West Brom-Chelsea Preview
While it may not be on the level of last season's Premier League-winning campaign, day by day and match by match, Chelsea appear to be turning a corner.
The Blues look to further their climb to mid-table Wednesday when they host West Bromwich Albion, whose lead over the title holders will vanish with a loss.
The reigning champions are 3-2-0 since Jose Mourinho left the club last month, with caretaker manager Guus Hiddink getting two wins and two draws over the busy holiday fixture period after watching Chelsea's win over Sunderland from the owner's press box before moving to the touchline.
Of course, Chelsea's change in fortunes could be attributed to the resurgence of striker Diego Costa. After scoring four goals in his first 19 matches, the Spain international has matched that total in his last three after opening the scoring in Chelsea's 2-0 victory over Scunthorpe United on Sunday to reach the fourth round of the FA Cup.
The other goal came from teenager Ruben Loftus-Cheek, often buried deep on Mourinho's roster save for spot starts and handfuls of minutes as a late substitute. Less than two weeks shy of his 20th birthday, defender Gary Cahill is hoping the youngster can start an ascendancy similar to Tottenham Hotspur's Dele Alli after netting his first goal for the Blues.
"For me he has everything you need to be a top player," Cahill told Chelsea's official website. "Dele Alli's rise has been incredibly fast, incredibly quick, so why can't he do it?
"He's a great kid who works really hard at his game. He's been chomping at the bit, he wants to get involved, he wants to play."
The return to form has helped Chelsea (6-5-9) push away from the relegation zone as they enter this match 14th on 23 points and six clear of the drop. While Costa has found his scoring boots, the defence has finally shown a semblance to last season's airtight unit. Chelsea have recorded three clean sheets on the trot since a 2-2 draw versus Watford in Hiddink's debut on Boxing Day.
Hiddink should have the services of both Oscar and Nemanja Matic for this match. Oscar was lifted at halftime due to an inflamed toe, while Matic sat out Sunday's victory after getting hit in the head at close range on a thrown ball by a goalkeeper on the training grounds.
West Bromwich Albion (7-5-8) can clearly see Chelsea in their rear-view mirror, occupying 12th on 26 points. While the Baggies have won back-to-back league contests, that success did not follow them to FA Cup play Saturday as they salvaged a last-gasp 2-2 draw at home with Championship side Bristol City, forcing a replay at Ashton Gate next week.
The match also marked the season debut of goalkeeper Ben Foster, who had been sidelined 10 months after tearing his ACL versus Stoke City in March. Manager Tony Pulis was pleased with his effort, telling the team website, "He didn't have an awful lot to do today, but what he did do he did very well."
Wednesday's trip to London kicks off a three-game road swing for the Baggies, who will also trek to Southampton before their replay versus Bristol City. Pulis may have reinforcements as Jonas Olsson and Victor Anichebe face late fitness tests, and the manager knows he needs all hands on deck for this stretch.
"We know it's going to be a tough game. It's Chelsea, they have wonderful players and we have to be at our best. That's the same with every top-four or -five club in this country. You have to have at least 10 of your players at the maximum to get a result."
Pedro, Costa and Cesar Azpilicueta all scored first-half goals as Chelsea won the reverse fixture at The Hawthorns 3-2 in August. James Morrison, who netted the equaliser versus Bristol City, had both goals for West Brom.
The Baggies have one point from nine top-flight matches at Stamford Bridge, getting outscored 22-3.