Here’s one alternative fact I think we can all agree on: Every Premier League fan is absolutely certain of his team’s fate and the future of the title race. If you’re a Chelsea supporter (and thanks to manager Antonio Conte, I’ll permit that), you’re already making plans to mock Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger mercilessly.
And while it certainly seems that the trophy is Chelsea’s to lose — they enjoy a robust eight-point gap over second-place Arsenal with 16 games remaining — reality won’t stop optimistic Gooners or delusional supporters of Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester City from dreaming Pollyanna dreams. Well, maybe Liverpool is an exception.
If nothing else, we’ve learned this season that the top five can go anywhere and win, draw or claim they were hosed by Jon Moss, and if ever there was a propitious time for Chelsea to sputter, it would be against their next two opponents: Liverpool and Arsenal. Both teams had little trouble disposing of Conte’s nascent side in the fall and shouldn’t be cowed when they collide with his tactically re-engineered juggernaut within four apocalyptic days of each other, starting Tuesday.
1. Diego Costa’s evil twin is due for a return
There have always been two Costas, the Good Jekyll Diego and the Bad Hyde Costa, and they war constantly. This season, thanks to Conte’s shrewd handling of his meal ticket, we have largely seen Diego Bueno, the one who focuses his internal fury on the opponent’s goal. The Diego I prefer — the theatrically flopping, mayhem-creating, red-card-inducing, cheap-shot artist — has been oddly muted. But in the high-stakes crucible of the title run-in, who’s to say that the Blues’ chief provocateur won’t surrender to his worst instincts?
And yet, incredibly, he’s been sent off only once in his Chelsea career, a tribute to his ability to expertly time his knee jabs and elbow digs when the referee’s back is turned. (See his eye swipe and chest bump on Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny last season that resulted in Gabriel being dismissed for kicking out at the sheepish Spaniard.)
One can only hope that over the course of the next 16 games, opponents will try to goad him into doing something stupid, and if that were to happen, Bad Diego’s reappearance would sorely test Chelsea’s title credentials.
2. No team stays healthy forever
Well, they do: Leicester proved that last year, but they were the exception to every rule. This season, unlike their closest competitors, Chelsea have been relatively lucky in avoiding injuries to pivotal players. The only long-term setback has been to promising young central defender Kurt Zouma, who was lost for the season at the start of February with a ruptured ACL.
John Terry, the once-indestructible on-field leader, has also been sidelined for much of the campaign (and inept when he’s been fit), but not to worry. If Chelsea wins the league, the 35-year-old will no doubt leap off the trainer’s table and do his Clark Kent routine, suddenly changing into his Chelsea kit and bounding onto the podium to join in the celebration.
Of the players Conte could ill afford to lose (Kante, Hazard and Luiz), Hazard is the most fragile. After an unhappy and unproductive spell during Chelsea’s implosion under Mourinho, Hazard is back to his old exhilarating self. Liberated from any defensive duties by Conte, the resurgent Belgian has been able to focus solely on terrifying opponents with the blistering pace and silky ball skills that made him the Premier League Player of the Year in 2014-15.
The only potential downside to this newfound freedom is that Hazard’s defense-shredding dribbles often result in desperate challenges from embarrassed opponents. He was knocked out of the West Brom game early and sat out the next match against Sunderland. The possibility of losing someone as valuable as Hazard in the run-in is just one of the many reasons why Conte continues to downplay Chelsea’s apparent arm-lock on the trophy.
3. Spurs have supplied the blueprint for how to beat Chelsea
The myth of Chelsea’s impregnable defense was blown apart by Spurs in their hugely impressive victory at White Hart Lane when the league leaders were twice caught out on eerily similar goals. Much of the credit goes to the inspired tactics deployed by Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino, the first manager to successfully exploit Chelsea’s one area of vulnerability.
Everton manager Ronald Koeman tried a similar gambit, setting up his team in the same 3-4-3 formation that Conte used to win 13 games on the trot, and was pulverized 5-0 for his efforts. But Tottenham’s higher-caliber players were able to nullify Chelsea’s dangerous wing-backs who are at the heart of Conte’s system.
Chelsea’s excellent Cesar Azpilicueta and versatile Victor Moses weren’t able to push forward with their usual menace, so justifiably wary were they of the pace and power of counterparts Kyle Walker and Danny Rose.
Pochettino targeted another flaw in Chelsea’s setup. At 5-foot-10, Azpilicueta was the shortest man on the field and was particularly susceptible to deep crosses at the far post, especially when up against taller, more powerful opponents such as, say, 6-foot Dele Alli. Twice, Christian Eriksen found the on-rushing Spurs midfielder in a pocket of space occupied between Azpilicueta and Moses; the pair could only look on helplessly as Alli soared over them to head home.
Let’s hope Liverpool and Arsenal were taking notes. But mostly Arsenal.
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