Chelsea have been a club on the ropes in the Premier League for several months. The Blues kept fighting but were hit hard last weekend by Tottenham Hotspur. One more blow will leave them on the canvas. West Ham United would love to deliver it.
The Blues' top four hopes are all but over. They trail Spurs by eight points with just seven games to play. A 100 per cent record form here until the end of the campaign is needed, and even then it's unlikely to be enough.
Fail to overcome the Irons and even Antonio Conte will have to throw in the towel. David Moyes' side travel across London off the back of a morale-boosting 3-0 win over Southampton. Another victory will ease their relegation fears and they overcome Chelsea earlier in the campaign.
However, is Sunday’s match a step too far? Will West Ham’s temporary high be dragged back to reality when they show up at Stamford Bridge? Chelsea are favourites but this match is anything but a foregone conclusion.
Much of the pre-match chatter has been built around West Ham’s unexpected win over Conte’s side earlier in the season, yet when we look through Chelsea’s top flight campaign it’s clear the champions have a weak spot. And it's mid-table sides.
Before West Ham claimed all three points in a 1-0 win at the London Stadium in December, Conte’s men had already lost at home to Burnley and away to Crystal Palace – the Blues have since been undone against Bournemouth and Watford.
Although neutrals will most likely remember the high profile back-to-back defeats to both Manchester clubs and the humiliation by Tottenham when asked to sum up Chelsea’s disappointing season, eagle-eyed fans will point to the routine banana skins deployed by lesser sides throughout the division.
Naturally, this is where West Ham can once again strike. Conte’s side are an exquisite, defensive team on their day – they’ve conceded just nine more goals than Man City this season – but when they’re obliged to open up and attack things can go awry.
This is notable when looking at the goals Chelsea have conceded against ‘weaker' sides. Of the 13 Conte’s side have shipped against Palace, Watford, Bournemouth, Burnley and West Ham this season, seven have come from attacks through the middle of the pitch.
There’s no denying the base of Chelsea’s midfield can look exposed when forced to attack. And for a side like West Ham, who take 67 per cent of their shots from the middle of the pitch, there should be plenty of opportunities to take advantage.
The frail mentality of Conte’s side is also undoubtedly a chink in the armour that West Ham must try to exploit. Much has been said about the club’s backroom drama and whether key players will be staying or going in the summer, but on the pitch that uncertainty translates quite notably to how poorly this side struggle to overcome the odds.
When things are going well for Chelsea they rarely lose their rag and throw away a result. For example, in the 12 games they’ve found themselves leading at half time they’ve gone on to win each and every one of them – a 100 per cent record that only Manchester United and Tottenham can match in this season’s Premier League.
However, in any other situation the Blues tend to panic. Of the 15 Premier League games the former champions have found themselves level with the opposition at the break, they’ve only gone on to win five. So Chelsea drop points in 66 per cent of the matches they haven’t wrapped up in the opening 45 minutes.
That figure gets even worse when we look at the games in which they find themselves behind at the break. Although it has only happened four times in the 31 league games they’ve played this season, Chelsea have gone on to lose each and every one. Hardly the characteristics of a never-say-die team.
Essentially, the best way to beat Chelsea is to draw first blood and be ahead at half time. If West Ham can keep Eden Hazard & Co. at bay for long enough, they might just be able to pile on further misery.