Tottenham Hotspur-Chelsea Preview
Chelsea have known for months they will not repeat as Premier League champions. But they could find some pleasure in an otherwise morose season Monday at Stamford Bridge by ending Tottenham Hotspur's hopes to lift the trophy.
There is no love lost between the London rivals, and Spurs' history of misery at Stamford Bridge - where they have eight draws and 17 losses without a win since 1990 - only adds to the desire of the Blues (12-11-11) wanting to play spoilsports. Chelsea are already assured of their first non top-six finish since placing 11th in 1995-96, and with them almost locked into ninth or 10th, motivation for wins needs to come from outside sources.
"I know the fans are desperate to beat Tottenham and it's a huge game no matter what the circumstances are," goalkeeper Asmir Begovic said after Chelsea dispatched of Bournemouth 4-1 last weekend. "It's difficult to get over the line when you're doing it for the first time and hopefully we can give them a big test."
Begovic will be between the sticks again as Thibaut Courtois completes his two-match ban for his second red card of the year, but the Belgium keeper reportedly wants to leave the team since they will not be in Champions League next season. Given the high price he could command in the transfer market, incoming manager Antonio Conte is reportedly OK with him moving on.
Eden Hazard seconded Begovic's comments about Spurs but in more emphatic form, telling the team's website: "We don't want Tottenham to win the Premier League - the fans, the club and the players.
"In football you never know. We hope for Leicester, because they deserve to be champions, but we'll see. We have a big game next week against Tottenham, and if we can beat them it will be good."
Given Chelsea close their season at home against Leicester, Hazard's comments raised some eyebrows about them possibly not giving their all for that match, but manager Guus Hiddink insisted the Blues will give their all for the season's final four matches.
"It's normal to have the scrutiny from the press because you are playing in the limelight," the Dutch manager said. "It's not extra scrutiny. We want to fulfill our obligations now, and in the upcoming games. I cannot guarantee the result but I can guarantee the effort will be there, and not just on Monday."
Hazard, the 2015 PFA Player of the Year, netted just his second league goal in the win over Bournemouth, a steep falloff from his 14 in last season's title-winning run.
Tottenham (19-12-4) are eight points behind Leicester City with three matches remaining after the Foxes emerged with a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford on Sunday. Spurs need to win their final three matches to have any hopes of winning the title, while Leicester City need only two more points.
A victory, though, would move Spurs closer to their first top-two finish since placing runners-up to Everton in 1963. They've all but mathematically assured themselves a top-four spot and have had a week to stew since their title hopes took what appear to be a fatal hit with last Monday's 1-1 draw at home versus West Bromwich Albion.
Adding to the difficulty of the task is Dele Alli won't play again this season after the 20-year-old starlet received a three-match suspension for violent conduct against the Baggies. Alli appeared to punch Claudio Yacob in the gut in the first half, then took to Twitter to apologise after the ban was handed down. The PFA Young Player of the Year just might have led with the wrong word.
"Gutted that my season is over. Shouldn't have reacted like I did. Will learn from this and come back stronger," Alli wrote.
All things considered, manager Mauricio Pochettino still believes his team will be in the right frame of mind.
"It was a big hit for us," he admitted to the team's official website. "The dream, the motivation is to fight for the title and we dropped two points, you always feel disappointed, but that all disappears because we need to be ready for Monday.
"They are good now and ready to compete again against Chelsea. It's a big derby and we need to try and win the game and try to still fight for the title."
Pochettino also signaled he is in for the long haul at White Hart Lane with plans to extend his current contract two years through the 2020-21 season. He guided Spurs to a fifth-place finish in his first season with the team in 2014-15 after arriving from Southampton.
''It was an easy decision when you feel the love of the people and the potential of the club is massive, so why change? We create a good atmosphere on the training ground, and we can achieve big things in the future," he said. "I believe in this project and this club. I want to stay here.''
Chelsea have enjoyed the upper hand in this London derby throughout the Premier League era, compiling a 27-18-4 mark in that span. Tottenham have just one win since the start of the 2010-11 season, a 5-3 victory on New Year's Day in 2015.
The teams played out a testy scoreless draw in the reverse fixture in a match that featured more yellow cards (six) than shots on target (five).