EPL

Chelsea: European champions are primed to challenge Man City as kings of England

By Sports Desk August 11, 2021

Chelsea's Champions League final win in May was their third consecutive victory over Manchester City in all competitions.

Only two managers have ever beaten Pep Guardiola three times in a row since he left Barcelona B: Jurgen Klopp, and now Thomas Tuchel.

It was Klopp's Liverpool who denied City three Premier League titles in three seasons when they triumphed in 2019-20. It's Tuchel's Chelsea who look best placed to wrestle the crown from the head of the champions in 2021-22.

The Blues begin their campaign in the UEFA Super Cup against Europa League winners Villarreal: no pushovers, as Manchester United will tell you, but a team who will not be expected to win in Belfast.

It could be a double celebration for Chelsea fans, too, as a deal to bring Romelu Lukaku back to the club from Inter looks set to be concluded shortly. It could well be Belgium's record goalscorer who makes the difference when Tuchel targets the club's first league title since 2017...

Putting it bluntly...

Chelsea went unbeaten in their first 14 games under Tuchel after he replaced Frank Lampard as head coach in January. They secured a top-four finish, reached the FA Cup final and won the Champions League for the second time.

It seems strange, then, to say they weren't particularly good going forward.

From Tuchel's appointment on January 26 to the end of last season, Chelsea scored 38 goals in all competitions, as many as Granada and Montpellier over the same time frame. By contrast, Tottenham scored 49, Manchester United 58, and City 70. A 4-1 win at Crystal Palace on April 10 remains the only occasion Tuchel's Chelsea have scored more than twice in a game.

The lack of cutting edge was not for a paucity of chances, either. They were third in the Premier League last term for shots, and their expected goals from open play in the top flight (42.5) was the fifth-best in the division. The problem was they underperformed that value by 6.5 – only Liverpool (6.6) did worse among top-half teams.

They may have found a €115million solution to that problem.

Rom's redemption

Lukaku enjoyed the season of his career in 2020-21. With 30 goals and 11 assists, only six players in Europe's top-five leagues were directly involved in more goals. All of those assists came from open play, too, a figure nobody in Serie A could better.

By contrast, Chelsea's most productive forward was Timo Werner (12 goals, 11 assists), with the Germany international's xG of 21.07 significantly down on Lukaku's 30.02. Werner was, of course, scrutinised ever more intensely for failing to take his opportunities (he scored 28.57 per cent of his 'big chances'), but there were no such problems for Lukaku, who converted 51.02 per cent of his.

Lukaku, of course, is more than a goalscorer. He created 63 chances last term, more than any Chelsea player except Mason Mount (109). He also completed 67 dribbles, a figure only two players surpassed for Tuchel's team. He was equally adept at carving out opportunities as he was at taking them, his partnership with Lautaro Martinez firing Inter to their first Scudetto in over a decade.

It's that all-round threat that was too often missing in his days at United, when Jose Mourinho deployed him generally as a rudimentary target man, not as the roving forward sometimes seen starting out wide for his country. The Lukaku of 2021 is a player who thrives when involved in sequences of play, not just when trying to finish them.

Given Chelsea were second only to City last season for passes per sequence (4.83), sequences of 10 or more passes (778) and build-up attacks (187), Lukaku will have every chance to operate at the heart of things.

Impregnable

Tuchel's first 10 Premier League matches produced only 13 goals, an average of 1.3 per game. There were 12 goals scored in their preceding two league matches alone.

We know about their limitations in attack, but the lack of consistent goal-fests also proves just how strong in defence they have become.

Only Manchester City and Liverpool faced fewer shots than Chelsea (336) in the Premier League last season, while they conceded 36 goals, a number only beaten by the champions. There was also just one game where they conceded more than a single goal under Tuchel: that bizarre 5-2 home defeat to West Brom, when the Baggies played like peak Barcelona, and Chelsea played like... well, like last season's West Brom.

Even with that defeat considered, Chelsea's expected goals against under Tuchel was just 20.53, well below City (26.58) or anyone else in England's top flight across all competitions. They kept 10 clean sheets in their first 14 league games under the German, equalling the quickest time for a manager to reach such a figure in Premier League history (Luiz Felipe Scolari did it in 2008).

From Tuchel's first game to the end of the season, no Premier League team lost fewer games (five), conceded fewer goals (16) or kept more clean sheets (19) than Chelsea in all competitions. And now, they reportedly want to add Sevilla's talented Jules Kounde to their defensive options.

The game against Villarreal in Northern Ireland could well showcase the new English champions in waiting.

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    – January will mark 18 months remaining on Sergej Milinkovic-Savic's contract with Lazio, and according to Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy's top clubs are all keeping a close eye on the 27-year-old's availability.

  • Liverpool and Rangers set for historic battle of Britain, Barca face Inter – Champions League in Opta numbers Liverpool and Rangers set for historic battle of Britain, Barca face Inter – Champions League in Opta numbers

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    Liverpool v Rangers

    This will be the first European meeting between Liverpool and the Glasgow giants in a European competition.

