Saturday 14 December 2019

Miguel Delaney: It would take a massive collapse to give any hope to Chelsea's title challengers

Liverpool and Arsenal can try to unhinge the Blues but their lead is seemingly bulletproof

Chelsea's Michy Batshuayi celebrates after scoring his team's fourth goal during the Emirates FA Cup, fourth round match against Brentford. Photo: Scott Heavey/PA
Chelsea's Michy Batshuayi celebrates after scoring his team's fourth goal during the Emirates FA Cup, fourth round match against Brentford. Photo: Scott Heavey/PA

Miguel Delaney

On the eve of the 2004-'05 season, when Chelsea still hadn't won a title in 49 years and didn't really have any knowledge or nous about how to do so, the newly-arrived Jose Mourinho gathered the squad together and proclaimed exactly what it would it take.

"We will only be champions if we beat weaker teams," the Portuguese said at a more black-haired stage of his life. "Then, we have to beat one of the big teams or draw. It's not important. But we must never lose against the small teams. If we win away or at home, we'll be champions."

It is a blueprint that Antonio Conte's modern Chelsea have so far followed supremely. They haven't yet suffered a single defeat to "the small teams". In fact, with the September 2-2 draw away to Swansea City still representing the only match where they have dropped any points whatsoever to clubs outside the top six, they are now out on their own at the top of the Premier League table.

Conte is nowhere near as bombastic a speaker as Mourinho, and the main demand he is setting - both in public and private - is that the side just need to single-mindedly focus on their work, and everything else will take care of itself. Chelsea's current players are in thrall to their manager in the same way the 2004-'06 core were, so have followed his example and refused to talk too much about how it really feels to be in a team performing to such an unhesitatingly high level, but it's hard not to think Didier Drogba articulated it perfectly when talking about those first two title wins. He said they felt "untouchable".

"We felt we were feared in England, that we could inspire fear," Drogba wrote in his autobiography. "We felt we were getting stronger and stronger, becoming almost invincible. Whenever our team was in trouble, we could count on everyone. The coach's speeches were the best. There are times in a career when everything just falls into place naturally."

The last few words similarly seem a perfect description of the current team, and all of this is relevant for reasons beyond that - and that these are Chelsea's own precedents.

There is also the fact the current side's eight-point lead at the top of the table is the widest any team have had at this point of the season since that 2005-'06 campaign, when Mourinho's defending champions were 14 points clear. Then Chelsea cruised to the title with barely a hint of a bump, and the fear for everyone else now is Conte's team will do exactly the same.

Positions of imperious authority like that are rarely eroded. In the Premier League era, only three sides with the same lead or greater from this point on have been hauled in. They were: Newcastle United 1995-'96, who infamously saw the cushion of 12 points with 15 games remaining disintegrate - along with Kevin Keegan's temperament; Manchester United 1997-'98, who saw Arsenal use two games in hand to stylishly cut an 11-point lead to six and then go on a sensational 10-game winning run to trample over Alex Ferguson's team and beyond; and then United's most remarkable collapse, when they somehow lost an eight-point lead with just six games left of 2011-'12 for Manchester City to take the title in the season's scarcely believable final seconds.

Those comebacks comprised three of the most memorable races ever, and the reality now is it's going to require something similarly epic to transform this season. There is now a likelihood that this much-vaunted 'league of star managers', that has genuinely seen so many high-profile top-six matches live up to the hype, could end in an ill-befittingly subdued way because of the supremacy of one team.

History and statistics are with Chelsea, as are momentum and conviction.

That, however, is also why this next six days could be so decisive either way and could test Mourinho's mission statement about how you win a league.

The first-placed side face the third and second in succession, and the reasonable possibility of Chelsea losing to Liverpool and Arsenal could suddenly leave them just two points clear. For all the expectation that they would still just go and beat the lesser teams in the way they've been doing, the potential problem is that the situation - the mood - would have changed. Chelsea would no longer be surfing a rare historic winning streak in the way they had been from September to December, nor would they have the commanding lead they've enjoyed since then, something that allows an assurance that has seem them play so many fixtures in such a composed manner. The sudden shortening of the gap could bring a new doubt to their game, diminishing the focus that has generated such a winning rhythm where they can beat opposition like Hull City with such efficiency.

Is it possible a double-header with Liverpool and Arsenal could cause another turning point in their campaign, except in the opposite direction from September's defeats? Is it possible losing those games against the 'big teams' could be important in a way Mourinho wasn't able to factor in over a decade ago?

