Guardiola test awaits Conte’s charging Chelsea

Chelsea's head coach Antonio Conte celebrates at the final whistle during the English Premier League ...
Chelsea's head coach Antonio Conte celebrates at the final whistle during the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge in London on November 26, 2016 (AFP Photo/Ben STANSALL)

Chelsea’s scintillating late-year burst of form faces its biggest test yet on Saturday when Antonio Conte takes the Premier League leaders to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.

Having secured a gritty 2-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge last weekend, Chelsea have won their last seven league games — their best run since 2010.

But while City’s early-season momentum has faded, they are unbeaten at home under Guardiola and will move two points above Chelsea if they prevail.

“City is a really great team with great players, but we want to show we are working very well,” Conte said on Friday.

“Tomorrow is another step to show us if something is changing compared to the start of the season.”

Two months ago, City were the pace-setters, having won their opening six fixtures, while Chelsea were reeling from successive losses to Liverpool and Arsenal that had left them in eighth place.

But City’s 2-0 defeat at Spurs revealed Guardiola’s side remained a work in progress and while they have won their three subsequent away games, they have drawn their last three home matches.

Chelsea, meanwhile, have been flying ever since Conte switched to a 3-4-3 formation during the second half of their 3-0 defeat at Arsenal on September 24.

Should they win again at the Etihad Stadium, it will be the first time they have won eight successive league matches within the same season since a sequence of nine between January and April 2007.

Saturday’s lunchtime encounter has been billed as a shootout between City striker Sergio Aguero and Chelsea’s snarling talisman Diego Costa, who top the Premier League scoring charts with 10 goals apiece.

But while both teams are dependent — if not over-dependent — on a single, prolific goal-getter and have coaches who prize high pressing and relentless industry, they are worlds apart in other aspects.

Conte has picked the same team for Chelsea’s last six fixtures, whereas Guardiola has been obliged to chop and change both in terms of tactics and personnel.

– Rock solid –

No manager has made fewer changes to his starting XI than the seven made by Conte. No manager has made more changes than the 40 made by Guardiola.

It is the legacy of City’s involvement in the Champions League, as emphasised last week when they won 2-1 at Burnley having played at Borussia Moenchengladbach in mid-week.

Guardiola’s need to keep his squad fresh led to a shock recall for the previously sidelined Yaya Toure, who has started City’s last two league games.

But with City already assured of a Champions League last 16 place ahead of Celtic’s visit on Tuesday, and unable to pip Barcelona to top spot in Group C, Guardiola can align his strongest available team.

The City manager has made the most of a rare free week, granting his players Monday and Tuesday off.

“We were 11, 12, 13 days with a day off,” Guardiola said.

“That’s why they had two days off and we were training for three days to prepare for Chelsea.

“We all like to play football. That’s why we’re here, but sometimes you have four, five or six months, playing, playing, playing, so not playing one week is good.”

The flux in the City first XI partly explains why they have recorded just two clean sheets in 16 league games, although an unsteady adjustment to Guardiola’s possession-based philosophy is also a factor.

Chelsea, on the other hand, have looked rock solid and went 600 minutes without conceding a goal before Christian Eriksen’s blistering shot put Spurs ahead at Stamford Bridge last weekend.

Conte said there were doubts over one or two players, who he declined to name, while John Terry is absent with a buttock problem, but he is expected to name another unchanged team.

City are also without their captain, a knee injury having forced Vincent Kompany back to the treatment room, but they are otherwise at full strength.

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