Burnley face testing start
Chelsea will visit Turf Moor on Monday as Burnley mark their return to the Premier League in front of a packed crowd. It could hardly be a more difficult test for manager Sean Dyche's team, with Chelsea widely installed as title favourites after a summer of heavy investment in stars including Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas and Filipe Luis. Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho can no longer claim his team are the "little horse" of the Premier League title race.
Chelsea look like the total package despite the loss of veterans Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, and Mourinho will be keen to get off to a flying start. Burnley's next home game is vs. Manchester United, with a trip to Swansea City sandwiched in between those two matches. It promises to be a baptism of fire for Dyche's team.
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In the Burnley-Chelsea opener, a key matchup is likely to be the battle between debutant Costa and 36-year-old defensive stalwart Michael Duff, 11 years Costa's senior. The former Northern Ireland international has been at Burnley for 10 years, but he missed much of the club's only previous Premier League season through injury. Duff will therefore be eager to make his mark at the highest level, and he is sure to relish the physical battle vs. Costa.
After a hugely impressive La Liga campaign with Atletico Madrid last year, Costa had a desperately poor World Cup for Spain, and Burnley will be hoping he repeats that lack of form Monday night.
Just two of Burnley's six summer signings are likely to be in the starting lineup. Lukas Jutkiewicz has earned the chance to play alongside Danny Ings in Burnley's strike force after scoring six goals in six preseason fixtures following a transfer from Middlesbrough. Jutkiewicz is filling in for the injured Wales international Sam Vokes. Former West Ham midfielder Matt Taylor will start on the left, and he offers a useful goal threat from deep that Chelsea will need to be wary of.
Both sides are perhaps most comfortable on the break, so it will be fascinating to see which team takes responsibility for keeping the ball and forcing their opponents onto the back foot. Costa's extreme physicality could hurt Burnley, who will also have to be aware of nippy and inventive midfield runners, including Oscar and Eden Hazard.
Promoted teams typically welcome playing the big boys early in the season, especially after a World Cup summer. But few of Chelsea's players went deep into the tournament; instead, many of them will want to put disappointing, dispiriting summers behind them.
With Chelsea likely to play a central midfield of three held together by Nemanja Matic, the match offers an early examination of Dyche's preferred 4-4-1-1 shape, which features last season's Championship Player of the Year Ings in a free role off target man Jutkiewicz. Ings will have to tuck in deep when Chelsea have the ball, and both of Burnley's strikers will have the responsibility of pressing the Blues high up the field. Fabregas won't get the time on the ball he craves, although he certainly has the ability to escape a man. Burnley's dynamic duo of David Jones and Dean Marney will need to have a good night in midfield if the Clarets are to avoid a defeat.
Another Burnley star who will need to be at his best is right-back Kieran Trippier. The 23-year-old is often the Clarets' primary creative threat, and he may get a free run at Luis with Hazard not known for his diligent defensive cover. However, Trippier can be susceptible to being beaten by a quick winger, and the rapid feet of the Belgian will make their confrontation another key battle.
Chelsea's Gary Cahill will be welcomed home like a prodigal son after Burnley played an important role in his development a decade ago. The England defender spent a year on loan at Turf Moor as a raw but talented teenager.
The Clarets were unfancied all last season and still cruised to promotion. Don't bet against them causing another big shock.