Sacked by West Bromwich Albion 18 months ago, you would have got long odds on Roberto Di Matteo returning to the Hawthorns as a Champions League-winning coach, but nobody is being kidded into thinking that such a great achievement isn’t saving the Italian from some serious scrutiny as Chelsea’s campaign shows signs of hitting the buffers.
Last season, this was the fixture that finally did for Andre Villas-Boas’ miserable reign as Chelsea manager and while there is absolutely no indication whatsoever the same fate is about to befall his successor, the Blues head to the Black Country just as a mid-season slump is starting to take hold.
West Brom’s 1-0 win over the Blues in February sealed AVB’s fate and when the Portuguese’s assistant, Di Matteo, was announced as interim boss, few would have predicted what happened next.
A Champions League and FA Cup double followed, with Di Matteo reluctantly handed the job on a full-time basis (or in other words, until such time that owner Roman Abramovich gets his hands on Pep Guardiola) but the doubts about his suitability for the role will not go away and Chelsea have been struggling of late.
A fantastic start to the season results-wise – if not in the standard of performances on the pitch – seemed to give the impression the players were happy with the Italian, but both points and impressive displays have been hard to come by recently. A four-point lead over Manchester United at the top of the Premier League has been turned into a three-point deficit, while reaching the knock-out stages of the Champions League is far from assured.
It has been all change for West Brom since that day, too, with Roy Hodgson leaving to manage England, to be replaced by Steve Clarke, who so far has taken to frontline management with seamless ease.
Doubters were queuing up to tip the Baggies for relegation because of Clarke’s managerial inexperience (even if he was a vital backroom component of trophy-winning sides at Chelsea and Liverpool) but he has wiped the smile off their faces just as much as the previously dour Scot has put one on his own.
Clarke seems like a different character in the hotseat and the players are responding to him in some style. West Brom are currently in fifth place on 20 points, level with Everton in the final Champions League qualification spot and just four points behind their visitors on Saturday.
It has been a dream start for Clarke and the Albion faithful and I think it can carry on into the new year at the very least. In fact, I can certainly see it carrying on this weekend, as I think West Brom are more than capable of getting a result against their former manager.
The Blues are 87/100 favourites, with the draw at 5/2 and West Brom at 3/1, and it is on a combination of the latter two results that my money will be going.
Since a 4-2 victory over Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane, Chelsea have won just one of their last six matches inside 90 minutes (although they did eventually beat Manchester United after extra-time in the League Cup) and if a defeat to United in the Premier League can at least be excused, draws against Liverpool and Swansea, plus a defeat to Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine, were pretty poor efforts.
Even the 3-2 win over Shakhtar at Stamford Bridge was fortunate and Chelsea’s main players look to have run out of steam already. Juan Mata continues to impress, but Oscar has not really replicated his encouraging Champions League displays domestically, while Eden Hazard has had a very disappointing six weeks after a very good start.
I could mention Fernando Torres, but I don’t want to come across as cruel and I don’t think that Chelsea, who have kept just one clean sheet in their last ten games, look a good price to go to the Hawthorns and win.
But West Brom do look a good price at 91/100 to avoid defeat. The Baggies have been brilliant at home, with only Manchester City taking more than Albion’s 15 points on their own patch this season, and four clean sheets in six home league matches is seriously impressive.
West Brom look well balanced and very well drilled, and I think Di Matteo might just have an uncomfortable afternoon back at his old club.
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