Are Chelsea already out of the title race?
Chelsea FC just lost a home game; their second of the season. These losses, along with the draw against Arsenal earlier this month, mean that Chelsea have dropped 8 points at home this season, already two more than the points dropped by them at the Bridge in the entire 2016-17 title-winning season. So, are the defending champs really up to the task of defending their title?
Rewind to 5th April 2017: Its Chelsea vs Machester City at the Stamford Bridge. Chelsea just suffered a shock 1-2 loss to Crystal Palace at home 4 days back, when it seemed that they were running away with the title.
Doubts started to be raised at the ability of the Chelsea juggernaut to sustain the winning momentum. This crucial game against Manchester City would be an acid test for their title credentials. However, courtesy of an Eden Hazard brace, Chelsea came away 2-1 winners, despite their opponents dominating the possession game and playing with a more attacking intent.
The resiliency that underlined their campaign was on full display here, with the Chelsea defence warding off wave after wave of City's attacks in the second half. This win proved to be the one which justified their claim to the title.
Fast forward to 30th September 2017: Its Chelsea vs Manchester City again at the Stamford Bridge again. However, this time, the Pensioners' run-up to the game is much better: just days ago, they became the first ever English side to come away 2-1 victorious at Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. A last-gasp Batshuayi goal earned them a deserved win in the match that they dominated from start to finish.
Also, Lady Luck isn't exactly smiling on Manchester City as Sergio Aguero, the joint leading goal scorer in the premier league this season, along with their £52m summer signing Benjamin Mendy and the club captain Vincent Kompany are all ruled out of the game owing to injuries. Chelsea are much more confident going into this game than they had been in the previous season. So, did they win again? NO.
Pep Guardiola's team dominated the game from the very beginning. They bossed the possession and kept pressing the ball forward. A stunning strike midway through the second half by Chelsea old-boy Kevin de Bruyne left the champions chasing. Even the tactical changes made by Conte after the goal, which seemed to invigorate his squad, proved to be futile.
Gone was the resiliency that was so characteristic of Chelsea in the previous season. Conte attributed the defeat to tiredness due to the jam-packed schedule that his team endured, which meant that they were playing 3 tough matches within the space of 7 days. But is that it, really? What was the difference in the situation 5 months ago?
This Guardiola side is a lot different than last season. Pep Guardiola was a busy man this summer, in which he reinforced the squad's defence line and bolstered the attacking options. Also, the signing of Ederson proved to be a major upgrade on the goalkeeper last season, that was Caballero.
This newly built and well-oiled machine scored 21 goals in the past 6 league games. The loss of their star striker before this game didn't hinder their prospects in the game. They displayed the tremendous depth in their squad, which, is arguably the best in the league.
Chelsea, on the other hand, looked toothless after the loss of their star striker Alvaro Morata to an apparent hamstring injury, just 35 minutes into the game. A summer transfer window of missed opportunities for Chelsea meant that Conte was left with just Batshuayi, as an alternative attacking option, whom he clearly doesn't trust. The gulf in the depth of the squads of these teams is clear.
Last season, Conte endured a friendly schedule, thanks to Chelsea not playing on the European front, which meant that the fringe squad that he worked with was handy enough for winning the title. But this time around, clearly, this is not the case.
It's not just the citizens; Jose Mourinho has a squad, which despite a few long-term injuries, looks strong and settled, led by their prolific goalscorer Romelu Lukaku. They too boast of 21 goals from 7 games. Harry Kane, who is being touted as one of the most in-form forwards in the present time, has led the Tottenham title charge in September, after an unfortunately typical dry spell in August for him.
It is not that Chelsea's performances have degenerated this season. This resurgent squad played quite well in the other games, showing intent and aggression of their own, barring the season opener against Burnley. The fact is, their competitors have upgraded themselves substantially over the summer, and are in a much better position to claim the title, whereas Conte finds himself with a squad on a similar level as last season.
Questionable transfer strategies which led to the sale of their key player Nemanja Matic to direct rivals Manchester United, a fallout with their star striker Diego Costa over a text message and losing out on a proven striker in Lukaku, only further raised doubts on whether Chelsea were really "improving upon" their squad. In spite of their 6 new signings, they don't look to be on the same level as the Manchester clubs.
In the aftermath of this match, Guardiola said, "Manchester United and the Harry Kane team are their title rivals". Will Conte be able to mount a title challenge and prove his doubters wrong again? Or is Guardiola right in implying that Chelsea, the defending champions, are already out of the title race?