By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – It has taken less than two weeks for the optimism generated by a 12-match unbeaten start to Maurizio Sarri’s reign at Stamford Bridge to fizzle out and this weekend the Italian faces his biggest test to date when Manchester City visit.
In fairness to the former Napoli manager, he stressed throughout the heady days of early Autumn that Chelsea were not equipped to challenge City for the title and ahead of Saturday’s clash between the sides a 10-point gap has opened up.
On Tuesday, Pep Guardiola’s City maintained a searing pace at the top with a win against Watford. Twenty four hours later Chelsea went down 2-1 at Wolverhampton Wanderers — their second defeat in three Premier League games.
Sarri said his side had only played well for 55 minutes at Wolves and knows they will have to be at full tilt for 90 minutes on Saturday evening if they are to have any chance of halting the City juggernaut.
He said he expects a “big reaction” on Saturday but already appears to have settled for a top-four scrap along with London rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal rather than chasing down Liverpool and champions City.
“Manchester City are in another category. We have to play and to fight to be in the top four,” Sarri said after the setback at Wolves.
“City are the best team in Europe, maybe the best in the world. They can win the Champions League.”
Juergen Klopp’s Liverpool, who like City are unbeaten, started without Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane at Burnley on Wednesday but still won 3-1.
With a huge ‘must-win’ Champions League game coming up next week against Napoli, Klopp may well gamble on squad rotation as they travel to seventh-placed Bournemouth for Saturday’s early kickoff.
Victory for Liverpool would take them top, at least until City’s later clash with Chelsea.
Third-placed Tottenham Hotspur will also have a massive Champions League night on their minds when they travel to Leicester City on Saturday evening.
Manager Mauricio Pochettino will be less than pleased that his side kickoff at 1945 GMT with a trip to Barcelona following on Tuesday — a game Tottenham will almost certainly have to win to reach the last 16 of the tournament.
Fifth-placed Arsenal have no such concerns as they host Huddersfield Town on Saturday looking to extend their unbeaten run in all competitions to 21 matches.
Manchester United, who are 18 points behind leaders City and eight adrift of fourth-placed Chelsea after three successive draws, are at home to bottom club Fulham.
United boss Jose Mourinho has made 46 changes to his starting lineup already this season and all eyes will be on his selection again as he comes face to face with the original “tinkerman” Claudio Ranieri, now at the helm at Fulham.
Mourinho left record signing Paul Pogba on the bench for Wednesday’s 2-2 draw at home to Arsenal and also started without Romelu Lukaku but goalscorer Anthony Martial picked up an injury against Arsenal and is a major doubt to face Fulham.
Also on Saturday, Burnley host Brighton and Hove Albion while new Southampton boss manager Ralph Hasenhuttl will be in the dugout for the first time as his side take on fellow strugglers Cardiff City.
West Ham United will be seeking a third consecutive win when they host Crystal Palace in a London derby.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Nick Mulvenney)