Chelsea welcome West Ham United to Stamford Bridge on Monday evening for a fixture which could have huge significance in the race for the top-four.
The Hammers have established themselves as something of a nemesis for the Premier League’s top six, and the likes of Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United will be hoping they can take points off the Blues for the second time this season.
Both managers are edging towards the end of their maiden campaigns for their respective clubs with plenty still to prove, particularly Maurizio Sarri, so it will be intriguing to see how two experienced tacticians fare against one another.
Ahead of the fixture, we’re taking a look at the key factors which could shape the outcome of the game, with Declan Rice, Sarri’s philosophy, a detached Hammer, and some bright young England internationals all up for discussion.
The Key Battle – Eden Hazard vs Declan Rice
Chelsea and West Ham played out a 0-0 draw at the London Stadium earlier in the season in a fixture which saw Sarri’s 100% start to the Premier League season come to an end.
The Blues had scored 14 goals from their opening five games prior to the all-London affair, but they found Declan Rice and a robust defensive unit standing in their way.
Eden Hazard conspired to unpick the lock but nothing would budge. Rice stuck to him like a leach and refused to allow the Belgium international time to settle in possession, a trend which hints where the game could be won and lost at Stamford Bridge.
The recently capped England international will need to be at his dominant best to stifle Hazard’s imperious playmaking ability, but history suggests he can conquer the challenge lying ahead.
The Key Dynamic – West Ham’s big game mentality
Just like Spurs will inevitably Spurs it up, West Ham will inevitably do a West Ham. The routine games are often thrown away or at best a meek performance is saved by a late salvo – take their recent win over Huddersfield, for example.
Against high-calibre opponents, though, they seem to discover their mojo.
The Irons beat both Manchester United and Arsenal at home earlier this season and have also recorded draws against Chelsea and Liverpool.
Their record on the road, however, leaves plenty to be desired. Just four wins have arrived from 15 fixtures away from home, and they still have the Blues, Manchester United and Spurs all still to play.
Can they emulate the standard of their home form against the top-six clubs in an away fixture before the end of the season?
The Deciding Factor – Sarri’s flexibility
Sarri’s stubborn approach has halted Chelsea’s progress this season. The Italian has seldom altered his system to meet the demands of a particular fixture, and his selection policy has been utterly predictable.
However, his decision to start both Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi against Brighton on Wednesday evening hinted that something is afoot.
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Both of the exciting unproven prospects had telling involvements in the game: Hudson-Odoi provided an excellent low cross for Olivier Giroud’s deft opener and Loftus-Cheek completed the scoring with a sumptuous curled effort from outside the box.
His decision to mix up his starting XI paid dividends, but will both players keep their places after impressing in midweek or will Sarri’s divergence from his rigid selection policy remain an anomalous result?
The Impact Subs – Willian vs Marko Arnautovic
On the premise that Hudson-Odoi will keep his place in the side, Willian’s engine could make a decisive impact from the bench. His final ball is often found wanting but there is a touch of magic in his locker which could clinch a huge result for Chelsea when they need it most.
Marko Arnautovic, meanwhile, has endured a torrid time since his January transfer saga. An ineffectual display against Everton and a minor injury problem could force Pellegrini to drop him from the starting XI, but don’t bet against him injecting a touch of match-winning firepower from the substitutes bench.