Chelsea must avoid complacency and take their chances against West Ham
Chelsea and West Ham United kick off the weekend's round of Premier League fixtures with what has the potential to be a feisty Saturday lunchtime derby at the London Stadium.
The Blues, in a rich vein of domestic form, have won six of their past seven top-flight games and victory against the Hammers would pull them level on points with second-place Manchester United, who host table-topping neighbours Man City the following day. By stark contrast, West Ham, one point off the basement, are entrenched in a relegation battle and are yet to win under new manager David Moyes.
At face value then, the result should be a foregone conclusion with Antonio Conte's side coasting to three easy points -- but complacency would be ill-advised.
Moyes will be desperate to prove his worth to his new club and Chelsea have already faced a similar situation before this season when they made another short journey across London in September, this time to play Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.
Palace went into that game pointless and goalless with manager Roy Hodgson having failed to make an impression since taking over from Frank de Boer, who had been sacked just four league games into the campaign. The Eagles put on a committed display, outfought the Blues and deservedly won 2-1.
Moyes is certain to highlight Chelsea's loss to Palace as proof to his team that if they pull together anything is possible, and conversely Conte will no doubt remind his players they will need to be fully focused on the game from start to finish and make the most of the chances they are certain to create.
Since the shock loss to Palace, the Italian has tweaked his tactics to enable a shift from 3-4-3 to 3-5-3 and with N'Golo Kante, missing at Selhurst because of injury, back in their ranks Chelsea's midfield has had a far more robust look to it. Though the Blues' league form of late has been enviable, the midweek 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League underlined deficiencies that Conte must eliminate to prevent West Ham from getting anything from Saturday's game.
Against Atleti, Chelsea created an abundance of chances but a combination of inspired goalkeeping and poor finishing restricted their tally to one and that was a heavily deflected own-goal. Totally against the run of play, the Blues had found themselves 1-0 down when a careless piece of marking by Tiemoue Bakayoko allowed Saul Niguez a free header following a corner.
Bakayoko, who has struggled to adapt to the English game following his £40 summer move from Monaco, was hauled off shortly after and his error will likely see him dropped to the bench for the West Ham game.
Danny Drinkwater, preferred by Conte to the 23-year old France international for last weekend's league encounter with Newcastle United, is the logical choice to partner his former Leicester City teammate Kante in Chelsea's midfield. Drinkwater was one of Chelsea's standout performers in the 3-1 win against the Magpies and he looks ideally suited for what is likely to be an intense and physical tussle with West Ham.
Between them, prolific duo Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata look once again to hold the keys to a Chelsea victory. Hazard (five league goals and three assists) and Morata (nine league goals and four assists) have developed a telepathic understanding that has wreaked havoc on many opposition defences this season. Hazard scored twice against Newcastle and Morata also found the net, and had Atleti keeper Jan Oblak not put on a world-class display on Tuesday night the pair would almost certainly have been on the scoresheet again.
Moyes' team will give no quarter however and Hazard in particular can expect to find himself a target for some tough tackling. Whether referee Anthony Taylor affords the Belgium international the type of protection that is often lacking in high-octane encounters remains to be seen. In the corresponding fixture last season, Chelsea skipper Gary Cahill had his shirt shredded by the boots of West Ham midfielder Sofiane Feghouli. Feghouli has since departed for Galatasaray, but his former teammates won't be shy when it comes to making their collective presence felt.
For all their problems, West Ham did manage to take the lead last time out away to Man City and a newfound stubborn streak kept them in the game right up to the final 10 minutes when City scored a late winner. Arguably, class won the day at the Etihad and, collectively, Chelsea should have enough talent to prevail at the London Stadium.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco