Ask the Opposition

Ask the Opposition 11 – Chelsea

With three away games in seven days and the merciless FA offering City no respite, Manuel Pellegrini suggested he could essentially throw away our FA Cup tie against Chelsea on Sunday. The squad will have little time to rest between the fixtures and with City fans trekking to Ukraine and Wembley the following week the club have requested only half the usual allocation at Stamford Bridge.

The FA Cup seemingly then remains at the bottom of Pellegrini’s priorities. But with such an injury-ravaged squad, Pellegrini may be forced to exhaust his senior players as the prospect of fielding an EDS side could have horrifying consequences. Chelsea themselves have look renewed in recent months and their narrow defeat to PSG on Tuesday was their first under Guus Hiddink.

To get a better picture of current affairs at Chelsea, I spoke to Jake Cohen, a Chelsea fan and Sports lawyer who has written for the Wall Street Journal and ESPN.

Hi Jake, thanks for coming on. First off, what have you made of Chelsea since Jose Mourinho’s sacking? Do you think you can salvage something from what has been, let’s be honest, a shipwreck of a season?

Thanks very much for having me, I’ve been following the City Watch Twitter account for ages, and was thrilled to see the website launch!

If the Premier League season began anew when Mourinho left Chelsea on 17 December, Chelsea would currently be in third place, so Guus Hiddink has to be given a lot of credit for his efforts. To continue with your shipwreck analogy, while Jose Mourinho may have been at the helm of Roman Abramovich’s yacht, his crew members probably could have warned him the iceberg was coming or helped him plot a different course.

Fortunately, Guus Hiddink has managed to steer a lifeboat to an island with good survival prospects, and while not everyone will survive the summer, we’ve got a decent chance of being rescued by the HMS Simeone at some point (though Guardiola would’ve been nice, well done on that one).

Moving forward, we’ve still got a bit to play for, including, of course, the FA Cup!

How do you rate Manchester City’s chances of winning the league?

The projection models definitely say otherwise at this point, but I’m still quite high on City’s chances. With twelve more weeks of Premier League football yet to be played, a six-point gap to catch up with Leicester City seems manageable. No disrespect to Leicester, what they’re doing is incredible, and except for that one Monday night in December, a lot of fun to watch, but I think City can definitely make up those points.

While recent results might (and to be fair, actually do) say otherwise, I still think City is the stronger team of the two. Through my slightly-darker-blue-than-you’re-used-to-tinted glasses, it’s difficult to take the North London clubs too seriously (after all, even Chelsea managed to take six points from Arsenal), but objectively speaking, they’ve done extremely well to put themselves in competitive positions. Of course, anything can happen in knockout rounds, but given the draws, Arsenal and Leicester could have a bit of a scheduling advantage with Spurs and City going deeper in European competition.

With Chelsea out of the running, the most tolerable outcome for me would be to keep the title out of red – or for that matter, lilywhite – hands. Chelsea has Spurs on Matchday 36 and Leicester on the last day of the season, and I believe City has Arsenal in between those, so I hope we see both of our clubs finish the season in good form!

I watched your kids sweep aside ours in the FA Youth Cup final at Stamford Bridge last season. You have a host of talented young players and probably the best academy in England. Is there a frustration among fans that they aren’t getting adequate chances when you have little to play for this season?

I wouldn’t call a chance to win the double by adding more FA Cup and Champions League trophies to the cabinet “little to play for.” “A bit unlikely,” maybe, but crazier things have happened (see, e.g. Chelsea’s 2011/2012 Champions League run).

Realistically, though, I would like to see some of the younger players get a chance to cut their teeth a bit in the league matches, and especially Bertrand Traore, who I think is going to be a superstar. Prior to joining the first team this season, Traore had spent the previous eighteen months in the Eredivisie at Vitesse Arnhem. He was very good at Vitesse on the wing (he can play on either side and also in a central attacking position), but once then-manager Peter Bosz moved Traore to the lone centre-forward position in his 4-2-3-1, he really began to shine.

