Will Chelsea fall at the last hurdle?


Liverpool did it in 2014, Arsenal did it in 2008 and Newcastle United did it spectacularly in 1996. Abrupt and unexpected capitulations are not a rare occurrence in the Premier League, and as unstoppable as Chelsea might have looked in the first half of this season, the real test – the test of champions – comes later. As we’ve seen so many times before, January can be a cruel, cold month for the league leaders. Within a few weeks, everything can change.

Some of Chelsea’s rivals who looked lukewarm before Christmas have spent the festive season warming up for the winter period. Tottenham Hotspur have made a relentless surge up the table, beating Chelsea en route, the return of Phillipe Coutinho from injury is sure to reinvigorate Liverpool’s recently-stuttering forward line, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is at the forefront of an increasingly united Manchester United.

The introduction of Olivier Giroud to Arsenal’s starting XI has helped keep the Gunner’s in the title frame, and for all Manchester City’s inconsistency, they have one of the game’s most-vaunted managers at the helm who could still turn things around. There’s no doubt Chelsea have competition for the Premier League title, something 888sport commented on in a blog post last month.

However, as managers so often like to say, they can’t affect other teams’ results. All Antonio Conte and his Chelsea side can do is concentrate on themselves, and ‘concentration’ is the key word as the football season moves into the second half.

Conte has not so much steadied the ship at Chelsea but set it on course for utopia. Nonetheless, he still has some way to travel to the blissful Premier League winners’ island, with huge six-pointers coming up against Liverpool, Arsenal, City and United.

Reassuringly for Chelsea fans, Conte’s actions so far suggest that he is aware of the work that’s still left to be done. The recall of Nathan Aké from Bournemouth, for example, has shown the gaffer has shrewdly identified the need to bolster his options in defence, especially with regards to John Terry; the Blues legend is 36 years old now, and can no longer be counted upon to play and rally the troops week in, week out.

But then there’s the issue of Diego Costa. While this season Blues fans have been treated to arguably the striker’s finest form since his move from Atlético Madrid in 2014, there remains a prominent question over the Brazilian’s future at the club.

However, if there’s one thing Conte has injected into this Chelsea team, it’s discipline. Yes, they have quality across the board in Thibaut Courtois, César Azpilicueta, Pedro, Nemanja Matić and Marcos Alonso, but quality can only get you so far; last season was a not-so-gentle reminder that even the likes of Eden Hazard are vulnerable to downturns in form. It is discipline that will get Chelsea over the line, and Conte has amply demonstrated his ability to get the best from his team.

The manager dealt with Costa’s recent tantrum admirably, and his influence stretches much further than player conduct. This Chelsea side’s playing style is ruthlessly effective and everyone in the team knows their role. Conte has gotten them operating like clockwork. Now it’s up to the Italian to make sure they keep ticking over and claim their fifth Premier League title.

But it’s not over yet. Not by a long shot.

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