From south London to South Yorkshire. The Blues are back on the road this weekend, and club historian Rick Glanvill and club statistician Paul Dutton have looked at all the key talking points ahead of our first game at Bramall Lane for nearly 14 years...
Chelsea will have had the relative luxury of a three-day break before the team’s second-longest trip of the run-in, a day longer than our hosts Sheffield United. Frank Lampard’s side boast the second-best away record in the Premier League, with 30 points from 17 matches, as well as 36 goals – the most on the road in the top flight.
It will be an empty Bramall Lane that resonates to the terrace anthem ‘Annie’s Song/Greasy Chip Butty’ before the 35th kick-off of the season, but Chelsea will be brimming with confidence as the Premier League season approaches its climax.
At home, the Blades have conceded almost twice as many league goals in the second half as the first. However, the Blues let slip a comfortable two-goal lead in the reverse fixture at the end of August, conceding twice after the break to draw 2-2.
With four league games to go and 12 points available, mathematics become more important than aesthetics for teams aiming to finish as high as possible. Time is running out for the chasing pack, too.
Thanks to the generally impressive victory at Crystal Palace on Tuesday, the Blues are now a point above fourth-placed Leicester, two clear of Manchester United, and eight ahead of Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Since the Premier League resumed in June Frank Lampard’s team have taken more points per game than anyone except the Red Devils.
Chelsea can complete back-to-back league victories at Bramall Lane for the first time since 1965.
— Key Stat
Glazed and confused
Beating Crystal Palace last time out secured our league double of the season so far, with games against Norwich and Wolves to come. Not everything was perfect by any means, but the three points pocketed at Selhurst Park were absolutely vital. Leicester dropping points again means third place is in our hands.
Almost a sixth of the total league goals scored at Palace’s ground this season came in one go on Tuesday evening. The defensive jitters evident at West Ham returned, but elsewhere there was plenty of energy, personality, and determination.
Tammy Abraham’s winner will instill confidence after 10 forays without troubling the scoreboard, and Olivier Giroud will be on a high after his fifth in seven top-flight starts. Willian added two assists, taking his season total to seven – equalling his best return for the Blues, on top of his most league goals.
The result would not have stood, of course, without saving interventions from Kepa Arrizabalaga and Kurt Zouma, but once again second goalscorer Christian Pulisic, with defence-infiltrating runs, stood out. With four games to go the winger has already doubled his career-best tally for goals, and Chelsea have won every league game in which the late-arriving Pennsylvania Express has appeared on the scoresheet.
Walk on the Wilder side
Even after Sheffield United clipped Wolves’ claws in midweek, head coach Chris Wilder claimed ‘nobody is talking about Europe’ at Bramall Lane. He and his squad are happier being underestimated, displaying the underdog qualities of organisation, effort, fitness, and a dash of quality.
When they drew 0-0 at Aston Villa recently, in the first Premier League action for 100 days, the Blades narrowed missed out on becoming the first promoted team since Ipswich in 2000/01 to accrue 45 or more points from their first 29 matches.
That was symptomatic of a recent goals drought - only Brighton, Norwich, and Villa netted fewer over the previous eight matches. Defeat at Old Trafford made it three consecutive blanks in the league for the first time since 2013 in League One.
Four players have started every top-tier match for the Blades so far: overlapping centre-back Chris Basham, wing-backs George Baldock and Enda Stevens, and set-piece maestro Oliver Norwood. However, loanees returning and a spate of injuries have left Wilder under-resourced for the new substitutes allowance. He filled just seven of the nine bench slots for the Tottenham match, and eight for Burnley and Wolves.
He has still selected his replacements wisely: no Premier League team has recorded more goals by players from the bench than the Yorkshire outfit (seven), with former Cherry Lys Mousset responsible for three of them.
The Champions League draws
You read right: with little fanfare, the draws for the 2019/20 Champions League quarter-finals, semi-finals, and final will take place at UEFA’s Nyon headquarters today (Friday) from 11am. All those later matches will take place behind closed doors at the home stadiums of Benfica (including the final) or Sporting.
Champions League dates
7/8 August: Round of 16 second legs
12–15 August: Quarter-finals
18/19 August: Semi-finals
23 August: Final
For the Blues, 0-3 down ahead of the delayed round of 16 second leg, the fixtures might look like one of those 1970s game show ‘Here’s what you could have won’ moments. Hope springs eternal, though, and who knows how battle-ready Bayern will be for our meeting – now confirmed to take place at the Allianz Arena – after their 32-day break.
CAS’ City verdict imminent
Chelsea rose back up to third place on Tuesday for the first time since 23 November and have now been in the top four since 19 October.
On Monday, the outcome of Manchester City’s appeal to the Court Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to quash their European competition ban will be published, revealing whether a fifth-place finish will secure Champions League football next season.
A win in south Yorkshire would take Chelsea to 63 points, enough to secure sixth place at a minimum, and end any lingering Champions League aspirations of the hosts, Arsenal, Tottenham and Burnley.
European place ‘six-pointers’
Sheff United vs Chelsea - 11 Jul
Tottenham vs Arsenal - 12 Jul
Leicester vs Sheff Utd - 15 Jul
Burnley vs Wolves - 15 Jul
Tottenham vs Leicester - 18 Jul
Chelsea vs Wolves - 25 Jul
Leicester vs Man Utd - 25 Jul
That Tottenham-Arsenal clash could bring some clarity to Europa League qualification, and is the penultimate London derby of the season. Anything other than a Spurs win will leave Chelsea as top dogs in the capital this season.
No decision yet on 2020/21 start
Premier League clubs have postponed until 24 July the decision on when the 2020/21 campaign should kick off, but whatever they choose, the gap between the 28th and 29th Premier League seasons is likely to be exceptionally short.
The pre-pandemic start date was 8 August, and it is reported the new preferred option would be the weekend of 12/13 September. It remains unclear when fans will be allowed back in stadiums.
The chosen date will have wider significance. UEFA would prefer the transfer window, for example, to close on 5 October, but clubs have discussed extending it domestically for deals that could help struggling Football League clubs.
The Premier League season generally spans 34 weekends and four midweeks, and any compression of the schedule may also put at risk the participation of some clubs in the Carabao Cup.
Even the annual curtain-raiser to the season may have to change its fabric. The Community Shield, which began life in 1908 at Stamford Bridge as the Charity Shield, has traditionally been a play-off between the winners of England’s two biggest prizes: the league title and FA Cup.
Football’s itinerary has been amended as a result of the pandemic, though, and should one date mentioned for the Shield be chosen - 22 August - it would clash with the Europa League final set for 21 August, and the Champions League on the 23rd.
Three of the four FA Cup semi-finalists - Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs - are also still in UEFA competitions, and could be unavailable for the charitable showpiece. If that is the case it has been suggested the FA would instead invite the winners of the Championship to face champions Liverpool at Wembley.
Premier League fixtures
Norwich v West Ham 12.30pm (BT Sport)
Watford v Newcastle 12.30pm (Amazon Prime)
Liverpool v Burnley 3pm (BT Sport)
Sheffield Utd v Chelsea 5.30pm (Sky Sports)
Brighton v Man City 8pm (Sky Sports)
Wolves v Everton 12pm (Sky Sports)
Aston Villa v Crystal Palace 2.15pm (Sky Sports)
Tottenham v Arsenal 4.30pm (Sky Sports)
Bournemouth v Leicester 7pm (Sky Sports)
Man Utd v Southampton 8pm (Sky Sports)