Gameweek 31 of the Premier League season concludes with a top-four battle between Chelsea and Manchester City at Stamford Bridge on Thursday night.
Both sides go into the blockbuster contest with a 100% record since lockdown, with Chelsea beating Aston Villa on Sunday and Man City winning two from two so far.
Any hopes that Manchester City would ease up after lockdown with little tangible left to fight for have well and truly been blown away over the first two matches back after the three-and-a-half-month stoppage.
Instead, Pep Guardiola’s side look much more like the team that accumulated 198 points over the previous two seasons than the one that has lost seven league games this term.
City have plundered eight goals without reply in their two outings so far, outclassing Arsenal last weekend before thumping Burnley 5-0 on Monday night despite making eight changes to their starting XI.
The five-sub rule and quick turnaround in fixtures appears to lend itself well to the phenomenal strength in depth at Guardiola’s disposal, and they will be kicking themselves that they have not put themselves in a position to challenge for the title over the closing stages of the campaign.
How ever impressive they have been in the last two games, after 30 matches of the season they are still a whopping 20 points adrift of champions-elect Liverpool, and the match in which they will be dethroned is edging ever closer with each passing week.
The Reds’ goalless derby draw with Everton, coupled with Man City’s hammering of Burnley, means that Liverpool cannot wrap up the title when they face Crystal Palace on Wednesday night, but should they win that match and City drop points at Stamford Bridge then the trophy would be on its way to Anfield.
Having been a distant second to Liverpool for much of the campaign, Man City will at least want to force Jurgen Klopp’s side to wait until the top two meet on July 2, when they could delay the inevitable further.
Man City’s hopes of catching Liverpool are non-existent, but they do still boast some proud records such as biggest title-winning margin and most points in a season which they will hope to do their best to keep hold of.
A trip to Stamford Bridge represents their toughest challenge since lockdown, though, and with both of their games so far coming at the Etihad it will be their first away game since losing the derby to Manchester United on March 8.
Five of Man City’s seven defeats this season have come on their travels, but they have not lost back-to-back away games since December 2018, while no team has scored more goals away from home in 2019-20.
Frank Lampard left Chelsea to join Man City in 2014 with his reputation as one of the Premier League’s greatest ever players already secured, and he is well on his way to carving out a successful career in the dugout now too.
The 42-year-old had to contend with a transfer ban in the summer window, did not add to his squad again in January and is still relatively inexperienced in the managerial stakes, yet his Chelsea side look on course to qualify for the Champions League next season.
A come-from-behind 2-1 win over Aston Villa on Sunday, courtesy of quickfire goals from Christian Pulisic and Olivier Giroud, ensured that the Blues took full advantage of many of those around them dropping points, moving five points clear of fifth-placed Manchester United.
Leicester City’s goalless stalemate with Brighton & Hove Albion on Tuesday night means that third place is very much in Chelsea’s sights now too, with only four points separating them from the Foxes.
Securing a top-four spot – or top-five should Man City’s European ban be upheld – is the main priority, but a third-placed finish with a young squad would raise a lot of hope for a 2020-21 campaign which will see their ranks boosted by Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner and maybe others too.
There is still plenty to fix at Stamford Bridge, though; nine defeats in a season is too much for a team of Chelsea’s quality, and consistency is also a problem, with Sunday’s triumph over Villa handing them back-to-back league wins for the first time since November.
Chelsea have also amassed more points away from home than they have at Stamford Bridge this season, losing five times in front of their own fans ahead of their first game in an empty stadium.
That tally of home defeats grows to eight in all competitions, although their last two before lockdown saw them score six without reply against Merseyside duo Liverpool and Everton.
Man City in this form look to be a different proposition to even that Liverpool team in the FA Cup, though, and if Lampard can get one over on Guardiola then it will only enhance his burgeoning reputation further.
Man City could be without record goalscorer Sergio Aguero for the rest of the season after he aggravated a knee injury against Burnley last time out.
The Argentine is now set to travel to Barcelona to see a specialist on the problem, which could require surgery, leaving Gabriel Jesus as the de facto first-choice striker for the remainder of the campaign.
The make-up of Guardiola’s XI beyond that is anyone’s guess; David Silva and Riyad Mahrez are the only outfield players to start both matches back so far, and so both can be safely viewed as prime candidates for rotation this time around.
Mahrez did score twice against Burnley, though, so he will be hopeful of another start, as will fellow double-goalscorer Phil Foden despite picking up a knock on Monday night.
Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Aymeric Laporte are among the big names who could return to the starting XI, but John Stones remains a doubt and Eric Garcia is once again ruled out due to the Premier League’s concussion protocols.
Chelsea are waiting on the fitness of Callum Hudson-Odoi after he missed Sunday’s match with an ankle injury, while Fikayo Tomori is definitely absent for the hosts.
Pulisic will hope to have earned a start with his goal off the bench, while Olivier Giroud may have also ensured that he leads the line again by getting the winner against Villa moments later.
Jorginho is available to return having served his two-match ban, although the likes of Ross Barkley, Mason Mount, N’Golo Kante, Mateo Kovacic, Billy Gilmour and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are also competing for midfield spots.
Man City have dominated this fixture in recent seasons, winning six of the last seven meetings across all competitions stretching back to April 2017.
That run includes just one victory at Stamford Bridge, though, and historically it is Chelsea who have fared better in this contest with 67 wins to Man City’s 58.
The reverse fixture in November saw Kante give Chelsea the lead at the Etihad Stadium, only for De Bruyne to equalise against his former club before Mahrez completed the turnaround in a 2-1 Man City triumph.
Oracle Predicts: Man City to win. Also a both teams to score situation. Also an Over 1.5.
Chelsea have the quality in their squad to cause Man City problems, but it is difficult to back against Guardiola’s side in their current form, even at a ground as difficult at Stamford Bridge.
Lockdown appears to have been kind to the champions, and we are backing them to get the win which will keep the title out of Liverpool’s grasp for that little bit longer.
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