Chelsea's crown to lose

Football: Having opened up a massive gap at the top, Conte's side are favourites to win the EPL title again

Chelsea's crown to lose
And that may well be that. These have been a rough few months for anyone who makes a living from predictions. Brexit and Donald Trump exposed the folly of pollsters; Leicester City defied the naysaying of pundits. No matter how clear the data or compelling the evidence, the future no longer seems to do as it is told.

Perhaps, though, there might be room for one exception. It is not yet spring, not yet Valentine’s Day, in fact. More than three months of the Premier League season remains, with all the twists and turns and uncertainties that will bring. And yet, from here, it is hard to envisage a set of circumstances that do not conclude with Chelsea, once again, being crowned champions of England come May.

That is not the way Antonio Conte, Chelsea’s manager, sees it, of course.

“The championship did not finish today,” he cautioned his players and their fans Saturday after a 3-1 win against Arsenal.

To the rest of the league — and particularly to those teams scrambling to match Chelsea’s searing pace — it may not seem that way. Received wisdom held that if Chelsea were to stumble, it would have been last week. In four days, Conte and his team confronted two rivals for the Premier League title: Liverpool, on the road, Tuesday evening; Arsenal, at home, Saturday at lunchtime. This was the chasing pack’s chance to strike, to begin to eat into Chelsea’s lead.

Instead, Chelsea emerged not just unscathed but enhanced. At a time when nothing at all seems certain, it felt somehow reassuring that Arsenal was summarily dispatched at Stamford Bridge, crushed and cowed by Chelsea’s typical blend of finesse and physicality. It was such a familiar sight that it was almost soothing.

That victory — combined with a draw at Liverpool, in a round of games when only one of Chelsea’s putative rivals managed to win — means that Conte’s team is now 12 points ahead of Arsenal, and will certainly end the weekend with at least a 9-point cushion over whoever is second.

“It is for them to lose,” said Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. “They are powerful, confident, strong, and they are not in Europe, so they can prepare properly for every game.”

That might sound defeatist, but it is entirely realistic. Chelsea does not face one of its peers at the summit of the Premier League until April, when Manchester City comes to west London. Two weeks later, after a road game against Manchester United, Chelsea will have completed its schedule against the five other top teams. Eight of Chelsea’s other games are against teams who started this weekend in the league’s bottom half.

The central tenet of the Premier League’s marketing mythology says that the schedule contains no easy games. For example, Conte was eager to point out that Burnley — Chelsea’s next opponent — has a fearsome home record. But an absence of easy games is not the same as a lack of easier games. As Chelsea’s fans revealed on Saturday, it seemed as though last week would come to be regarded as the week when the league was won.

That is not quite true. The most significant week of Chelsea’s season, in September, also featured matches against Arsenal and Liverpool in back-to-back games, over eight days rather than four. The results were very different: a 2-1 loss to Liverpool and a humiliating 3-0 defeat by Arsenal. After those games, Conte issued dire warnings. He seemed particularly preoccupied with the idea that his players were running the risk of repeating mistakes from last season, when their anodyne performances had cost the club a coach, José Mourinho, and not just its title but its Champions League status.

Conte told his players as much, admonishing them by saying he felt in charge of “11 players on the same pitch, but not a team.” He challenged them to find the “spirit, the will, the desire to fight together.”

Conte did more than wait to see if his squad was inspired by his rhetoric. He had been working on a different tactical system throughout the preseason, and decided that now was the time to carry it out. Chelsea used it for the first time in the second half of that chastening defeat at Arsenal — playing with a three-man central defense — and never looked back.

A club record 13 consecutive wins followed, catapulting Chelsea into first place, out of the scrabbling reach of its challengers. The rest of the league has seemed summarily unable to answer the challenge this new-look Chelsea poses; Arsenal, like Liverpool and Tottenham, paid Conte the ultimate compliment of adjusting its own tactics to counteract his. Conte has, as much as anything, thought his way into first place, saying the seeds of all that his team has done this season were sown that week in September. “We are another team now, if you compare it to those games,” he said.

But just as it would be an oversimplification to say that the championship was decided last week, it misses the point a little to suggest it was all determined in those eight days in September.

It is always tempting to see a season as a succession of highlights, to take the best bits and construct a narrative around them. The games that matter most, we are told, are those seismic meetings between powerful rivals. They are the games in which titles and trophies are won and lost.

Conte’s Chelsea team contradicts that. Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham beat his team this season, but it still has built an almost insurmountable lead. That is because championships are won not in the showpiece games, but in the humdrum.
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