Top of the Premier League at Christmas
Teams that top the Premier League at Christmas don`t always go on to lift the title come May but the odds are heavily stacked in their favour. Seven of the last ten seasons have seen the team that went into Christmas `pud` time leading the table ending up as Champions come the end of the campaign.
The odd-three out were; Arsenal who lead at Christmas 2007 but finished third behind Manchester United and Chelsea, champions and runners-up respectively: It was Liverpool who fell away badly the following year and Liverpool again in December 2013 when they were leading the table before ending the campaign second to Manchester City.
Chelsea`s club-record winning streak of 11 consecutive league wins put them in a commanding position going into two eminently winnable festive period games, at home, against Bournemouth and Stoke City. By the start of 2017 the points gap from Chelsea to second place could be unassailable, even if Conte doesn`t reinforce his squad, but that is something that is almost a certainty. Not to enhance the current rosta but to keep them on their toes.
However, Liverpool closed the gap to six points with their win over Everton but there are signs that Chelsea are superior in so many aspects of what it takes to be champions.
Of the current top five teams many neutrals are looking at two sides in particular being Chelsea`s most dangerous rivals for the title; Liverpool and Tottenham, while Arsenal and Manchester City are relatively inconsistent.
Chelsea have a top keeper although of the top five, and excluding Manchester United at this stage, Spurs have the best goalkeeper with Lloris edging out Cech. If Liverpool, Chelsea or Manchester City were to sign a `worldie` goalkeeper, Manuel Neur for example, it would severely improve their title chances.
In terms of back four Tottenham`s is regarded as the best yet Chelsea ARE the best, statistically. Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City are still a work in progress and all three sides rely on outscoring the opposition because of the fragile inconsistency of their rearguard.
Chelsea`s midfield, and the team as a whole, benefits from the masterstroke of signing Kante from Leicester. He is the amalgam which holds Chelsea together and gives them the firm foundation on which their championship optimism is built. Liverpool`s midfield relies too much on Lallana and Klopp needs another player of Lallana`s quality to share the load. Spurs also place a heavy load on Dele Alli and Eriksen which more often than not they can handle but take either of them out of the Spurs side and the team can struggle.
Arsenal`s midfield should be the best in the Premier League but they are lightweight and do not score enough goals while Manchester City`s `engine room` lacks the kind of goalscoring midfielder Chelsea have in Eden Hazard with Kevin du bruyne`s form falling away in recent weeks.
Up front is where Chelsea also have the edge. Costa is a player reinvented, by Conte, with no short measure of assistance from the player himself. Liverpool are learning to live without Sturridge, Harry Kane has finally woken up but is again going alone, and although Manchester City have Aguero they rely too much on him for the goals as Raheem Sterling is not a striker. Arsenal`s Sanchez IS but someone at Arsenal needs to remind him he doesn`t have to run all over the pitch to make a massive contribution to the cause.
There is one major factor in this season`s title chase that hasn`t been mentioned too often and therefore not given the gravitas it most certainly merits. And it is a factor that you need look no further than Stamford Bridge for proof of the pudding and that factor is what Antonio Conte has done with Chelsea, in general, and with Diego Costa in particular. He has got them playing to their potential, CONSISTENTLY.
Folk can argue long into the night about the merits of the various squads but, relatively speaking they all contain good quality players. But getting them to produce, either by psychology or coaching, is another matter. What Jose Mourinho lost at Stamford Bridge was the fervour and willingness of his players to give their all. Somehow Antonio Conte has reinvigorated those very same players, and added something on top.
Back to Diego Costa. From just wanting to fight the entire world the striker has become the complete player. The aggression and scowl are finally channelled in the team cause and he has also embraced the culture of British football. David Luis has become a top defender. Eden Hazard is back to his best and Victor Moses, another one re-born, is arguably the best wing-back in the Premier League. And, the catalyst has been the new coach. Ironic then that the former Chelsea coach, Jose Mourinho, sees his current side languishing back in sixth place going into Christmas four points from that cherished top four place.
So, fast forwarding to May I fully expect Chelsea to finish as Champions. I think Liverpool and Spurs will contest second place while Arsenal and Manchester City will fight it out for fourth.
By Brian Beard