a great shift against Spurs while playing on one leg, everyone went "Nemanja who?" Since then, with the youngster never quite recovering from his knee injury from the summer - still playing through the pain, it was revealed just this week - but pressed into service (alongside Fabregas) as all other midfielders succumbed to even bigger injuries, that narrative has reversed and we have quickly forgotten all the criticisms leveled at Matić last season. Bakayoko hasn't been faultless by any measure - has a bad habit of giving away cheap, lazy fouls late in games, for example - but he's been asked to shoulder far more than ever expected far sooner than planned (Conte wanted to keep Matić to help Bakayoko along, in fact).
tBB: Speaking of Matić, United have quite the collection of Chelsea reje-...erm, alumni on our books. One of whom has been banging in the goals (up until recently, anyway). There are factions of both sets of fans who wanted the striker whom the other team ultimately signed. What's the general consensus now on Lukaku vs. Morata? Happy with how things shook out?
WAGNH: In a situation similar to Bakayoko's, when Morata was scoring every header and grabbing a hat-trick against Stoke, the fans were happy. Now that Morata has hit a bit of a slump, that happiness has started to drain away. That said, the general complaints aren't along the lines of Lukaku vs. Morata and which one we ended up with in the end, but rather about the whole Costa fiasco and the ignominious end to that relationship. If only we had both Costa and Morata...
tBB: We've only got two fit midfielders, one of whom has been in relatively poor form all season, the left-back spot has been filled by committee, and our most creative attacker has been AWOL for weeks. What weaknesses or areas of concern are there in the Chelsea team?
WAGNH: Where to start ... the squad in general seems to be lacking confidence, and there are surprising lapses of concentration and a multitude of just downright stupid plays on the pitch. The constant stream of injuries aren't helping. When the coach rotates the squad, we often look discombobulated, when he doesn't rotate, we often look tired. Many players are either out of form or are overworked due to injuries and lack of depth. Morata has turned into Torres. Fabregas is already dead and it's only week 11. David Luiz is back to being Sideshow Bob. Cahill and Rudiger are one-upping each other with awkward plays. Even Azpilicueta looks lost. The only player who hasn't quite lost his way is Hazard, but he can still be easily contained by kicking him a lot (to which referees, by and large, continue to turn a blind eye) - I'm sure Ander Herrera's already sharpening his boots. The only unequivocally trusted players who haven't been injured or suspended at one point or another this season can be counted on one hand: Courtois, Alonso, Rudiger, Willian - and only Courtois has actually been in consistent form all season from those four.
tBB: What match-ups do you think will be key this weekend? We're fully expecting Mourinho to go Full Mourinho, but is there anything unexpected we should look out for from Conte?
WAGNH: Hazard vs. all the kicking, Kante vs. the world. If we come out on top in those two, we just might win.
tBB: And finally, prediction for the final score?
WAGNH: 2-1, good guys, because I like to set up myself up for disappointment.
tBB: The good guys?! Cheeky bugger. Thanks, David!
Don’t miss the companion piece over on WAGNH, where David and I talk Mourinho, expectations, and predictions for Sunday.