    The Gers have only won one of their seven away games in England, that being a 2-1 Champions League victory at Leeds United in November 1992 courtesy of goals from Mark Hateley and Ally McCoist. They have suffered six defeats and drawn twice.

    Liverpool's last meeting with Scottish opponents in the European Cup was back in the 1980-81 campaign, winning 5-0 on aggregate against Alex Ferguson's Aberdeen (1-0 away, 4-0 home). The Reds went on to win the competition that year.

    Jurgen Klopp's side have won 13 of their past 15 home Champions League group stage matches (D1 L1), scoring 36 goals in process. Their solitary defeat was against Atalanta in November 2020

    Rangers have failed to score in their two group games so far. Indeed, only Plzen (2) and Sevilla (3) have had fewer shots on target than the Scottish club (4) in this season's first two matchdays.

    Inter v Barcelona

    Inter have won just two of their 14 European matches against Barcelona (D4 L8), a 2-1 victory in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in January 1970 and 3-1 Champions League triumph in April 2010.

    Barca's two away wins against the Nerazzurri came 60 years apart, winning 4-2 in the Fairs Cup in September 1959 and 2-1 in the Champions League in December 2019.

    Inter have lost six UEFA Champions League matches against the Catalan giants, their most against a single opponent. Barca have only beaten Celtic (8) more times in the competition.

    Barca have lost three of their past four away Champions League group stage matches (W1), as many as in their previous 25 matches on their travels in the competition (W15 D7). Xavi is only the second manager to lose his first two away Champions League matches in charge of Barcelona, along with Louis van Gaal in 1997.

    Inter have lost their past two Champions League games at San Siro (0-2 v Liverpool and Bayern). Only once previously have they suffered three consecutive home defeats in the European Cup/UEFA Champions League (a run of three between February-September 2011).

    Bayern Munich v Viktoria Plzen

    Bayern have won all four of their European matches against Plzen, beating them twice in the 1971-72 Cup Winners' Cup and the Champions League in 2013-14.

    Plzen's two away European matches against Bayern have seen them concede at least five goals on each occasion, losing 6-1 in September 1971 in the Cup Winners' Cup and 5-0 in the Champions League nine years ago.

    Bayern are out to record three wins at the start of a Champions League campaign for a fourth consecutive season. In their opening three games in the previous three seasons and their two games this year, they have won all 11 matches by an aggregate score of 41-7.

    Plzen have conceded seven goals in their two Champions League games this season and only kept one clean sheet in their 20 matches in the competition.

    Leroy Sane has been directly involved in 14 goals in his past 11 Champions League starts for Bayern (8 goals, 6 assists). The winger could become only the second player to score in Bayern's first three Champions League games in a season, with Robert Lewandowski (in 2019-20 and 2021-22) being the other.

    Ajax v Napoli

    Napoli have never won away from home in the Netherlands (D2 L3) in any European competition.

    Ajax have failed to win any of their past 11 home European matches against Italian opposition (D6 L5) since winning 2-1 against Roma in this competition in December 2002.

    Napoli will be looking to win their first three Champions League group stage games for the first time. They are unbeaten in eight matches in the group stage of the competition (W5 D3).

    Ajax have won their past four home games in the group stage of the Champions League, scoring four goals in each of the previous three (4-0 v Borussia Dortmund, 4-2 v Sporting CP and 4-0 v Rangers).

    Napoli are the top scoring side in the Champions League this season with seven goals. Luciano Spalletti's side have had more shots (43) and shots on target (19) than any other team.

    Other fixtures:

    Marseille v Sporting CP

    6 - Marseille have lost six of their eight European Cup/Champions League matches against Portuguese opponents (W1 D1).

    16 - Marseille have lost 16 of their past 17 Champions League matches (W1), failing to score in 11 matches in this run, including both games this season.

    Porto v Bayer Leverkusen

    7 - Porto have won seven of their eight home Champions League games against German opposition (D1), winning five in a row.

    2 - Leverkusen have only won two of their past 13 away matches in the Champions League (D5 L6), with three of the previous four ending in defeats without scoring.

    Club Brugge v Atletico Madrid

    3 - Brugge are unbeaten in all three home meetings with Atleti in European competition (W2 D1).

    7 - Atleti have never won a European match against a Belgium club in seven attempts (five away, two neutral). They have played more major European games on Belgian soil without winning than in any other country.

    Eintracht Frankfurt v Tottenham

    4 - Tottenham have lost their past four Champions League matches against German opposition by an aggregate score of 14-3, losing twice to Bayern Munich (2-7 and 1-3) and twice to RB Leipzig (0-1 and 0-3).

    3 - Eintracht have won three consecutive European games against English teams (one versus Arsenal, two v West Ham), as many as in their first 14.

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