Weekend Preview: Can Manchester City find more variety in their attack against Chelsea?

The biggest match of the weekend in England is obviously the potential title-deciding clash between Chelsea and Manchester City at Stamford Bridge. The match has lost a small bit of its appeal due to the number of key players missing on both sides, but even with Chelsea missing Cesc Fabregas and possibly Diego Costa and City being without Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri this should still be a thrilling contest.

There are three main things to watch.

First, how fit is Eden Dzeko? The biggest problem for the Sky Blues in their humbling home defeat to Arsenal was the predictability of their attack. The trouble is it’s hard to see an easy fix for City as long as they are without Nasri and Toure. With both those key players missing manager Manuel Pellegrini was forced to play what was described as a 4-2-3-1 but was functionally more of a 4-4-1-1 with Jesus Navas and James Milner playing as orthodox (and completely impotent) wingers either side of David Silva and Sergio Aguero.

The trouble with that system is that it functionally eliminates three of City’s best attacking options. Playing David Silva in the middle limits his freedom on the ball and often causes him to have less time on it and congests that part of the field, making it more difficult for City’s box-to-box midfielder to get into those areas and create chances. Third, it forces City to rely more on wide crosses into the box, which limits Aguero’s effectiveness due to his lack of size. If Eden Dzeko has recovered from injury, we might see an attempt at more of a 4-4-2 with Dzeko and Aguero up top, Silva wide left, and Navas wide right. That still isn’t ideal for City, but it’s much closer to their preferred way of playing than what we saw at the Etihad against Arsenal. But much will depend on Eden Dzeko’s fitness. If he isn’t available, City will struggle mightily. If he is available, however, that could end up making things much easier for Silva and Aguero as well. Saturday’s result may well hinge on the big Bosnian’s availability and performance.

Second, how will Chelsea cope without Fabregas and, possibly, without Costa?

The good news for Chelsea supporters is that the team has remarkable depth and Jose Mourinho probably wasn’t planning on playing both Fabregas and Oscar anyway. So instead of his normal big-game move of dropping Oscar, pushing Fabregas up and then starting Mikel or Ramires next to Matic, Mourinho can simply keep Oscar and swap one of the two aforementioned midfielders for the injured Spaniard. So the Fabregas injury may not be that big a concern actually. Fabregas is probably better than Oscar, but Oscar is still a top-class passing midfielder.

The bigger question is how Chelsea will handle it if Costa’s suspension is upheld after two midweek stamping incidents against Liverpool in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal. Loic Remy and Didier Drogba are capable players, of course, but neither offer the attacking threat (to say nothing of the snarl) that Costa does. Chelsea can still win without Costa, of course, particularly as this game is setting up to be a 1-0 Mourinho special. But it will be considerably more difficulty if they have to play without their Spanish striker.

Third, will Lampard strike again for City?

It looks as if Frank Lampard will not be receiving a warm welcome when he returns to the Bridge on Saturday. But the pregame festivities will be completely forgotten by day’s end if Lampard scores another goal against his former club. Given the struggles City had in midfield with Fernando and Fernandinho starting against Arsenal, don’t be surprised if Lampard is handed a start on Saturday. If it wasn’t clear before, Fernandinho made it quite plain last time out that he is not anywhere near the caliber of Toure in an attacking role, even if he is a very capable holding midfielder playing behind Toure. If City can sort out their attacking issues and create that space in behind the striker, don’t be surprised if Lampard is the one attacking it. If the Citizens are to take something from this match, they’ll likely need Lampard to play a major role.


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