Chelsea v Newcastle
Saturday 12:30, Sky Sports 1.
Match Odds: Chelsea 1.261/4, Chelsea 16.015/1, The Draw 7.06/1.
The return of Rafa
Rafael Benitez returns to Stamford Bridge - where he's unlikely to receive a particularly warm welcome from the home supporters, despite taking Chelsea to the Europa League during his interim spell during 2012/13. Benitez will be aiming to upset Chelsea fans this weekend, although Newcastle are on an atrocious run of form, having collected just one point from their last five matches.
Chelsea, in stark contrast, have taken 16 points from the last 18, the only failure being the creditable 1-1 draw at Anfield last weekend. The midweek victory over Swansea was somewhat unconvincing, but Antonio Conte did rest both Cesar Azpilicueta and Eden Hazard, his best defender and attacker respectively. With a full-strength XI, Chelsea start as strong favourites.
Conte has relatively few injury problems here - Michy Batshuayi is out injured, and David Luiz is doubtful, but neither are currently in Conte's first XI anyway. Probably Conte's main dilemma is whether to use the 3-4-3 system that took Chelsea to the league last season, or the 3-5-1-1 which has been used more regularly this season.
Conte to change system?
With Newcastle likely to sit deep and defend, Conte can probably use the 3-4-3 system here, incorporating another attacker. The 3-5-1-1 allows Conte to use Cesc Fabregas in central midfield and afford him the protection of two defensive midfielders, but in a match against such a defensive side, Conte can probably afford to deploy Fabregas alongside only one of N'Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko anyway.
Nevertheless, the 3-5-1-1 remains an option, with Danny Drinkwater providing another option. He and Bakayoko are expected to push forward and make Lampard-esque late runs in this system, and if Conte does go for the 3-5-1-1, either might be a handy first goalscorer bet.
Chelsea's main goal threats, however, will continue to come from Alvaro Morata - who has recovered from a slight dip in form and has proved excellent at converting long balls and crosses, particularly from Azpilicueta - and Hazard, who floats behind him excellently and ran the game against Liverpool last weekend. Benitez will be particularly keen to stop Hazard from getting space between the lines, although Newcastle were rather too open in that zone during last weekend's 3-2 defeat to Watford.
Newcastle to sit back
Benitez will use a tried-and-tested system of two banks of four without possession, with Ayoze Perez supporting the lone striker. Joselu hasn't looked good in recent weeks, so this could be a chance for Aleksandar Mitrovic to lead the line.
Behind those two, don't expect Newcastle to budge out of their deep system. Jacob Murphy and Matt Ritchie will be asked to protect their full-backs, only sporadically breaking forward on the counter-attack, shuttling up and down the lines rather than drifting inside. DeAndre Yedlin and Javier Manquillo are decent going forward, but won't have much license to attack here.
Mikel Merino will sit in front of the defence and Jonjo Shelvey will be asked to limit his breaks forward into attack. Defensively, Jamaal Lascelles might be back in the picture, but Ciaran Clark and Florian Lejeune seems a more likely partnership.
In truth, I can't make much of a case for Newcastle here - they'll set out to frustrate Chelsea, but in recent weeks their defensive organisation has been unusually poor. The home side have proved effective at getting goals from a variety of sources this season, and I fancy a comfortable home win. I'll back Chelsea/Chelsea in the Half-Time/Full-Time market at 1.865/6.
Back Chelsea/Chelsea in Half-Time/Full-Time at 2.26/5