Chelsea sense chance vs. Everton to bounce back from West Brom draw
Given the general positivity surrounding Everton's season and the negative air that has enveloped Chelsea, it is surprising that a win for the Londoners in their clash on Saturday would leave them just one point behind the Merseysiders.
A blend of youth and effective attacking football has seen Roberto Martinez's side rightly lauded throughout the campaign and has supplied a glimpse of what is possible if a manager places his faith in his talented youngsters. And yet had Chelsea not yielded a late equaliser in Wednesday night's 2-2 draw with West Brom, they would have had the opportunity to leapfrog Everton in the Premier League table with a victory.
Such a situation suggests that perhaps their respective seasons should be compared more favourably, though a look at their midweek performances would show just why the general perception is the way it is.
The West Brom game encapsulated the frustration that has been one of the hallmarks of the Blues' campaign to date. It was a decent contest in which Chelsea always looked the more likely team to win but one they could never take total control of. The narrow advantage they established contrived to spread nervousness throughout the team in the closing stages, manifesting itself in some haphazard defending and the eventual equaliser.
Meanwhile, Everton were impressive in holding Manchester City to a goalless draw at the Etihad. A team not necessarily noted for their defence held firm against the highest scorers in the division that had not drawn a blank at home all season.
But while their respective moods might have differed on Wednesday night, Chelsea are still favourites with the bookmakers to emerge victorious when they meet on Saturday with the draw considered to be the second most likely outcome. Part of that is certainly to do with Everton's poor track record at Stamford Bridge, a place where they haven't won since 1994 when a Mark Stein brace was not enough to prevent the visitors claiming a 4-2 win. In the intervening period, Everton have won a FA Cup tie in West London in 2011 though that was on penalties after a Leighton Baines' free kick made it 1-1 a minute from the end of extra time.
That match was very much like Chelsea's game against West Brom and many that have punctuated their season, in that the Blues were unable to put their opponents away and got duly punished for it. The concern is that similar profligacy against Everton will be dealt with even more harshly by a team bursting with goals. Ex-Chelsea starlet Romelu Lukaku has been rampant this term with his 15 league goals firing him to the top of the goalscoring charts alongside Leicester City hotshot Jamie Vardy. John Terry and Kurt Zouma will have their work cut out against a muscular and confident striker that will be keen to prove a point against his former employers.
Elsewhere, the visitors can boast two players who share third place in the assists table in England international Ross Barkley and the effervescent Spaniard Gerard Deulofeu. They have seven assists apiece and will demand that Chelsea's defensive concentration is up to scratch.
On the flipside, Chelsea have begun to create more chances under Guus Hiddink with responsibility not solely confined to the usual suspects. The opening goal against West Brom saw Willian and Diego Costa involved in the build-up though it was eventually converted by Cesar Azpilicueta after latching on to an inch-perfect cross from fellow full back Branislav Ivanovic. The second was created by Willian though it was the presence of the direct and dynamic Kenedy that forced Gareth McAuley to deflect the ball into his own goal.
Costa will remain the focus of Chelsea's attack and it has been encouraging to see the striker return to the marauding figure of old. Although he might have been snarling and reactionary on Wednesday, he was also an effective spearhead in attack. He now looks like a goalscorer again and if he can maintain this momentum and drag some others along with him, the three points can be gained on Saturday.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.