Maurizio Sarri’s side were title contenders when the Toffees held them to a goalless draw at Stamford Bridge in November, but have since fallen to sixth place.
The dramatic loss of form has inevitably seen great scrutiny fall on the position of Sarri, only appointed in July, with the Londoners now three points adrift of the top four.
Sunday’s game should also see the first return to Goodison for Ross Barkley since leaving his boyhood club for Chelsea acrimoniously in January 2018; Barkley was repeatedly jeered by the travelling Evertonians in the reverse fixture.
RBM: Firstly, where do you stand with Maurizio Sarri? Should he pay for the way Chelsea’s season has tailed off with his job?
Jimmy: I’ve always remained in favour of keeping hold of Sarri as I’m simply of the belief that he’s got the potential to make something truly special out of this squad, if given the necessary funds and time to succeed.
The main reason I was highly critical of him for a lengthy period, as many fans were at the time and some even continue to be, was Sarri’s stubbornness regarding his team selections and in-game management.
Fortunately, despite being a bit late with it, he’s learnt from his mistakes and has begun to make changes, tweaks to the system, and better substitutions over the past couple of weeks, contributing to the vibe around Chelsea improving again.
So, no, I don’t think we should be as daft as to make him pay for circumstances which he partially has no influence on.
RBM: What do you think are the main reasons for Chelsea’s dip in form in recent months?
Jimmy: There’s a multitude of reasons why Chelsea have slowly but gradually been in a sort of decline over the past few years, even though we’ve nevertheless managed to win things along the way.
Antonio Conte’s success of winning two trophies with, for the most part, the same squad we still have now, was seen as ‘normal procedure’ for Chelsea; however, we’ve only just recently started to realise how incredible it was in hindsight.
The continuous miscommunication between the board and the manager, a desperately-needed director of football, a squad defined by player power and the constant fluctuation of coaches have led to Chelsea having no clear plans and philosophy for the future.
Add to this that we’ve recently been hit with a transfer ban and things aren’t looking too rosy.
RBM: Chelsea progressed to the Europa League quarter-finals on Thursday, winning 5-0 away to Dynamo Kyiv to complete an 8-0 aggregate victory.
But with Sunday’s game starting less than 72 hours after their match in Ukraine, to what extent do you fear fatigue could be an issue for Sarri’s side?
Jimmy: Due to Sarri’s mentioned stubbornness, he doesn’t really like to rotate the team much. The likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Andreas Christensen or the talented Callum Hudson-Odoi have all proven that they’re ready for Premier League action, especially with veterans such as David Luiz, Pedro and Willian struggling with issues of consistency this season.
I’m unfortunately certain that we won’t see any of them starting on Sunday and while the Italian rested several key players against Dynamo Kyiv, everyone barring Gonzalo Higuaín travelled for the game. Not necessarily perfected conditions, so fatigue could be a factor.
RBM: Is the Europa League a likelier route into next season’s Champions League than the top four for Chelsea? If so, would you like to see Sarri prioritise it for the rest of the season?
Jimmy: The Premier League’s level of competition is getting ridiculous nowadays and with every team virtually being able to beat any other, it’s not easy to predict whether or not Chelsea could still make it into the top four.
For now, our remaining fixture list is quite a bit trickier than that of Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, at least on paper. So, I wouldn’t mind prioritising the Europa League as it’s not only a trophy, but the draw also ended quite favourably for us [playing Slavia Prague in quarter-finals].
RBM: Chelsea loanee Kurt Zouma has impressed at Goodison this season. With the club’s transfer ban likely to be imposed this summer, do you expect any chance of Zouma making a permanent move to Everton has now gone?
Jimmy: Before FIFA announced that they had rejected our request to freeze the ban temporarily, I was fairly confident that Zouma would stay at Everton as he’s not the traditional centre-back Sarri likes to play with in his system and Kurt seems to like it at Everton.
Due to these new developments, however, things have changed completely and as the club’s reportedly been looking to acquire a new defender since last summer, the Frenchman might be the solution.
While Zouma may not have been in contention at first, I do think he’s one of several other loanees to be given a lifeline at Chelsea because of the ban.
RBM: Ross Barkley has not started a league game since February 10. Given he is likely to receive a hostile reception from Everton fans, do you expect Sarri will continue to leave him out this weekend?
Jimmy: Sarri’s not one to make many changes in general, but he has given several different pairings a try in midfield, not being able to find the ‘perfect’ three.
One of the things that has changed recently is that the formerly inevitable substitution of Mateo Kovačić for Barkley, or vice-versa, doesn’t take place as often anymore (thankfully). Ross has undoubtedly improved in the defensive phase, but, as Everton fans already complained about when he was still at Goodison, Barkley’s inconsistencies and poor decision-making in the final third have been two of the main reasons for him being dropped more often than not in the league recently.
I’d therefore hope that he starts on the bench on Sunday.
RBM: How do you expect Sarri to set Chelsea up on Sunday?
Jimmy: Same as always: a 4-3-3 formation with all the regulars starting, including those rested against Kyiv.
The only player we’re not sure about is Higuaín as he stayed in London this week and this could see recent hat-trick hero Olivier Giroud feature from the start.
RBM: Who do you think could cause Everton the most problems?
Jimmy: Another answer which shouldn’t surprise you: Eden Hazard. He bailed us out against Wolverhampton Wanderers for the what feels like the 100th time this season and will continue to do so until he leaves.
Another player who makes our system tick is Jorginho. Essentially, if you mark those two out of the game and are defensively solid, then we’ll probably have major problems.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Sunday’s game?
Jimmy: I bet on a draw against Wolves and I’ll do it again here. Call me pessimistic, but, statistically, we’ve been poor after European away games for quite some time now and I can definitely see Everton showing up to make us drop some points.
Our thanks to Jimmy for his time. You can read RBM’s pre-match Q&A with We Ain’t Got No History here.