Premier League title far from a formality for early leader Chelsea
Chelsea leads the league by five points but has played a very easy schedule
Manchester United, tied for second, has tended to throw away leads
Blackpool was regarded as a relegation certainty but has surprised
Under normal circumstances in the Premier League, you'd look at a side that was five points clear with a quarter of the season played and assume it was strolling toward the title. These, though, are not normal circumstances.
Chelsea has been the best team, scoring four more goals than anybody else and conceding five fewer. Beyond statistics, it feels as though Chelsea has been playing the best football.
Opponents seem unable to match Chelsea's muscularity and sense of purpose, and there is a pleasing sense of calm about Stamford Bridge and its training ground at Cobham -- something absent under Avram Grant or Luiz Felipe Scolari. Almost unmentioned is the fact that Chelsea's impressive performances have come largely without Frank Lampard. Chelsea deserves its lead.
The caveat, though, is that the fixture list is weirdly imbalanced. Only three of Chelsea's nine games have been against sides that entered the season with realistic expectations of finishing in the top half: Manchester City, Arsenal and Aston Villa. However emphatically the other six were dismissed -- West Brom, Wigan, Stoke, West Ham, Blackpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers -- the fact remains that in its three tough games, Chelsea has picked up only four points.
There is a precedent. In 1985-86, Manchester United won its first 10 league games, and didn't lose until the 16th; it then lost nine of the remaining 26 games and ended up finishing fourth, 12 points behind the champion, Liverpool. This Chelsea club appears more emotionally stable than that United team, but still, the next month will provide a truer picture of how good it really is. After games at Blackburn and Liverpool, Chelsea faces Fulham and Sunderland at home before awkward trips to Birmingham and Newcastle. The two weeks surrounding Christmas, with consecutive games against Tottenham, Manchester United and Arsenal, looks even tougher.
Given the relatively simple fixtures, and the chaos that seems to have engulfed its rivals, Chelsea may think that its lead should be more than five points, over Arsenal, United and City. Arsenal has been desperately inconsistent. Losing 3-2 at home to West Brom hardly seems like the form of a potential title challenger (even considering how well Roberto Di Matteo's side has done since its 6-0 drubbing at Chelsea on the opening weekend), but the 3-0 win at Manchester City on Sunday showed Arsenal's potential -- and seven points from its last four away games, against Blackburn, Sunderland, Chelsea and City, is seven more than in the corresponding fixtures last season.
Any praise of Sunday's victory, of course, must be tempered by the fact that Arsenal was playing against 10 men for all but five minutes, but still, it showed a composure that has been lacking in the recent past and, surprisingly, matched City's muscle. City itself should take credit for its willingness to battle despite the early red card to Dedryck Boyata, and the fact that it remains the only side to have beaten Chelsea in the league -- when it dominated the midfield battle -- gives it reason for optimism, despite the reportedly uneasy relationship between Roberto Mancini and his squad.
It is United, of course, that has undergone the most upheaval, with Wayne Rooney in abject form and causing ructions off the pitch. Uncharacteristically, United has squandered leads in six of nine league games -- regaining the lead twice -- and yet somehow remains the only unbeaten side. Just as Chelsea may wonder how it is only five points clear, United is probably bewildered and rather pleased to be only five points adrift given its wastefulness. Nemanja Vidic's continued excellence at center back aside, the great positive has been the burgeoning partnership between Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez, which has gone some way to mitigating Rooney's problems.
Just as intriguingly, it's far from clear who will be contesting the relegation battle, partly because of Liverpool's awful start, which has left it third from the bottom, and partly because all the newly promoted sides have started well. Only three points separate Sunderland in seventh from Liverpool in 18th. Given the slenderness of its squad, it's fair to assume that Blackpool will falter at some stage, just as West Brom presumably will, too. In a sense, Blackpool has already exceeded expectations -- many pundits predicted it would be the weakest Premier League side in history -- but the early momentum has at least given it a fighting chance of survival. West Brom seems rather better than that, although, again, the pressure may take effect come January and February.
West Ham is last, but had seemed to be finding form before Saturday's home defeat to Newcastle. The squad looks strong enough to survive, but there is a mood of gloom about east London that, allied to defensive frailties, could be debilitating. Wolves also has six points, and the temptation is to say that it will fall victim to its lack of resources and second-season syndrome, but it played as brightly at Stamford Bridge on Saturday as any away side has done this season.
Wigan, after losing 4-0 to Blackpool and 6-0 to Chelsea in its first two games, looked doomed, but it recovered to beat Tottenham at White Hart Lane. Dropping two points after leading 2-0 at Newcastle, though, may prove costly, and its next two games, at Fulham and at Blackburn, could determine its trajectory for the rest of the season.
Blackburn, as ever, battles on, with destabilizing takeover talk rumbling in the background, while Fulham, having gone unbeaten in its first seven games, suddenly looks vulnerable after losing its last two. Injuries, it should be said, robbed Fulham of its entire first-choice midfield for Saturday's defeat at West Brom, but the poor run won't have to continue for much longer before the general glee at the more expansive approach introduced by Mark Hughes fades to a grudging acceptance that perhaps Roy Hodgson's cautious ways were best.
Which brings us to Liverpool. The boardroom shenanigans at last settled, the focus can shift to the pitch. Two wins at this stage tells its own story, but Hodgson, for all the doubts about whether he has the stature for the job, surely deserves time to at least try to impose his methods, particularly given the off-field distractions.
There were positive signs in the 2-1 win over Blackburn on Sunday, and while former Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler has said this is a weaker squad than the one he was relegated with at Leeds, it's still hard to believe it will be in a relegation battle come March.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.
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