Chelsea signed off before the international break with an efficient 3-0 victory over Southampton, which sees them unbeaten after eight games and joint top of the Premier League on 20 points with everybody’s pre-season title favourites Man City and Liverpool.
After the game at St.Mary’s Blues boss Maurizio Sarri and his star attacker, Eden Hazard were quick to downplay their chances of mounting a title assault, something that most of the games leading pundits also agree with the Chelsea pair on.
But seriously, why is everybody finding it so hard to admit that maybe the vast majority of us were wrong and this Chelsea side deserve to be talked about as potential title challengers, just as much as Liverpool say for example. They certainly didn’t look a million miles away from the Anfield outfit during their recent hugely entertaining 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge, which gave us the highest level game of football of the Premier League so far this season.
The commonly held view at the start of the season was that this campaign would be a two-way fight between Messrs Guardiola and Klopp. Chelsea had finished sixth last season and although it was widely expected that Maurizio Sarri would treat us all to his beautifully aesthetic ‘Sarri-Ball,’ the Blues were most likely to be aiming for a place in the top four.
However, after six wins and two draws from their opening eight fixtures, most regular Premier League watchers are still finding it difficult to agree that Sarri’s side have a real chance of pushing the pre-ordained top two of City and Liverpool all the way this season.
There are of course some very valid arguments as to why Chelsea won’t be able to sustain their current form; there is their Europa League participation, Sarri’s moved the best defensive mid on the planet in N’Golo Kante out of position, a lack of goals from their two main strikers, and question marks over the strength of the Blues defence – particularly centrally.
However, there are also plenty of reasons to suggest that Chelsea may just be able to go all the way this season. First up this is Chelsea after all where things like logic and stability rarely come into the equation. The last time that Mr.Abramovich’s baby finished outside the top four was during Jose Mourinho’s infamous last season of his second spell. Chelsea, of course, went on to win the Premier League at a canter the following season under Antonio Conte, albeit without the distraction of a pesky Europa League campaign.
With all the talk of City’s strength in depth and Liverpool’s big spending this summer, some of us seemed to forget what a top-class collection of international players this Chelsea squad is comprised of – which was particularly evident during their Carabao Cup clash at Anfield.
In midfield, for example, there is no club in the Premier League with better options than Chelsea. Against Southampton, Sarri started with a midfield triumphant of Jorginho, Kante and Barkley with the world-class duo of Kovacic and Fabregas on the bench and highly rated England international Loftus-Cheek not even able to make the squad.
While not everybody will agree with former Napoli boss Sarri’s decision to use Kante in a more advanced inside right role the France international does look to be gradually improving in his new position and the fact he is going about his business with a minimum of fuss shows what a humble human being the 27-year-old is. Let’s be honest there are few players around who are the best in the World in their position and wouldn’t kick up murder when asked to play a different role.
Sure, Chelsea do probably give a little bit too much away defensively, although a central defensive partnership of Luiz and Rudiger has looked a lot more convincing than most of us thought they would – especially against Liverpool. Sarri is very much aware of his sides need to improve at the back and has spoken about it repeatedly, however it is a lot easier for him to iron out these issues from a position of strength at the top of the table and with the other compartments of his side functioning so well.
That’s not to say that it’s all bad at the back for Sarri though; in Marcos Alonso, he has the best-attacking left-back in the Premier League which in turn allows the mercurial Hazard license to roam and in Cesar Azpilicueta he has one of if not the best defensive fullbacks in the top-flight.
While £70 million goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga has been keeping his head down, going about his business in a solid fashion, with the 24-year-old showing few signs of being overawed by the rough and tumble of the English game and the pressure of being the World’s most expensive goalkeeper.
Then there is the brilliant Hazard, who has started this season in the form of his life and looks on course to have his most productive season ever as a Chelsea player, having scored seven goals and provided three assists in just six Premier League starts so far this term.
Sarri’s role in getting the best out of the Belgium international should not be overlooked either. He has given the 27-year-old license to move into whatever areas of the pitch where he feels he can hurt the opposition most and although Hazard does still spend a lot of his time on the left he has been liberated of the responsibility of chasing back – something that he eventually became frustrated with under Mourinho and Conte.
One criticism of Hazard over the years is that for all his brilliance he could probably push himself to be even better and while Sarri has agreed with this by setting him a target of 40 goals he seems to be determined to tease the best out of his star attacker by allowing him to enjoy his football and not by forcing it out of him as others have attempted.
Hazard honestly admitted recently that he is still torn between signing a new contract at Stamford Bridge and securing a dream move to Real Madrid. However, if he, as is completely feasible goes on to have one of the truly memorable individual seasons in Premier League history and inspires Chelsea to major silverware, which in turn forces Real to make their move for him would that not be the perfect way for Hazard to leave a club that he clearly has massive respect and affection for?
Sarri will be aware of course that his current striker options are not quite up to scratch to win the Premier League. Although Morata has scored in his last two games overall he’s been a big disappointment and while Giroud does seem to get the best out of the players around him, he is nowhere near prolific enough. But if the Blues can get through to January in a strong position then surely they will be able to attract another top-level striker to Stamford Bridge to strengthen their options for the second half of the season.
One department in which Chelsea are one of the strongest in the league is in terms of experience. As Liverpool fans may well find out it is very rare that a team wins English Football’s biggest prize without a core of players in their squad that have already won a decent amount of major silverware. When the winter kicks in, legs are aching and games are plenty having experienced pros among your team who know exactly how to get over the line in hard-fought games is absolutely crucial. This is an area in which Chelsea are extremely well stocked with most of their starting XI and even right through to their bench having won a considerable haul of major trophies.
Of course things can change rapidly in the Premier League, where every major club is just a few games away from a crisis, but it may well be time for many of us to stand down from our pre-season predictions and start taking Chelsea’s chances of challenging for the big prize seriously, after all, it would at least make for an entertaining title race – something most of us have been crying out for for the last few seasons.