Premier League | Stamford Bridge | Sat 22 Feb | 12:45pm
The little horses versus the, erm, slightly smaller brothers of the chihuahuas that run between... oh, forget it: it's 1st versus 6th.
Twenty-six weeks into a refreshingly competitive and unpredictable Premier League season, it shouldn't have come as a huge surprise that the moment Chelsea were reinstated as title favourites two weeks ago, they'd lose a bit of momentum, hanging on for a point at West Brom before spluttering their way through their FA Cup defeat to Manchester City.
- Man City 2-0 Chelsea (FAC)
- WBA 1-1 Chelsea (Prem)
- Chelsea 3-0 Newcastle (Prem)
- Man City 0-1 Chelsea (Prem)
- Chelsea 0-0 West Ham (Prem)
- Everton 3-1 Swansea (FAC)
- Spurs 1-0 Everton (Prem)
- Everton 2-1 Aston Villa (Prem)
- Liverpool 4-0 Everton (Prem)
- Stevenage 0-4 Everton (FAC)
The Blues may remain top of the table - while the FA Cup isn't Jose Mourinho's biggest priority - but the manager is right to be concerned with his side's performance in both games. Chelsea creaked their way through the second half at The Hawthorns, inviting the hosts to push forward, while at the Etihad they failed to muster a single shot on target.
But let's keep some perspective here: Chelsea have won seven and drawn two of their last nine league games, and even without an in-form striker, the wealth of attack-minded, goalscoring midfielders sitting behind Samuel Eto'o/Fernando Torres means few were fooled by Mourinho's 'little horse' analogy - the core of this side has been together long enough to mount a serious title challenge this season. A second-place finish won't signal the sack for the manager, à la Carlo Ancelotti (and Avram Grant for that matter), but - away from his press conferences, at least - it will leave serial winner Jose with a decidedly long face (right, that's it with the horse gags).
Following two frustrating away days, the Blues will be grateful for a return to Stamford Bridge, even if it is to face Everton. Not only did the Toffees beat Chelsea at Goodison Park in September - Mourinho's first loss upon his return to the club - but they have developed a habit of nicking a draw at Stamford Bridge in recent years: six of their last 10 meetings in SW6 have finished level (including one FA Cup tie which Everton went on to win on penalties).
While a top-four finish continues to look an ambitious target, their FA Cup win over Swansea means European qualification is a real possibility on two fronts as we approach March - quite an achievement in a season when many predicted a campaign of mid-table transition.
John Terry has been badly missed by the Blues since injuring his leg in training two weeks ago, with Mourinho starting to lose patience over his skipper's return: "The medical department always tell me he looks like he's ready, and I was told that probably he would play this game [against City in the cup]. He didn't, so now they say for sure he plays the next game. But I don't know." David Luiz misses out due to an abdominal injury.
For Everton, Romelu Lukaku is back in training following an ankle knock, but the Belgian's ineligibility against his parent club means he's targeting next weekend's game against West Ham for his return. Elsewhere, Steven Naismith has recovered from the concussion he received in an impressive display against Swansea, and Martinez will surely choose between the Scot and 6ft 8in loanee Lacina Traore to lead the line at the Bridge. Defender Antolin Alcaraz is also back in training following muscle fatigue but Saturday's game will be too soon.
Key battle: Nemanja Matic vs Gareth Barry
A few eyebrows were raised when Chelsea signed Matic for a second time last month, but having seemingly spent three years in a growbag at Benfica, against Man City in the league he demonstrated exactly why Mourinho was prepared to spend £21 million on him, with the Serb's formidable frame overpowering Yaya Toure in midfield. While not having the same impact against West Brom last time out in the league, Matic was still highly dependable, making an impressive 14 ball recoveries - 3 more than any player in the game.
Matic's next battle will be with the reinvigorated Barry. The Man City loanee has been the model of consistency this season, thanks to his tactical awareness and impressive pass success rate. In Everton's last league game, the 1-0 loss at Tottenham, he completed 55 of 63 passes - the highest on both counts on the pitch, while also topping the stats for ball recoveries (12) and interceptions (5). A few more performances like that from the former Aston Villa man and he could yet receive a surprise text message: 'HI GARETH.ITS ROY HODGSON... THINK I MIGHT HAVE YR OLD NUMBER... WHAT U UP2 IN JUNE?'
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Everton 1-0 Chelsea (Prem, Sep 13)
- Chelsea 2-1 Everton (Prem, May 13)
- Everton 1-2 Chelsea (Prem, Dec 12)
- Everton 2-0 Chelsea (Prem, Feb 12)
- Everton 1-2e Chelsea (LC, Oct 11)
It's been hard to keep up with Mourinho's press conference put-downs since that draw at The Hawthorns: calling Arsene Wenger "a specialist in failure"; bemoaning the Premier League fixtures schedule for giving Man City "obviously an advantage" before insisting Manuel Pellegrini's side can knock "the worst Barcelona side for many years" out of the Champions League. Say what you like about the Portuguese, but you can't accuse him of ducking a question.
Life in the Goodison Park hotseat has been far more heart-warming since Everton's last league match. First, Martinez gave Malaysian fan Ric Wee a VIP tour of the ground after he'd flown 7,000 miles to see his first game in 30 years - only for the Palace clash to be postponed.
And then Martinez handed a contract extension to Everton's longest-serving player, Tony Hibbert, after it appeared the terrace favourite's days were numbered. Much like taking Wee on a stroll around Goodison, it was something he probably didn't need to do, but Martinez is nice like that.
Facts and figures
- Everton have scored in each of their last 9 games vs Chelsea.
- Chelsea have recorded seven 2-1 wins in their last 21 home matches including 4 in their last 7 hosting top-half teams.
- Chelsea have won 10 of their last 11 home games against top-half teams including 7 W/W doubles.
- Everton have kept just 1 clean sheet in their last 11 matches.
A tight affair, with the Blues avenging their defeat at Goodison. 1-0.