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Monday, 21 January, 2019

Wembley can become a happy home for Tottenham against Chelsea

Continuity could be key for Spurs against makeshift Blues

Tottenham's Dele Alli runs at the Chelsea defence in last season's FA Cup semi-final clash
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Premier League
Sunday 4pm, Sky Sports Premier League

This clash will be one of those rare events where both teams can convince themselves that now is a good time to be meeting their opponents.

Counting against Tottenham is that this is their first Premier League home game at the national stadium. The readily referred mantra is that Wembley's big pitch, new surroundings and old hoodoo are set to ground Spurs' upward trajectory.

Chelsea's problems are a little more old school. Suspensions, injuries and strops have denied manager Antonio Conte of several key men, and a summer of discontent has critics wondering if this season's team will be shaped more in the 2015-16 mould than the 2016-17 version.

However, as with most footballing prophecies of doom, while there is a degree of substance on which to build the headlines the reality is rather less dramatic than the hyperbole.

Yes, Tottenham must adapt to a pitch of a marginally different size. But after persuading the Premier League to allow them to reduce the dimensions it is a now a mere one metre wider than the old White Hart Lane pitch and just five metres longer.

Last season the issue was slightly more noteworthy as the Wembley pitch was two metres wider than at White Hart Lane, so Spurs were switching between different pitch sizes for domestic matches and Europe. But this season there will be no such issue. Throughout the summer, Mauricio Pochettino will have drilled his team on training pitches set to the same dimensions as Wembley and there will be continuity in all competitions.

The change in atmosphere will be noticeable, but not as stark as some suggest. Away ticket allocation will be just 3,000 throughout the campaign so - safety restrictions permitting - there will be up to up to 84,000 more Tottenham fans than visiting supporters. Any thoughts of Tottenham home games being comparable in atmosphere to FA Cup semi-finals will quickly be dispelled.

And the hoodoo? Tottenham do have a poor W1 D4 L5 90-minute record at the new Wembley, but the very nature of the venue is that Spurs have largely encountered top-level opponents in cup finals, semi-finals or Europe, and have largely been the underdogs for those games.

The exceptions came last season in Tottenham's poor European showings and their 4-2 FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea.

The cup clash was evenly contested, with Spurs the better side for long spells but let down by a handful of uncharacteristic individual errors. And while some observers cited the hoodoo for Tottenham's defeats to eventual semi-finalists Monaco and Leverkusen in the Champions League, the reality is that both games came during Spurs's run of just one win in ten matches on all fronts. Poor form rather than a hoodoo was cited for their domestic struggles in that time.

Chelsea's travails are more tangible. Of last season's semi-finalists, the Blues have lost Cesc Fabregas (and Gary Cahill, who didn't feature in April) to suspension, while Nemanja Matic and Nathan Ake have been sold, Diego Costa is refusing to play, recently returning Eden Hazard is highly unlikely to feature, and Pedro remains an injury doubt. All four Chelsea substitutes who failed to take to the pitch in the semi-final have also left the club.

A club of Chelsea's stature has plenty in reserve, of course. New signing Alvaro Morata was one of few Blues players to shine in the 3-2 defeat to Burnley while Tiemoue Bakayoko is hoping to return from injury to make his debut.

But while quality remains, whatever the Chelsea XI it will inevitably be makeshift in either defence or midfield and the number of changes is sure to result in a lack of fluency and cohesion. And importantly, in stark contrast to April's Wembley clash, the Blues' bench is likely to be devoid of match-winning options.

Whatever the medium-term concern about Tottenham's last-minute transfer policy, the lack of player turnover results in a squad totally at ease with one another. And in a game of fine margins, that could be enough to see Pochettino's men prove there really is no place like home.

Recommended bet
Tottenham to win by a single goal
1pt 3-1 Skybet

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Dan Sait is the Football Editor at the Racing & Football Outlook - out every Tuesday
@DanSait @rfoutlook

Of last season's semi-finalists, Chelsea are without Fabregas, Matic, Costa and Ake, while Hazard and Pedro are doubts and Gary Cahill is suspended
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