Chelsea well set to exploit underwhelming title rivals

Posted by Phil Lythell

Chelsea celebrate Fernando Torres' goal against Bayern Munich.GettyImagesChelsea have been performing well, unlike most rivals.

As with every football season, the Premier League has juddered to a halt to allow for the international break and the pursuit of qualification for the 2014 World Cup. Although it is an undoubted necessity, it always feels like a speed bump placed in the road just as domestic competition is getting into gear. It's an unwanted hiatus for the majority of supporters.

However, with every team having played three matches and their transfer business concluded until the New Year, the pause presents the opportunity to look back at the initial impressions of all of Chelsea's possible rivals for the title or, failing that, a top-four finish. While the Blues themselves have made a steady, if unspectacular, start to the 2013-14 campaign, their rivals have all served to surprise and confound preseason predictions, even if these are just the opening steps on the marathon that is a 38-game season.

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The team to have raised the most eyebrows has been Liverpool, a club that even the most broad-minded had not previously considered as champion material. The odds still indicate that they will fall short, yet they have made their best start to a campaign since 1994, racking up three wins on the trot without conceding a goal and playing some attractive football in the process. The sight of Daniel Sturridge finding the back of the net with unerring regularity has caused many a Chelsea fan to wince as they witness quite how deadly the young Englishman can be when deployed in his rightful central striking position.

Sturridge was never given a fair crack of the whip at Stamford Bridge, and although there were certainly question marks over his attitude, he has thoroughly outperformed all of Chelsea's strikers since his switch to Merseyside. Should he continue his rich vein of form, the £12 million fee that the Blues received for his transfer will look even more of a pittance than it did at the time. Add the impressive Philippe Coutinho to the mix and the imminent return of Luis Suarez to the starting line-up and all of a sudden Liverpool look like a potent force. Whether they can sustain the momentum they have generated after the players return from international duty is another matter, though they will have gained huge belief from the home win over Manchester United, which should give them extra impetus during the kind run of fixtures that faces them over the next couple of months.

Another surprise package, to an extent, has been Arsenal. There were guffaws all around West London when they slumped to a 3-1 opening-day defeat at home to Aston Villa, but the laughter has slowly died down with two consecutive victories, including a derby day win over Tottenham. The addition of Mesut Ozil has also seen them cast in a different light, with even Jose Mourinho conceding that the Gunners are now title contenders following the German's arrival; a development that prompted the Chelsea boss to pull the plug on Demba Ba's proposed move to the Emirates Stadium. Although Ozil is undoubtedly a world-class player, Mourinho is perhaps being a little generous considering that Arsenal still have a second-rate goalkeeper, an uninspiring defence and are just an injury away from having no orthodox strikers to call upon. The blundering Nicklas Bendtner doesn't count. They will pose a threat to any team they play but consistency and solidity have been their main failings in the past few years, and the arrival of yet another dinky playmaker is unlikely to definitively alter their DNA.

Their vanquished rivals Tottenham, however, might have a chance at upsetting the applecart if they can get their array of new signings to gel. The glut of arrivals, largely paid for by Gareth Bale's absurdly expensive transfer to Real Madrid, has seen some real talent turn up at White Hart Lane in the form of Paulinho, Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen. The team have failed to light up the Premier League as yet, and their performance in the North London derby betrayed them as a group of strangers rather than a well-drilled unit, though the talent at their disposal suggests that they will get up to speed sooner rather than later. Hopefully they will still be finding their feet when they host Chelsea in three weeks' time.

Out of all the six teams vying for the top spots it has been the two Manchester clubs that have been the most subdued, with the new-manager effect failing to have a positive influence on their respective fortunes. City might have started with a bang as they romped past Newcastle, though they were hapless in defeat at Cardiff and anaemic in victory over Hull City. It has given Manuel Pellegrini much food for thought. It is the Chilean's first season in the top flight and the same can be said for the players on whom he splashed almost £100 million, none of whom have played in the Premier League before. The talents of Stevan Jovetic, Fernandinho and Jesus Navas are sure to come to the fore, though most observers were expecting City to come firing out of the blocks in response to last season's disappointment. That hasn't happened, and they look as vulnerable as any of the sides in contention.

Meanwhile, Manchester United have had something of a nightmare since Sir Alex Ferguson waved goodbye, with humiliating failures in the transfer market followed by being tactically out-thought in their draw with Chelsea and then suffering the ignominy of losing to Liverpool. United being United, everyone expects them to bounce back quickly, though that is assuming that David Moyes has the same restorative qualities as his predecessor. The Scot is unproven and might just be experiencing a few doubts as the critics begin to round on the club. The most successful team in English football appear to be there for the taking; the question is whether Chelsea retain the killer instinct to take advantage of it?

Talent-wise and tactically the answer is a resounding yes, though the lack of a clinical striker in the prime of his career could be the one area that lets them down. The signing of Samuel Eto'o is certainly positive, but there is no guarantee that he will be able to repeat the performances that helped him win three Champions League winners' medals.

Every side with pretensions of lifting the title has a weakness and it will be the one that can paper over the cracks most effectively that will emerge victorious. With their rivals all looking fallible, Chelsea currently appear to have the most potent blend of ingredients, not least due to the presence of Mourinho in the dugout. Should the team continue to progress over the course of the season then there is every chance that a fifth English title could be winging its way to Stamford Bridge, but there is still much work to be undertaken before dreams can be turned into reality.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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