Chelsea are fourth in the table. They responded to a recent wobble, one that saw them lose successive away games in the league – 3-1 at Tottenham and 2-1 at Wolves, by beating Man City 2-0 at home and by winning 2-1 at Brighton in the league and beating Bournemouth 1-0 to progress to the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup.
However, they lost 1-0 at home on Saturday to Leicester and recent murmurings of discontent have resurfaced.
They have now won 11 of their last 17 matches in all competitions, kept eight clean sheets along the way and have scored in all bar two of those matches (0-0 at home to Everton in the league and then against Leicester on Saturday).
Eden Hazard has been involved in 17 goals in the Premier League this season, more than any other player (he has scored eight and has nine assists) and has scored in two of Chelsea’s last three matches.
Prior to beating Cardiff 3-2 on Saturday, December 15th, Watford had drawn two and lost four of their previous six league matches. They followed that up by beating West Ham at the London Stadium on Saturday, They may have won just four of their last 14 league matches, losing seven of them, but they will face Chelsea with renewed confidence.
They have kept just four clean sheets this season in 18 league matches and have conceded two or more goals in eight of them, including in four of their last five Premier League games. However, they have scored two goals in each of their last three league matches.
Looking at the form section, Chelsea look to be in better shape than Watford coming into the game. They have plenty of attacking options, for sure, and in Eden Hazard they have a top player, a match-winner, as he proved again against Bournemouth in the Carabao Cup on December 19th.
However, Chelsea have also revealed vulnerabilities. Against Everton and Tottenham, they looked ineffective owing to their playmaker Jorginho being given little space in which to operate and this problem surfaced again against Leicester on Saturday.
What has puzzled many observers during these matches is that Chelsea appear to lack a plan B, or maybe the desire to adopt one. Does the Maurizio Sarri philosophy mean his way or no way?
Another frustration voiced by many is Chelsea’s ponderous build-up play: plenty of passes and early pressure which then dissipates – along with their confidence – as the opposition block the space into which they want to play and the players wanting to play it into that space.
How can players of such ability lose their confidence so quickly in a match, as seems the case with Chelsea?
It’s a generalisation, I know, but Italian coaches seem to underpin their coaching with fear. It is something that Gianlucca Vialli wrote about in his autobiography and we saw so evidently with Fabio Capella when he was England coach. There seems to be more of a ‘Prove you are good enough’ philosophy so that when things go wrong it is the players’ fault because they must have done something wrong.
With coaches like Klopp and Guardiola, it is more a case of, ‘You are good enough; keep going and it will come right’. Klopp and Guardiola generally applaud attempts at attacking creativity even if they go wrong. Sarri (and Conti for that matter) turn away with their head down. Talk about potentially sucking the confidence out of your players.
There are echoes of Felipe Scolari’s short-lived reign emerging here and, also, the end of Antonio Conti’s stewardship.
As such, this is a big game for Chelsea. Surely, there will be a positive response.
For large parts of their recent match against Man City, Watford kept City at bay and, also, managed to hold on to the ball longer than many teams against them because Troy Deeney and Isaac Success applied their physical presence effectively.
I feel that will apply their physical side against Chelsea. Will this be something that, in particular, their defence will be able to cope with? For parts of the game, probably not, but, over 90 minutes of play, Chelsea should have enough guile and creativity to see them through – although it wasn’t evident against Leicester. If not, they might need to start considering a plan B.
Recent form may be one thing, but what comes to mind is that the last four Premier League meetings between these sides have produced 21 goals, with over 2.5 goals applying to all of them and over 4.5 to three of them. In fact, over 2.5 goals has happened in 12 of the 14 meetings between these sides since the turn of the century. Nine of them have had over 3.5 goals.
Chelsea have won ten of the 14 games referred to in the last paragraph, and Watford have won one, which was last season (4-1). Last season aside, this has been a very good fixture for Chelsea this century.
Watford – Will Hughes, Andre Gray, Sebastian Prödl and Adalberto Peñaranda are all on the easy list.
Chelsea – Alvaro Morata has been struggling with a knee injury and is being monitored, as is Andreas Christensen, who picked up a hamstring injury against Bournemouth. Gary Cahill is unavailable but Victor Moses has now returned to training.
It’s a fixture that Chelsea have dominated this century and one that usually produces goals.
Over 2.5 goals is on offer with us at 7/10
Chelsea to win and for there to be over 2.5 goals in the game is 13/10
Both teams to score and for there to be over 2.5 goals in the game is evens
Both teams to score is 8/11
If you trust the stats, these all look likely. If you feel that Watford can impose themselves physically and, also, stifle Chelsea in the way that Everton, Tottenham and Leicester did – it’s a growing list, isn’t it? – well, you’ll form a different view.
Goalscorer option: Eden Hazard. Will he be employed again as a false number 9? Personally, I hope not. He enjoys playing alongside Olivier Giroud, although Sarri doesn’t seem to think that the World Cup-winning Frenchman is a good option for him. Eden Hazard to be First Goalscorer is available at 7/2.