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 By Michael Cox

Can Tottenham justify their favourites tag or will struggling Chelsea rebound?

Paul Mariner and Mark Donaldson debate whether Chelsea's opening-weekend defeat to Burnley is cause for concern.
The ESPN FC panel are stunned by the rumours that this could be Antonio Conte's second and final season with Chelsea.

It's only the second weekend of the Premier League season, yet it feels like Tottenham's meeting with Chelsea at Wembley on Sunday could prove one of the decisive matches of 2017-18. If that sounds ludicrous, consider the various ways this contest is of importance.

It is a meeting between last season's top two. It is also Tottenham's first official game at their temporary home and, therefore, will set the tone for a year-long experience at the national stadium.

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And it is of particular importance to Chelsea, considering they lost their opening fixture at home to Burnley -- on paper one of their easiest games of the season. Combined with last season's FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal and their penalty shootout reverse to the same opposition in the Community Shield, the champions are attempting to avoid four disappointing results in a row.

However you look at this game, it feels big and it might also prove fascinating in a tactical sense. Last season's corresponding fixture, played at White Hart Lane in January, was the first time anyone stopped Antonio Conte's new-look 3-4-3 formation, as Tottenham ran out comfortable 2-0 winners.

Notably, Mauricio Pochettino's approach was to replicate Chelsea's system and exploit notable weaknesses in their defensive trio. The two goals were almost identical, with Christian Eriksen finding space outside Gary Cahill and crossing for Dele Alli to head home at the far post, towering over Cesar Azpilicueta. It was a textbook tactical victory.

Chelsea went onto win the title but Tottenham appear overwhelming favourites to triumph this weekend. For starters, Chelsea now appear a completely different side: The all-star front three of Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Pedro Rodriguez will be unavailable while, at the back, Gary Cahill is suspended after being dismissed vs. Burnley.

In midfield, Nemanja Matic has departed against Conte's wishes, his replacement Tiemoue Bakayoko isn't fit enough for consideration and Cesc Fabregas is also banned. It all means that Conte has no obvious choice alongside N'Golo Kante; the likeliest solution is to push David Luiz forward, which is an imperfect compromise and one that has the knock-on effect of disturbing defensive cohesion.

Other sides might be capable of overcoming such problems; in teams with a defined identity and whose players are educated in a particular style of play, the precise formation and combination of players become less important. But Chelsea are a short-term club and Conte is a pragmatic manager, who concentrates heavily on getting his first XI together and drilling them week in, week out.

Changes in personnel last season were avoided at all costs but, now, Chelsea's XI looks unfamiliar and their squad looks alarmingly thin. For a club that regularly has at least a dozen established professionals out on loan, and one which regularly wins the FA Youth Cup, it's a peculiar situation.

While Antonio Conte's Chelsea must stop the rot, Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham face a different kind of pressure.

That Tottenham seem likely to match Chelsea's formation again means Conte might struggle to tactically outwit Pochettino. Last season's FA Cup semifinal meeting between the sides, a wild 4-2 win for Chelsea, is a relevant recent case study in terms of recency, but this game will surely be the complete opposite, with Conte trying to shut things down and play for a draw.

Tottenham will dominate and the onus will be upon them to translate their possession into chances. Encouragingly for their fans, their side has improved immeasurably in this area over the past 18 months.

Whereas once Spurs appeared a pure pressing side and somewhat simplistic when faced with the task of breaking down a parked bus, their movement and passing in the final third is now excellent.

Eriksen, Alli and Harry Kane are all brilliant at finding space in very different ways: Eriksen in a "between the lines" manner, Alli with late runs in behind backlines and Kane with old-school poacher instincts. It's difficult to imagine how this trio won't find considerable space in a ramshackle Chelsea defensive block.

Luiz, for all his improvement since returning to Stamford Bridge, is an impetuous liability in midfield and lacks the positional discipline of Matic, whose reputation has soared unreasonably based upon one fine Manchester United performance, but who was unquestionably a responsible, solid partner for Kante.

Newcomer Antonio Rudiger is a fine defender but, having only arrived recently, has little relationship with his new teammates. Meanwhile, Andreas Christensen is a competent player but nothing more and Azpilicueta was, as previously mentioned, exposed in this fixture last season and didn't even play in defence against Burnley because he was deputising for Victor Moses at right-wing-back.

In all, only four outfielders -- Azpilicueta, Kante, Moses and Marcos Alonso -- from Conte's established first-choice team last season will start on Sunday. And that will be juxtaposed with Tottenham's familiarity and cohesion, which is helped by the fact they only lost one first-teamer in the summer, right-back Kyle Walker.

But Pochettino's men are in an unfamiliar position, in that they go into a big game against the defending champions as strong favourites. That necessitates a change in mentality, as well as tactics.

Spurs have largely played without pressure over the past two years and, in sporadic moments when there has been attention on them, such as the end of the 2015-16 campaign when they fell away rather than pushing Leicester hard, have been found wanting.

Victory would lay down a significant marker for the new campaign -- not to mention they'd have a six-point lead over the defending champions -- in front of a crowd likely to be the biggest for a league fixture in England. It might be mid-August, but make no mistake about it: this game is big.

Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.

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