It's still too early to talk about title-deciding games, after all it's not even October, but Saturday's Premier League clash between Chelsea and Manchester City is significant in terms of who sets the early pace.
Chelsea are off to a red-hot start, winning four and drawing once in their first five games, conceding just once in the process. It's been tougher for Pep Guardiola & Co. with a defeat to Tottenham in the season opener. They then won three straight against Norwich, Arsenal and Leicester before being fortunate to draw 0-0 with Southampton. Then again, last season, Man City got off to an even worse start, winning just six of their first 13 games before ripping off 13 straight wins to take control and win their third title in four seasons.
Thomas Tuchel has transformed Chelsea and also held Man City in check, winning three straight games against Guardiola since taking the job in January: there was a 1-0 win in the FA Cup semifinal on April 17, a 2-1 win (through a 90th-minute goal) in the league on May 8 and then the jewel of them all, a 1-0 win in the Champions League final on May 29.
What will Saturday hold? ESPN's Julien Laurens, Gabriele Marcotti, Mark Ogden and James Olley preview the game.
1. Man City's title to lose? Or Chelsea better placed?
Gab Marcotti: I guess City are still favorites for me, and they'll probably remain favorites even if they lose (though being six points behind in September -- which is where they'd be if they lose -- is not nothing).
The odd thing is that it comes at a time when neither is really firing on all cylinders. City conceded three at home to Leipzig, and were held to a draw (and could easily have lost) against Southampton. Chelsea have won their last three games, but were really only impressive to me in the second half against Spurs. So I think both these teams will get better as the season progresses.
Julien Laurens: I feel that as much as you can never write off a Guardiola team, Chelsea are indeed better-placed right now. They are such in a strong position: they're unbeaten this season, they boast one of the tightest defences in Europe -- as they only have conceded two goals in seven games in all competitions -- while they are still integrating Romelu Lukaku, one of the best strikers in the world, into their style of play. He makes them stronger than they were last season when they dominated City and Guardiola three times.
Chelsea have only added talent to what they had last year. Their confidence is high, their momentum is building and the belief in their manager and for each other is strong, too. I can't see much weakness there, while I think that City, as we saw against Tottenham and Southampton (and to a lesser degree against RB Leipzig), are not in the most reassuring rhythm. This game could cement Tuchel's Chelsea superiority over Guardiola's City.
Mark Ogden: It's definitely not City's title to lose. Their failure to sign a striker this summer, and the deals done by Chelsea and Manchester United, have drawn City back into the pack, while Liverpool are still a really strong team as well. But it's still September and way too early to assign a favourites' tag. However, if City lose at Stamford Bridge and also at Anfield next weekend, they will have a problem because it will be so much harder to close a big gap on rivals this time around.
As for Chelsea, who fills the void if Lukaku is injured for a period of time? With Olivier Giroud and Tammy Abraham both leaving this summer, Chelsea lack cover for their main striker, so their challenge has its weaknesses. Saturday is a big game nonetheless, but its true significance -- if it actually has any at all -- will only become clear at the end of the season.
James Olley: City have won three of the last four Premier Leagues and deserved to be considered favourites in preseason. They have the recent pedigree over a 38-game campaign, something that this Chelsea side do not, and defied being without a fit, in-form 20-plus goal striker to finish the previous campaign as champions. But the opening weeks suggest it will be harder than ever to repeat the trick, especially given they required a 15-game winning streak to recover from last season's slow start and all of their principal rivals have improved, most obviously Chelsea.
Victory this weekend would be a huge fillip to the Blues' self-belief. City know they were eight points off the pace after eight games last year and stormed back to win the league; defeat on Saturday will not create an insurmountable hurdle. But the quality on show among the top sides indicates they cannot afford to fall too far behind.
2. Does Tuchel have the edge over Guardiola?
Ogden: Guardiola will play it down in public, but make no mistake he will be desperate to beat Tuchel this weekend. He has lost three consecutive games against the Chelsea manager and we saw in the third -- the Champions League final -- how Guardiola can allow himself to be sucked into overthinking his approach in an effort to come out on top. By playing with such an attacking lineup and without a holding midfielder in that match, it was as though Guardiola wanted not only to beat Chelsea, but beat them convincingly. But it backfired spectacularly because Tuchel spotted the flaws and won the Champions League as a result.
If Guardiola is to strike back, he needs to keep it simple and trust his players to deliver in roles they're familiar with. Each time City lost to Chelsea last season, they were punished on the counter-attack -- a fairly simple problem to fix if Guardiola keeps his ego at the door and sticks to a rational selection and tactical approach. Ultimately, City still have better players than Chelsea, so let them show it.
Marcotti: I don't want to sound glib, but the obvious answer is to let City be City and outplay the opposition, rather than trying to be clever and outsmarting himself like he did in the Champions League final.
A big call, as I see it, is the fitness of Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne. They started in the 6-1 Carabao Cup win over Wycombe in midweek, so you assume they'll be ready for this game. I'd expect one way to do it is to drop Ferran Torres (at least from the start) and play Foden or De Bruyne (or maybe even Grealish) up front, leaving Chelsea's back three with nobody to mark and trying to draw them out that way. Then, you pick your spots and wait for something special to happen.
Maybe I'm too conservative, but I don't think a scoreless draw is a bad result for City.
