Pre-Match Briefing: Watford vs Chelsea

A run of away games begins tonight against a side with a familiar face at the helm. Club historian Rick Glanvill and club statistician Paul Dutton prepare to fend off the Hornets…

After the 1-1 against Manchester United, Chelsea face Watford, the club whose 4-1 Premier League victory precipitated Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s departure. Vicarage Road will have an interesting few days: second-placed Manchester City are the visitors on Sunday.

For the league leaders, this is one of three successive away assignments across all competitions, with a triple dip to the bottom of the alphabet of opponents’ names. The first of two journeys inside the M25 has an unusual 7.30pm kick-off, our first since 4 December 2019’s home victory against Aston Villa.

The Premier League’s top three teams all play away tonight. Manchester City travel to Steven Gerrard’s Villa and his old flame Liverpool face a Merseyside derby at Everton. December was a travel nightmare for the Blues last season, Frank Lampard’s side losing all three away league trips in the club’s first negative clean sweep in the festive month since 1991.

Chelsea have won seven of the past eight encounters with Watford, and could taste victory in three successive Hertfordshire visits for the first time tonight.

Chelsea are attempting a fifth consecutive away league win with a clean sheet for the first time since 2008.


Chelsea team news

‘We trust the full squad and there’s no doubt you need them in weeks like this,’ was Thomas Tuchel’s observation on the suddenly busy treatment room at Cobham. Adding to absentees Ben Chilwell, Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante are fresh concerns over Reece James, Timo Werner and Jorginho, though all three are training.

We may see a continuity selection at Vicarage Road with greater changes at West Ham this weekend, not least because that is when midfield general Kante is targeting his return. Marcos Alonso should retain the left wing-back role, though maybe not twice each week. James finished the Man United game there, and Callum Hudson-Odoi is an option.

  • The 12 Games of Christmas Play Predictor gives fans the chance to win more prizes than ever throughout the festive season. The game is now open for Watford on The 5th Stand. 

Back in the side - Marcos Alonso

Although he could stick with Sunday’s pairing of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jorginho (now ranked third in the world), Tuchel will weigh up whether to match Claudio Ranieri’s three-man central midfield. Michael Carrick’s middle three blocked the Blues playing to forwards’ feet and their backline defended very deeply, reducing Timo Werner’s capacity to exploit space.

That could prompt changes in attack, especially as substitute Romelu Lukaku has suffered no reaction to his first competitive action for five weeks. As defensive as the Mancunians were, Chelsea summoned 24 shots, six on target. An issue highlighted by Tuchel is that he demands intensity and pressing from his frontmen and perhaps that militates against composed finishing.

At Stamford Bridge the past three domestic fixtures have finished 1-1 and the league leaders now have only the fifth best record on home soil this season. Fortunately, there is currently no one better at gaining points on the road, and few as clinical in front of goal. The Londoners have won four successive top-flight matches away from home by an aggregate of 10-0.

Leicester 0-3 Chelsea (A) | Premier League Highlights

Highlights from our Premier League match against Leicester.

The Blues have not conceded from open play in six away matches and at the weekend restricted the Red Devils to a previously unheard-of three attempts on goal, including an unintended gift for the goal.

Sting of the Hornets

Claudio Ranieri’s first taste of English football came with Chelsea at Old Trafford, but his most recent clash with Manchester United, a 4-1 win, ushered in the departure of their head coach.

In fact his opening six Premier League games since joining Watford have produced 25 goals (11 for, 14 against), the most in a coach’s first half-dozen games since Frank Lampard at Stamford Bridge (also 25).

The 4-5-1 formation he has used is designed for counter-attacking with long passes to the front, where wingers join a high press. They draw energy from the home crowd and shoot early – only six top-flight sides have found the net more frequently.

However, only Newcastle, beaten 3-0 by the Blues at St James’, have conceded more goals on their own patch than the Hornets. Tonight that porous defence could be missing centre-backs Christian Kabasele, Nicolas Nkoulou and Francisco Sierralta, as well as left-back Adam Masina.

Inconsistency pre-dates the Italian’s arrival. Now 16th, Watford are one of the least predictable clubs in this season’s Premier League, playing out only one draw. The Hornets have won four times (all of them by scoring three or more times) and lost eight, seven of them to nil, and occasionally heavily. They attempted to go toe-to-toe against Liverpool before slipping to a 5-0 defeat.

Watford's wintry outing at the weekend

The former Blues coach will have Daniel Bachmann between the sticks tonight as his preferred number one and frequent thorn in Chelsea sides, Ben Foster, is out. Neither keeper has so far managed a clean sheet in the league for 23 games and only two teams (Palace and Villa) have a worse record on conceding from set-plays.

Another doubt is one of their two goalscorers in the driving King Power snow, bustling wideman Emmanuel Dennis, who now has five goals and the same number of assists this campaign. He and Norwegian forward Josh King are effective at carving out chances for themselves, and may feel they should have more goals to their names. They fired a blizzard of 16 shots at the hosts’ goal on Sunday to no avail. In-form winger Ismaila Sarr is out till the new year.

Ranieri has demanded more aggression and determination from his new charges but the Hornets have already committed 180 fouls, far more than any competitor, and rank sixth for cautions.

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We have history

This is a visit to one of the promoted club’s grounds, albeit a familiar one. The Blues have won eight of the past 15 away encounters with all top-flight newcomers, drawing four times and losing three.

The west Londoners’ only defeat at Vicarage Road this century came in February 2018 after Tiemoue Bakayoko had been shown two yellow cards in five minutes. Three of the past four visits have brought 2-1 victories, most recently in 2019, when Tammy Abraham and Christian Pulisic were on target.

Top 5 | Chelsea goals v Watford

A Nicolas Anelka overhead kick and a classic Frank Lampard long-range beauty feature in our top five goals v Watford, which is your number one?

Our first league visit came in 1980 when Geoff Hurst’s Blues went three up then held off Graham Taylor’s Hornets for a 3-2 win, Ian Bolton blowing a last-gasp penalty for the hosts.

Chelsea have beaten Claudio Ranieri-managed teams five times, losing once and drawing twice. He is not alone in such a record: the Blues have won 23 of the 37 league games against a returning boss, losing six.

FIFA onside with tests

Controversial flag work during the weekend draw with United puts the technology trial taking place at the Arab Cup into sharper focus. FIFA are using the Qatar-based tournament to test a limb-tracking video and remote analysis system to make almost instant offside decisions. If successful, semi-automated offside calls could be employed at next year’s World Cup.

February fixtures

The details of Chelsea’s two potential matches at the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi have not yet been revealed, but if the competition follows last year’s precedent the semi-final – against one of Al-Hilal, Al Jazira or Auckland City – will take place on 6/7 February. Depending on the outcome, the final or third/fourth place match will then be on the 12th.

Our league matches at Brighton, scheduled for Tuesday 8 February, and at home to Arsenal the following Saturday will be rescheduled, creating a near four-week gap in the league campaign between Tottenham at the Bridge and Palace away.

Matchweek 14 Premier League fixtures and results

Newcastle 1 Norwich 1
Leeds 1 Crystal Palace 0

Southampton v Leicester 7.30pm
Watford v Chelsea 7.30pm
West Ham v Brighton 7.30pm
Wolves v Burnley 7.30pm
Aston Villa v Man City 8.15pm
Everton v Liverpool 8.15pm

Tottenham v Brentford 7.30pm
Man Utd v Arsenal 8.15pm

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