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Ronnie Whelan: Blues are a cut above as real season begins

FOR some, the season starts now. After months of shadow-boxing, this is the week when club's like Manchester United and Chelsea take things to another level and find out what they have in reserve.

The first knock-out round of the Champions League serves as a distraction from the intensity of the battle for the Premier League title, but unlike the much-diluted FA Cup, the prize on offer is as big, if not bigger.

Roman Abramovich has spent an extraordinary amount of money chasing the Champions League and he would happily abandon everything else in any given season to win it for the first time.

I'm not so sure Carlo Ancelotti favours that approach. Right now, he has the best position of all three English clubs and with the squad he has, he will believe that Chelsea can sweep the board this season.

Kicked

Chelsea top the Premier League and while Manchester United and Arsenal kicked back and enjoyed a leisurely build-up to their Champions League games, Ancelotti's men barely raised a sweat putting Cardiff away.

With another home draw in the FA Cup quarter-finals and another 10 days before his players take on Jose Mourinho and Inter Milan, it will be Ancelotti's turn to sit back and watch his main rivals throw the dice.

In that time, I'm sure Ancelotti will apply his sharp football brain to searching for the reason why his team looks like world beaters for a month and then draw with Hull City.

He needs to understand why this is happening because there is no room for such inconsistency against Europe's best.

We sometimes forget that Ancelotti is only a wet day in the Chelsea job. Every manager, no matter how good he is, takes some time to adjust to the rhythm of a new club and we need only remember Phil Scolari this time last year to illustrate that point.

There will be games when nothing works and nobody can understand why. Even in the best seasons at Anfield, there were moments when all we could do after one of those bad days was to shrug our shoulders and move on.

But Ancelotti has had too many of those days and instead of a 10-point lead over Manchester United in the Premier League, Chelsea are just one bad result away from losing the top spot.

The irony of it all is the fact that Chelsea played as well as they have all season when their African players were away on international duty and maybe there's a clue in that.

Avram Grant made an interesting observation when he suggested that Chelsea had no problem coping with the absence of the Africans while they were away. The real problems began when they came back.

It can't be easy to come back to the bleak chill of an English winter after three weeks in sultry heat -- playing, eating and sleeping in an environment totally different from their usual day-to-day.

That might explain recent inconsistencies, but it doesn't explain poor results in the first-half of the season.

Shock

I've heard some suggest recently that the teams in mid-table and even below have improved and that the Premier League is more competitive now than ever, making shock results more likely now than before.

I don't buy that. If anything, the opposite is the case. Only Chelsea can claim to be at the strength they were at in previous seasons. Manchester United lost Ronaldo and Tevez and didn't replace them.

Arsenal lost Adebayor and didn't replace him and the fact that Liverpool will contest the final stages of the Europa Cup tells its own story.

At least Ancelotti can find comfort in the fact that Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger have been suffering with a similar affliction and as a result, we have yet to see any of the top three string together the kind of run that will win a title.

Of course, Ferguson only comes alive in February and his players with him. How often have we seen Manchester United hobble along near the top of the table until the knock-out stage of the Champions League gets under way and they kick into a higher gear in both competitions?

Ferguson has been talking up his players in the last few weeks, apparently happy that they are hitting form at the right time but I think he's just pleased that many of the players he could not pick because of injuries are available again -- particularly Rio Ferdinand.

He knows that the AC Milan he will face in the San Siro is not the club of five years ago but he also knows that his team hasn't been convincing so far this season and that the trip to Italy is a potentially treacherous one.

On balance, I would expect United to have enough over the two legs and I think Arsenal, too, will make it into the next round.

Inconsistency has been Wenger's curse for the last three or four seasons but he caught a nice break when he drew Porto.

This season, we have seen Arsenal fold completely against the strength of Chelsea and Manchester United and I think it's obvious to everyone that Wenger doesn't have a big enough or strong squad to win the Premier League.

But he does have a good enough team to win the Champions League if his luck holds in the competition.


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