That must now be the main hope of all the challengers, especially since primary match-winner Diego Costa seemingly came through last week's controversies completely unaffected, ensuring there was no blip from the defeat to Tottenham Hotspur. Chelsea just kept on firing.

Any fireworks in this season's title race, then, are dependent on three interlinked issues.

The first is whether Liverpool and Arsenal can actually go and claim 100 per cent records off Chelsea this season. The second is whether a side as good as Conte's can really fail to win the league from this position, and become guilty of a Newcastle-type collapse. The third is whether anyone can actually put them under the kind of Ferguson-fired pressure to make that collapse a bit more likely.

This double-header of big games will likely tell us most about the last issue, but it doesn't look all that promising going into the first fixture, at Anfield.

Liverpool were supposed to be the raucously entertaining main challengers, with their win over Manchester City in the same week as Chelsea's defeat to Spurs anticipated as the moment Jurgen Klopp's side would really begin their charge. Instead, they have chugged to a halt, and suddenly look worryingly lacking in energy. It doesn't feel like Liverpool are going to be able to lay siege to Chelsea in the way they did at Stamford Bridge in September as their whole season threatens to fall away. That raises another potential irony.

With more points in matches between the top six than anyone else, Liverpool's challenge has buckled because they have the worst record of those teams against the rest of the Premier League, with 15 dropped points. That effectively proves Mourinho's blueprint correct. The flipside, however, is that it makes this particular big game all the more important. Klopp's side do badly need a win to maintain hope for this season, to recharge themselves for other fixtures. They have admittedly managed to hype themselves up for all big matches so far, as that fine record proves, and it would be foolish to dismiss them or rule out a statement response. Even if they do impose themselves on Chelsea again, though, one important difference is that Conte's side are now much more resolute.

That is also relevant to the Arsenal game on Saturday, since Arsene Wenger's team will be facing a completely different set-up to the one they convincingly steamrolled in September, and that they pretty much helped create.

This is the other ominous feature of the leaders. Since that turning point, when Conte found a formation that so fits every aspect of his squad, do Chelsea really have it in them to buckle under pressure in the way that's required for another infamous collapse? The three worst in the Premier League all had very specific failings. Even when Newcastle were surging away in that remarkable 1995-'96 race, for example, Ferguson had one message of his own to embolden a young United. He kept telling them, week after week, that, "Newcastle are the type of team that give you a chance".

Ferguson could see there was a fragility from early on. In his own book, Gary Neville said Newcastle "lacked the ability to get the job done". That doesn't sound like this Chelsea. What does sound like Chelsea is Neville's description of his own United side; that they had it in them "to fight, to dig in and survive". It's more difficult to dig in, however, when you endure what Ferguson did in 1997-'98. United's spine suffered a spate of injuries - to Peter Schmeichel, Gary Pallister, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs - that made them so brittle. They went out of the Champions League quarter-finals to Monaco with Michael Clegg at right-back and no recognised left-winger in a 4-4-2. That does point to two problems that United had, one not relevant to Conte, and the other not yet relevant. Ferguson faced the weight of European fixtures when English clubs were still struggling with the dual demands, and a wondrous challenger in Arsenal. Wenger's first great side at Highbury heightened the effect of all those problems by just moving onto a higher level.

United faced something similar against a recharged Manchester City in 2011-'12, in a collapse that now feels almost inexplicable against the rest of Ferguson's Old Trafford career since 1992-'93, and may well be up there with Newcastle. The leaders just seemed to get complacent, and lose all conviction, especially in their meek Manchester derby defeat just three games from the end. That was another hugely important big game, and one that City were just so much more ready for.

But can anyone now go on the kind of surge that Roberto Mancini's team did, when Carlos Tevez returned to the team to re-ignite their run-in? The very fact it required the return of the Argentine striker after his trouble with the manager shows how these things can suddenly turn, how sport can still gloriously throw up situations that seemed unimaginable just a little bit of time before. Either way, the challengers need some kind of jolt.

Whether Liverpool or Arsenal can win this week will tell a lot about them, and there is some potential in how Spurs have come together as a force again, claiming a 2-2 draw at the Etihad despite City putting in one of their best displays of the season.

Could that be a signal of what Pep Guardiola's team are yet capable of? At 12 points back, any resurgence would match the 1995-'96 record for the greatest title comeback in the Premier League, with that at least showing their situation is not historically impossible. That is not the case for Mourinho's current United. No one 14 points back at this point has ever gone on to win it. They haven't yet started following his blueprint.

The rest of the Premier League badly need Chelsea to start deviating from it.

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