Chelsea begin their 2016/17 Premier Leaguer campaign with a Monday night football clash against London rivals West Ham.
It will be Antonio Conte’s first competitive game at the helm, but how will the Italian set up his side at Stamford Bridge?
Predicting starting lineups is tricky business at the best of times. With a new season, a new coach, a new philosophy, a couple new signings, and plenty of unknowns, it’s even trickier this time around.
From goalkeeper to strikers, we take a look at Chelsea’s options ahead of the big kick-off.
Thibaut Courtois – There is no doubt about this one. Though Asmir Begovic is a decent enough keeper, he will not start over Courtois if Chelsea FC have anything to play for. Courtois has started the last two preseason friendlies, and though he still not back at his best, he is guaranteed his place for the opening fixture.
Ola Aina – Surprisingly, Ola Aina actually got a decent run of games during the preseason and was not immediately loaned out to Vitesse. With Baba Rahman going to the Bundesliga on loan, Aina’s time to solidify a spot is now. Branislav Ivanovic has looked as terrible as last season so far, and so despite a few mistakes in more recent games, Conte will chance Aina as rightback.
John Terry – The Captain, Leader, and Legend of Stamford Bridge not only remains a Chelsea player, but seemingly remains a vital part of the defense after starting and playing the full 90 minutes in almost every preseason game. Though he has shown signs of age and deteriorating ability, there is no reason for Conte to not give Terry the nod in this game.
Gary Cahill – Gary Cahill has not had the best of summers, with his national team performing poorly and his form being average at best. But with Kurt Zouma still on the mend, and with no one pushing from the depth chart, Cahill will see himself starting against West Ham. It will be the perfect opportunity to cement a place before Zouma or a new centerback confines Cahill to warming the bench.
Cesar Azpilicueta – Perhaps the only Chelsea defender to come out of last season relatively unscathed, Cesar Azpilicueta is the most certain choice for defense. Although he looks to be playing yet another season on the left, Conte has given him more freedom to roam forward and perhaps with the formation of a stronger midfield he will be able to do so and help out Eden Hazard.
N’Golo Kante – N’Golo Kante was one of the biggest reasons why Leicester City were able to win the league, and now he has come to Chelsea to help do the same. He has not featured in a great amount of friendlies after Euro 2016, but the performances he put in should be enough for him to start and cover the entire midfield. This will allow his two partners to roam forward and cause havoc.
Oscar – Somehow, without trying very hard or being particularly flashy, Oscar has managed to have a good run of form in the preseason, netting himself several goals. Could it finally, finally be the time for Oscar to live up to the number 8 on his back? Time will tell, but he will get a look so long as he does not disappear during vast stretches of the game.
Cesc Fabregas – The final member of the midfield three comes down to the defensive Nemanja Matić and the more creative Cesc Fàbregas. Neither have been absolutely stand out in preseason, though with Kanté shielding the defense, a second defensive midfielder would cause terrible flashbacks of the John Obi Mikel and Matic pairing. Conte is far more attack-oriented than Guus Hiddink ever was, so Fabregas will get the start and be given the task of pulling the strings like what Conte had Andrea Pirlo do at Juventus.
Willian – Reigning player of the year Willian has been poor since the end of the Copa America. As he has done for much of his career at Chelsea, he has killed attacks by dribbling to the corner and attempting (poorly) to cross or dribble into the box. Despite this, Conte seems to favor him over Pedro and Juan Cuadrado. If Willian cannot find his form, it is likely Cuadrado will steal his starting spot, but for now he will still be a shoo-in for right wing.
Eden Hazard – Is Eden Hazard finally back? All indications from preseason say that yes, he is in fact back. He is once again able to terrify the opposition’s defense and has even added a more clinical finish to his repertoire. Hazard will start not only this game, but every game that he is healthy for as long as he maintains this level.
Diego Costa – Everyone’s favorite villain has stayed at Stamford Bridge, and he enters the first fixture of the season looking far healthier and more fit than he did last season. The signing of Michy Batshuayi will not be enough to push Costa to the bench, and even if Conte plays with two strikers, Costa will always be the first pick of the pairing. Costa has a chance to match Conte’s intensity and put his last horrible season behind him.