London, December 30 (AFP): Chelsea can take another step towards English football history when they host Stoke City on Saturday, as the Premier League’s jam-packed festive schedule rumbles into 2017.
Chelsea’s 3-0 win over Bournemouth on Boxing Day was their 12th in succession, leaving them two wins short of Arsenal’s overall top-flight record of 14, set over two seasons in 2002.
With each win, Antonio Conte’s side have looked more and more like champions-in-waiting, but with half the season still to go, Chelsea’s players are desperately trying to ignore the hype.
Goalkeeper Thibault Courtois has been one of the main reasons for their resurgence having conceded just two goals in the 12-match run — something he puts down to skills honed in Spain with Atletico Madrid. “Concentration is a big factor,” he told the club website.
“If you keep on shouting and being busy with the game you are always staying in it, and I think that is one of my strong points, focus and concentration during the game.
“I learned a lot of it when I was at Atletico.”
Pedro, scorer of two goals against Bournemouth, will be suspended, but top scorer Diego Costa — banned on Boxing Day — should return to the starting XI.
Midfield lynchpin N’Golo Kante is also available again after suspension.
Stoke fell to a 4-1 defeat at Liverpool on Tuesday, having gone ahead through Jonathan Walters, and lie 13th in the table.
Liverpool’s victory took them back to second place, six points below Chelsea, and they will stage the biggest game of the New Year weekend when third-place Manchester City visit Anfield on Saturday.
City trail Liverpool by a point, having won their last three matches, and manager Pep Guardiola was in attendance to watch Jurgen Klopp’s team overcome Stoke.
“It’s a very big game for both sides,” said Klopp.
“When you have a look at the table and see that six clubs fight for (fourth) or (first) it’s a really interesting position,” added Klopp, who sparred with Guardiola’s Bayern Munich during his successful spell as Borussia Dortmund coach.
Klopp is wary too of a City side that will be boosted by the return from suspension of Argentinian striker Sergio Aguero.
“He is back and a good striker, obviously,” said Klopp. “I always thought that he is quite a talented boy. I never made a secret of it, and now he is back in the team with a lot of other really good players, that makes life not easier for us.”
Arsenal, two points below City in fourth place, will look to build on Monday’s last-gasp 1-0 win over West Bromwich Albion when they host Sam Allardyce’s Crystal Palace on New Year’s Day.
Arsene Wenger’s side had lost their two previous games and with Chelsea nine points above them, their margin for error is thin. “If you have back-to-back losses then you have to go and make up for it in different games. Then you can catch up,” goalkeeper Petr Cech told the Arsenal website.
“There are still enough games to make up for our blip and I also think it’s impossible for our opponents to not drop points.”
Palace, held to a 1-1 draw by Watford on Monday in Allardyce’s first game in charge since succeeding the sacked Alan Pardew, sit two points above the relegation zone.
Manchester United have closed to within sight of Arsenal and will expect to record a fifth successive victory when 15th-place Middlesbrough visit on New Year’s Eve.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan netted a stunning ‘scorpion kick’ volley as Jose Mourinho’s men beat Sunderland 4-1 last time out, which was a further sign that belief has returned to Old Trafford.
“We have a lot of confidence now and we’re in good shape,” Daley Blind, who scored United’s opening goal, told MUTV.
“We need to work hard and keep that feeling up and win games. Of course we want to keep this run going and we’ll work hard to do that.”
Chastened champions Leicester City, three points above the drop zone, will hope to chase away some of the storm clouds overhead when they host a West Ham United team who are seeking a fourth successive win.
Everton v Hull
Chelsea v Stoke
Leicester v West Ham
Liverpool v Man City
Man Utd v Middlesbrough
Burnley v Sunderland
Southampton v West Brom
Swansea v Bournemouth
Arsenal v Crystal Palace
Watford v Tottenham