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Opinion: Chelsea The Dark Horses In Manchester-Dominated Title Race

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 15: Eden Hazard of Chelsea goes past Michail Antonio of West Ham United during the Premier League match between Chelsea and West Ham United at Stamford Bridge on August 15, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Predicting football results is a hazardous business. There is a reason that bookmakers exist, and it’s not as a charity service.

So when ESPN gave their writers the chance to forecast the outcome of the 2016/17 season, they probably weren’t expecting an overwhelming majority consensus on what would happen.

The Premier League champions, unlike say their German, Italian and French counterparts are not always exactly obvious candidates. Last season’s result alone proved that. But even given the legitimate claims that at least six contenders will feel they have on being victorious, it was telling that 14 of the 17 writers on the site chose either Manchester United or Manchester City as this season’s victors. Of the other three, two chose Tottenham Hotspur and another Arsenal. Liverpool, Chelsea, Leicester and others were left, metaphorically at least, on the shelf.

Of course, it’s not difficult to see why pundits would pluck for either of the Manchester sides. Even in the obscene splurge fest that is the Premier League their spending power is notable. They have two of (with the possible exception of Jurgen Klopp) the most charismatic managers in the current heavyweight championship of bosses. And obviously that’s not to detract from the massive achievements of both men. We are but moths to a flame after all, and funnily enough, the light shines brightest from a small corner of the North West.

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - AUGUST 20: Josep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City celebrates his side win during the Premier League match between Stoke City and Manchester City at Bet365 Stadium on August 20, 2016 in Stoke on Trent, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

But while it’s easy to concoct an argument as to why either Manchester side can win the title, it’s also not illogical to suggest they won’t. City have spent heavily and impressively, but still contain a lot of the players who were maligned towards the end of last season. United also have invested a tonne, but can you say after just two games against moderate opposition that Antonio Valencia is the answer at right-back, that Wayne Rooney will ever recover his previous prowess and that, most of all, a team with Marouane Fellaini… Marouane Fellaini, I repeat, can scoop the top prize?

And that’s just taking a brief glance at the squads but we also must factor into the equation that Pep Guardiola has never faced a league so relentlessly demanding. Sure, in Spain he competed against Real Madrid, but there were also a vast number of games his side played where victory was never in doubt and they could ratchet up a cricket score.

In Germany, he was helped massively, by not only the existing Champions League-winning side at Bayern, but the ability they had to pick off the prize members of his competitors’ squads. This is the first time in Guardiola’s career he hasn’t automatically had the best squad in the league, and one wonders, given the slugfest that is the Premier league, how he will cope with it.

On the other side, Mourinho is a proven winner, but he’s just after coming off the back of his worst ever domestic season, or half season if you will. United fans have been quick to brush off last season’s Chelsea capitulation as merely a symptom of some random internal issues, the breakdown of his relationship with Eva Carneiro, and the snowball corrosive effect that it had on team morale. It hasn’t been mentioned that, given his resources, the last six years of his managerial record have just not been that impressive by his, admittedly, exalted standards.

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - AUGUST 14:  Jose Mourinho of Manchester United looks on before the Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth and Manchester United  at Vitality Stadium on August 14, 2016 in Bournemouth, England.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Another issue that must be factored into the equation is the number of games. It’s hard to predict Mourinho’s attitude towards the Europa League, a competition he has not been involved in since 2003, but one would presume he would deem it a distraction rather than a priority. Guardiola, on the other hand, knows that Champions League success is one of the main reasons he was hired. His challenge is to see how he manages to keep players fresh from an exhausting domestic schedule to compete on that front.

Again this is not just something which will affect the Manchester sides but Arsenal, who will at least be confident it won’t be a problem from March onwards, and Tottenham, who haven’t had to contend with such demands in the last five years. Sure they had the Europa League last year, but a white flag was effectively raised against Borussia Dortmund when it was deemed advancement would impinge on their domestic form. Leicester have also got a hectic schedule, and have all but ruled themselves out of consideration anyway.

