Photo Source: The Evening Standard
Ahhhh, OK. This seems to have come around a bit too quickly for my liking. So, as it stands Maurizio Sarri will be picking the lineup for Chelsea’s Europa League, round of 32, second leg tie against Malmo. His side hold a slender 2-1 lead ahead of the game at Stamford Bridge.
With Chelsea fan’s split on the clubs current manager – cards on the table, I’m for him going – Sarri is walking a very thin tightrope. This will be the first lineup prediction in which I can’t say, ‘Chelsea are still in every competition they entered at the start of the season. Manchester United made sure of that.
It’s clear, how Chelsea’s season ends up will now be dependant on whether Sarri stays or goes. The Europa League is looking like the Blues best bet for Champions League qualification but is still a longshot in the current circumstances.
For a manager who is so predictable with his selections, the actual starting XI is nonetheless tricky to call. With Sarri having the chance of winning his first ever trophy as manager on Sunday – unlikely, but possible – how much will he rotate the team for the Malmo game. In normal circumstances, you would say an away win with two goals is as good as game over. However, who knows how Chelsea will play when the eleven are picked. With that Champions League carrot dangling he’ll want to coax his team through to the last 16 somehow.
The best indication of who starts has to be the line-up that took to the field last Thursday in Sweden, but if I’m honest I don’t really know. I know I want Chelsea to win but after years of support you kind of become immune and weirdly detached to the goings-on in SW6. Roman Abramovich not only brought a bucket full of cash to London when he arrived, but he also set in motion a real-life soap opera that competes with TV’s best.
Goalkeeper – Kepa Arrizabalaga has shown moments of weakness in recent games, but to be fair it’s very difficult to judge his performances based on what has been happening in front of him. He’s certainly Chelsea’s best option and Malmo ought to give him some respite from facing a team from Manchester anyway.
Defence – It’s very difficult to imagine Sarri changing much from the first leg, but maybe that’s all part of his cunning plan. Cesar Azpilicueta, for some, has struggled this season but who hasn’t. He appears to me to be doing his absolute best and definitely cares and I can ask no more that. There’s surely no reason to play David Luiz ahead of Andreas Christensen in this game so the Brazilian can rest up ahead of Wembley. Antonio Rudiger is also committed to the Chelsea cause in my view and must play given the weakness we currently have on the left. Any right-minded individual would play a back three pushing Marcos Alonso further forward. In a back four though, Emerson just edges the place at right-back.
Midfield – What can you say about the midfield. Perm any three from four. Jorginho is playing – simple as – no need for discussion. Another definite starter, for me and someone who wants to pull on a Chelsea shirt, is the diminutive N’golo Kante. Small of stature, big of heart, he needs no rest. Mateo Kovacic started the last game, so for this one, it’s obviously Ross Barkley completing the midfield three (don’t worry Kovacic fans, he’s coming on in the 63rd minute). With a goal in the first-leg maybe the ex-Everton man has found his level.
Attack – What attack, I hear you ask? Both Pedro and Willian started in the first leg, not the best creative combination but with Eden Hazard likely to be rested, the question is, will Sarri play Callum Hudson-Odoi? In the faint hope that I’m wrong, I’m going to say he doesn’t start, he may get the final five minutes. Olivier Giroud scored the second goal last week and deserves a chance to find the net again. Gonzalo Higuain will need to be psyching himself up to face his first Wembley final in England as he looks to chase down Didier Drogba’s fine scoring record in cup finals.
Arrizabalaga, Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger, Emerson, Jorginho, Kante, Barkley, Pedro, Willian, Giroud
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