Olley: Gab isn't being glib here -- he's absolutely right about Guardiola in the Champions League final. Playing without a recognised holding midfielder was a gamble seemingly predicated on having as many technicians in central midfield to counter Chelsea's approach. Guardiola hinted at how much this was occupying his thinking in a BT Sport interview on the eve of that game.
"Why Chelsea play so good... because they have three central defenders close, the two holding midfielders who move in relation are close, the pockets are close, the striker and the two [others in attack] are so, so close," he said. "The distances are so close, and at the same time they are so wide with the wing-backs, they are so good with the ball in behind. That's why you cannot be close because they push you [out wide] and they have a lot of good players in the middle. That's why it's difficult to face teams who want the ball and want to play with the ball. We've tried to do it since day one."
Finding a better solution to this will be Guardiola's principal preoccupation in the build-up and could hold the key to the match.
Laurens: First of all, I think a draw on Saturday would make both teams, and managers, happy. I certainly don't think that Guardiola sees this game as a revenge to finally beat Tuchel after three losses last season. He doesn't think like that. As he always says, he only thinks about creating more chances for his team and conceding fewer chances from the opposition, and scoring goals has been a problem against Tuchel's Chelsea (one goal and eight shots on target in three games).
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Guardiola tried Gabriel Jesus up front, Jesus and Sergio Aguero together, and finally De Bruyne. None of it worked. Chelsea always had more shots on target and higher xG (expected goals) against City last year. Something has to change on Saturday if Guardiola is going to win this game. Use Torres' pace and run down the middle. Play Fernandinho in midfield to be very physical and put Jorginho under huge pressure.
City's press failed in every game against Chelsea last season; this time they need to get it spot on or they will be exposed again by the Blues' patterns of play and the threat of Lukaku.
3. Which player (or players) will be key?
Laurens: Goalkeepers Edouard Mendy and Ederson. Mendy has been sensational since arriving from Rennes and especially after Tuchel took over from Frank Lampard. Chelsea have now kept more clean sheets in the Premier League (15) than they have conceded goals (14) under Tuchel! He is not always the most elegant, but he is super-efficient and his defense is very strong in front of him.
Ederson made a critical mistake in the Champions League final and it cost his team the game. He is not always the most composed between the posts, and he did concede three times against Leipzig last week. His defence changes all the time and against Lukaku & Co. they can't afford to make any mistakes, or Chelsea will punish them.
Ogden: A lot of the focus on Saturday will be on Lukaku, and whether he can prove he's a striker who can decide the big games as well as those against the lesser teams. But while the Chelsea forward is unquestionably a key figure in this match, the outcome will be decided by which version of De Bruyne turns up at Stamford Bridge.
The City midfielder has been a consistent tormentor of his former club since returning to the Premier League in 2015, and on his day he's arguably the best player in the league. But the Belgium international has struggled with injury since the Champions League final (played out of position as a false nine) when he suffered a fractured eye socket in a collision with Antonio Rudiger. An ankle injury at Euro 2020 has hampered early in this season, but he made his first start against Wycombe and will now be pushing to face Chelsea.
If he's anywhere close to full fitness, De Bruyne will be a major problem for Chelsea and represents City's best hope of victory. De Bruyne always seems to want to prove a point when he plays at Stamford Bridge, and he rarely disappoints.
Olley: This game pitches the team that got their big-money striker against the one that didn't. City's inability to prise Harry Kane from Tottenham will be further exposed if Lukaku delivers.
Lukaku's improvement under Antonio Conte at Inter Milan is obvious, but if there's any remaining doubts about the 28-year-old, it is his record against the traditional "big six." Lukaku has 21 goals in 91 games against City, Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. And during his time at United -- the last time he was expected to make a big splash in England -- he scored just once against those teams.
The Blues are palpably in a better place now than United were in 2017-19 but the expectation is on Lukaku to deliver the goals that win Chelsea the Premier League. He can make a statement on Saturday.
Marcotti: On the City end, I'll take Ruben Dias. Whether it's Lukaku or Kai Havertz coming from deeper, he'll be dealing with big, awkward and talented opponents for most of the game. It's not just about his individual game, either; it's about keeping the back four focused in snuffing out danger. City have enough attacking weapons that I don't want to single one out, hence why I'm going with a defender.
4. OK, prediction time.
Olley: Chelsea 2-1 Manchester City. Tuchel last week claimed "the engine isn't running smoothly" in terms of Chelsea's performances but they are finding a way to win matches and look in marginally better form than City.
Marcotti: Chelsea 0-0 Manchester City. I think a draw suits both sides at this stage. Chelsea haven't conceded from open play or 11 vs. 11 all season. There's a reason for this, and while they can pick up something on a set piece or piece of individual skill, I'd expect City to be ready for it.
Laurens: Chelsea 1-1 Manchester City. I think this game will finish as a draw, but both teams will score. It won't be a hugely open match, but there will be chances and I expect both teams to take at least one.
Ogden: Chelsea 1-2 Manchester City. City have conceded just one league goal this season and scored only one fewer than Chelsea, so forget suggestions of a crisis at the Etihad. Yes, they lack a genuine centre-forward, but they remain a potent attacking force and like all the best teams, will be highly motivated by a determination to end their losing streak against Chelsea.