Chelsea-Manchester City Preview
If Jose Mourinho can keep his head when all about him are losing theirs and lambasting "The Special One," Chelsea may finally be able to turn their attention to the dangerous opponent on the pitch.
Engulfed in yet another controversy, Mourinho brings the defending Premier League champions to Etihad Stadium, where last season's runners-up Manchester City look to further burnish their own title credentials Sunday to follow up an impressive season-opening victory.
"It's a chance early in the season to show why we are champions," defender Kurt Zouma told Chelsea's official website. "We want to defend our title. We know we are playing a good team on Sunday and it will be difficult, but we have a chance to win."
Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini is not downplaying the importance of this match, telling the club's website, "We want to demonstrate we are the team we wanted to be last season. It is important you start winning at the beginning of the season."
Evoking the spirit of the opening line of Rudyard Kipling's famous poem "If," Mourinho has calmly created another maelstrom that has made nearly everyone forget Chelsea's ragged performance in their season-opening 2-2 draw at home versus Swansea City. The back line struggled to contain the Swans' pace and starting goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was given a straight red card for his foul that led to Bafetimbi Gomis' equaliser from the penalty spot in the 55th minute.
At issue for Mourinho, though, was team doctor Eva Carneiro and physiotherapist Jon Fearn giving treatment to Eden Hazard - who was taken down and may or may not have been just grabbing a late breather - after being prompted to do so by referee Michael Oliver, resulting in the Blues briefly playing with nine men deep in injury time. Mourinho offered a stunning and stinging public rebuke post-match, calling the pair "impulsive and naive" before adding, ''Whether you are a kit man, doctor or secretary on the bench you have to understand the game.
''You have to know you have one player less and to assist a player you must be sure he has a serious problem.''
The issue exploded Wednesday with the club's decision to essentially demote the pair, removing Carneiro from first-team duties on the touchline on match days and training sessions as well as not travel with the team. After enduring withering public criticism, Mourinho downplayed the dispute Friday, saying his medical staff "tell me all the time that they were never praised as much as they were by me in the last couple of years. They also told me yesterday that we have had disagreements during that period.
"We need disagreements to improve. We work together and we improve together. That is the way we do things. It is a relationship that is open to disagreement.''
Whether Mourinho is playing another cagey game with the media to keep his players focused for this high-profile match or something larger is known only to him, but one thing is certain - backup goalkeeper Asmir Begovic's first league start with Chelsea as they potentially face an early five-point deficit to City with a loss will be heavily scrutinised since Courtois' red card appeal was rejected mid-week.
After coming over from Stoke City following Petr Cech's departure to fellow title hopefuls Arsenal, Begovic acquitted himself well last Saturday, making four saves after conceding Gomis' goal upon his entrance to the match. Begovic went 1-4-4 against the Citizens with Stoke City, his lone victory a shock 1-0 triumph at the Etihad last Aug. 30.
For all the talk regarding the team's training staff, one positive for Chelsea is that striker Diego Costa's balky hamstrings withstood the full 90 minutes without any issue.
While Manchester City are no strangers to distractions and controversy themselves, everything looked in place in Monday's 3-0 romp at West Bromwich Albion. Yaya Toure scored two long-range goals in the opening 24 minutes and captain Vincent Kompany also tallied as City put forth a fluid performance while completing a league-best 683 passes - 200 more than second-closest Arsenal.
''We came here today knowing we had a point to prove,'' Kompany said. ''Me more than anyone else probably. ... I just want to get back to my best level.''
Top striker Sergio Aguero logged 27 minutes as he works back to match-fitness after playing for Argentina in the Copa America. He led the Premier League with 26 goals in 2014-15 but failed to score in the two matches versus Chelsea.
"Whether I start or not remains to be seen," Aguero said. "I'm trying to get there and be in top condition, but arriving for pre-season later ... means I need some additional time."
Pellegrini was pleased with Raheem Sterling's debut in City colours as he played 74 minutes before making way for Samir Nasri. Sterling's lone goal in eight lifetime matches versus Chelsea came in last year's League Cup semifinals with Liverpool.
The teams played to 1-1 draws in both fixtures last season, with ex-Chelsea legend Frank Lampard netting a late equaliser at the Etihad for City. The Citizens rescued points in both matches as they were unable to stop Chelsea's march to the title.
This is the third time in Premier League history the top two teams from the previous season are meeting on the second match day. City beat Liverpool 3-1 at home last season and Chelsea beat Arsenal 1-0 at home in 2005.