When Traore started at centre-forward, Vitesse won 40 of 48 possible points. When he didn’t, Vitesse won just 18 of 54 possible points. In those 16 matches, he scored 14 goals and chipped in with 4 assists. Naturally, this season, I had hoped to see him build on the progress he’d made either at Chelsea or somewhere else on loan where it would be easier to earn minutes, but until two weeks ago, he had only played 64 total minutes. He didn’t play against PSG, nor would I expect him to given the importance of the match, but in the two matches prior, Traore finally got a run, doubling his season minutes total, and of course, scored in both matches. I had been beating the “play Traore” drum all season, so I can definitely relate to similar frustrations my fellow fans have with players like Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Kenedy not playing much or some of the promising U21s get brought into the first team.

In seasons past, I’ve never been a fan of playing youth for the sake of it, as Chelsea is usually in the title race and competing for three other trophies as well, so every match (every point, really) is important and with established internationals who would be key players on all but a handful of other teams sitting on Chelsea’s bench, it always made more sense to me to just send all the youngsters on loan where they actually have a chance of getting the regular first team minutes they need to continue their development.

This season, though, with Chelsea deciding to keep some of their best young players in the first team and the club struggling, it seems like the perfect time to play the kids.

With the prospect of no Champions League football next season looming, do you think a host of stars such as Diego Costa and Eden Hazard could leave in the summer?

Both players are under long-term contracts with the club (Costa through the 2018/19 season and Hazard through the 2019/20 season), so if they leave, it will be because Chelsea decided to sell them. Given the long-term nature of their contracts, neither player has much leverage with regards to forcing a transfer. That said, a lack of Champions League football would absolutely put Chelsea at a disadvantage this summer when competing in the transfer market with City and the other truly global clubs for superstar talent. Firstly, the Champions League is a natural recruitment draw, and for the type of players our clubs tend to go after, it’s usually a mandatory requirement. Secondly, missing out on the Champions League means missing out on the £50 million-plus that comes with it.

City fans will be well aware that financial fair play means that a club can’t spend much more than they earn, and like City, Chelsea isn’t run as a for-profit company. It’s run as a for-trophies company. Our clubs spend as much as they can in pursuit of trophies, as that’s the primary objective (unlike Manchester United or Arsenal, for example, where the primary objective is profits). So, for Chelsea, losing out on £50 million means losing out on £50 million worth of talent on the pitch. And not only that, the Premier League club that takes Chelsea’s place will get that £50 million, and depending on the club, all/most/some of it will be used on strengthening the team. Naturally, you never want to see another Premier League club get stronger, and certainly not at the expense of your own club. If Chelsea misses out on the Champions League but this season ends up being just a very strange hiccup (and I expect/hope it is) and Chelsea retains its normal position in the top-four next season, then the club should be able to overcome losing a summer’s worth of ground on their rivals fairly easily, especially with the other positive things going on at the club (lots of talented young players, stadium redevelopment, lucrative new commercial deals, etc.).

One City player you’d take at Chelsea?

Just one, huh? Short-term, I’d probably want whoever gives Chelsea the best shot at beating PSG in a few weeks and then helping Chelsea replicate the improbable Champions League run, and that has to be Sergio Aguero. Long term, while there’s been some better individual seasons, over the past five years, cumulatively, Aguero has been the best player in the league, hands down. Of course, a healthy Vincent Kompany is always enticing and for some odd reason, I get this weird sense of déjà vu whenever I see that new Belgian fella running around the pitch. That said, I’d have to go with Raheem Sterling. He’s already a very good player, and having just turned 21, he’s only scratched the surface of what I’m quite confident he’ll be able to do.

Prediction for the game?

Even with the season Chelsea’s had, I always think they’re going to win every time they step onto the pitch, so I’ll go with 2-1 Chelsea, with (who else?) Bertrand Traore coming off the bench to score the late winner.

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