Given the sheer quantity of games for both sides therefore, it seems possible that another team, perhaps with less rigorous demands, could step into the breach. Liverpool’s oh-so-close title challenge of 2014 was massively assisted by their light schedule. Leicester’s victory last year seems impossible if they hadn’t contested so few games. So looking at the list of English sides in Europe it’s not inconceivable to suggest Chelsea and Liverpool will benefit most from their opponents’ lengthy fixture lists. Admittedly, as demonstrated in the opening two weekends, Liverpool’s attacking firepower is negated by their porous defence and that’s an issue that needs addressing quickly. But Chelsea, having gone to the well only 15 months ago, may see this as the time to return to their peak.

Now of course, just like any of the other contenders, there are massive caveats with Chelsea’s challenge.  Any side who finishes tenth in the league last season must have some deficiencies and it’s true their squad can seem threadbare, particularly in defence. The phasing out of John Terry, that has been threatened for the past four seasons, never actually happened and considering Kurt Zouma is still injured, one wonders how the side would cope with any possible injury to their regular back four. It’s possible Antonio Conte, who worked with such accomplished defenders as Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini at Juventus, will be tempted to dip into the transfer market in the next seven days.

TURIN, ITALY - MAY 14:  Giorgio Chiellini (L) of Juventus FC celebrates after a goal with team mate Leonardo Bonucci during the Serie A match between Juventus FC and UC Sampdoria at Juventus Arena on May 14, 2016 in Turin, Italy.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

However, despite the fact they have recruited so sparsely, it would be remiss to say that they’ve acquired badly. Certainly, when you obtain one of the players of the year for last season for a mere £30 million (in today’s terms at least), one can’t be too displeased. N’Golo Kante does not have Paul Pogba’s attacking threat, and will not be as important for the side in home games when the side are dominating possession. On the flip side, his Premier League credentials are already well established and his energy and bite can add a lot to a midfield that appeared so jaded last year.

In addition to Kante, Michy Batshuayi already looks like a smart bit of business. The latest in a line of seemingly endless Belgian powerhouse centre-forwards, he’s got pace and finishing instincts and a hammer of a left foot. It’s easy to see him having the same impact off the bench for Chelsea as the likes of Kalechi Iheanacho has for City.

On saying that, given the limited time left in the window and their few acquisitions, the main impetus will have to come from the existing squad members. In this, the million dollar question revolves around the fabulous but frustrating Eden Hazard. Two seasons ago he was attuned to such an extent he won the Player of the Season award. Last year he only seemed to turn it on to deny Spurs their chance of winning the title. It’s hard to see Chelsea climbing their own personal Everest without a massive upsurge in the Belgian’s form. Early signs are promising, but a sometimes lackadaisical approach seems at odds with Conte’s intensity, and it’s not difficult to see the two clashing at some stage this season if Hazard is not at full throttle.

The last picture of the jigsaw features the man himself, Conte. While not as garlanded in Europe as his two main rivals, Conte did a masterful job in transforming Juventus from Serie A also rans to perennial winners. He had an impressive performance at this summer’s European Championships, although Italy’s obscenely difficult route to the final obviously hindered their progress.

BORDEAUX, FRANCE - JULY 02: Antonio Conte head coach of Italy gestures during the UEFA EURO 2016 quarter final match between Germany and Italy at Stade Matmut Atlantique on July 2, 2016 in Bordeaux, France.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Conte’s management style has always been based on an intense Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino-like focus on fitness. Unfounded rumours abounded during his time as a player of EPO usage. As a manager, this Chelsea team have already proved their durability with late winners in both of their opening two games.

We are not privy to what goes on behind closed doors, but what remains certain is that this Chelsea side will not give up. And who would deny Chelsea a few last minute goals, if it gives us an opportunity to witness Conte’s marvellously frenetic goal celebrations?

The opening two weekends have told us a few things to expect from this season. City and United look certain to be stronger, Spurs, Liverpool and Arsenal meanwhile, may find things more difficult.

Of the expected top six however, Chelsea are perhaps the greatest unknown. Will this be the year they retain their previously exalted status? It’s impossible to tell yet.

But one thing’s for sure, with Conte around, it’ll be fun finding out.

Mark Townsend, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

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