Saturday August 23 2014

Strong start for three title favourites, but...

On the evidence of the Burnley game, Chelsea

On the evidence of the Burnley game, Chelsea have adopted an ultra attacking line-up that leaves Nemanja Matic as the only real cover for the back four. Agencies photo 


Touted as the most thrilling contest out there at the moment by those whose duty it is to sell it, the hype bought into by multitudes all too willing, the English Premier League is upon us once more.
Like all contests however, experience has taught us that this one too initially speeds along as one too close to call but gradually recedes into at most a duel before ultimately leaving one man standing.
Much anticipated and highly billed this one might be, but it is hard to see it eclipsing last season for diversity and unpredictability; that one was a topsy-turvy race controlled by Arsenal to start with, then Liverpool, then Chelsea, then Liverpool again before Manchester City stepped to the fore with a marathoner’s timing to nick it.
In case you missed it, in my preview column last week I did call for Chelsea to be crowned eventual champions having been pushed all the way by Man City and Arsenal, with the last of the Champions League place a four-way fight between Liverpool, Man United, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton.
It is one down and thirty-seven to go, but there are telltale signs even this early.

I singled out Cesc Fabregas as the man to be the difference between Chelsea and the rest of the pack, and one major reason was showcased on Monday night against Burnley, when he found Andre Schurrle with the most sumptuous of through balls for the second goal.
With forwards of the movement and finishing abilities around him, Fabregas can decide most games in that league with a pass he is arguably the best at in all of Europe, the kind David Silva used frequently to unlock defences as Man City won the first of their two most recent titles.
But he will bring more to plate than just that pass. There is the general control of games and also his knack for scoring important goals, but perhaps more importantly the burning desire to prove a point because of his history with crosstown rivals Arsenal, and also the toughness of character which last season’s main men Eden Hazard and Oscar don’t quite have.
If Chelsea stay close enough like they did last term, here is a man who has what it takes to haul then over the line.
Of course they are going to have to defend better than they did against Burnley, especially since their new attack-minded lineup with just one holding midfielder leaves them exposed when they have to double back to thwart counter-attacks.

Man City
My projections that Yaya Toure will not be as motivated as before can only be proven over time, but even if I am wrong on that front there is likely to be a drop in the man’s powers to drive the team forward menacingly; doing that for five straight seasons in a league that fast and physically demanding is bound to take its toll on someone above 30.
As an attacking force that has changed little they are unlikely to scale the 156-goal heights of last season, but thankfully for them the introduction of Fernando as we saw at Newcastle is going to give them more cover for the defence. Add the towering Mangala and the experienced Bacary Sagna and they will certainly rescue many of those points they dropped away from home.
My hunch that they are better equipped to fight for the title than they have been since 2004 remains strong.
Playing without Mesut Ozil, Per Mertesacker, Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott and still having a strong starting eleven and subs bench were testimony against Crystal Palace, as was grinding out a result with two set-piece goals (one an ugly scramble), at telling times too (at the halfway mark and with virtually no time on the clock).
The one thing Arsene Wenger cannot continue to do is pile the burden of responsibility of leading the line for a title challenger on Yaya Sanogo. It will break the kid.