So Chelsea are the Christmas No. 1, and the smart money says they will still be topping the charts in the short-sleeved days of May. Antonio Conte has got the hang of this Premier League lark very quickly. His team have reeled off 11 successive wins, conceding only two goals in the process.
What could possibly go wrong?
A long-term injury to 13-goal top scorer Diego Costa, the resurgent Eden Hazard or N’Golo Kante — he of the longest-lasting batteries in football — would certainly disrupt the Chelsea engine. But look at the bench. Conte has the likes of Michy Batshuayi, John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Willian and Cesc Fabregas and a top goalkeeper in Asmir Begovic among the substitutes most weeks. The cover is there.
Conte’s now well-oiled 3-4-3 system gives his team an ominously well-balanced look, with wing-backs Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso two of the surprise stars of the season.
Chelsea have been the most convincing team in the Premier League since the manager changed the formation after the early-season defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal in successive games. My guess is that Conte will keep the blue flag flying high at Stamford Bridge, especially as they are now in the position of being able to afford the odd slip.
Elsewhere, Liverpool’s ugly 1-0 win in a messy Merseyside derby on Monday was exactly the kind of result that title contenders need to grind out, and it was impressive that Jurgen Klopp’s team found another way to prevail. We already knew they had the attacking flair to destroy teams. Here they showed resilience and mental toughness. It was significant, I thought, that after the match Klopp chose to highlight the fact that Everton had barely created a chance against his much-criticised defence.
Liverpool’s match against Manchester City at Anfield on New Year’s Eve, when Philippe Coutinho hopes to return, might tell us more about their ability to stay the course.
What of City themselves? Having witnessed the defensive shambles of the 4-2 defeat at Leicester recently, it was impossible to believe Pep Guardiola’s team could possibly lift the crown. They were dreadful and accusations that Guardiola had tinkered too much with his defence were not wide of the mark.
The manager can come over as disdainful and aloof, but it is perhaps significant that he has opted to go with an unchanged four-man defence (no John Stones) in both fixtures since the Leicester debacle — and registered two wins.
Yaya Toure’s return to form from a football equivalent of Siberia is a welcome boost for City, but I still don’t think that defence is good enough and Ilkay Gundogan’s latest long term injury is obviously a massive blow. You would doubt that they can come from seven points off the pace to win the title, though it has been done before.
Arsenal fans will not enjoy Christmas much. Just when we were wondering if this team had a little more mental resolve than some of their recent squads, the Gunners folded horribly at Everton and Manchester City. From briefly leading the table, they have slipped to nine points behind Chelsea in the space of eight days. The same old questions about their lack of grit and leadership have come back to haunt them, and Arsene Wenger will need to do more than bleat about referees to find the answers.
Tottenham Hotspur have rarely looked like the team of last season so far with injuries hitting key players and loss of form affecting a few more. But the defence is one of the best in the league and they are still strong top-four contenders.
Meanwhile, Manchester United have gone 10 games unbeaten in all competitions and have put themselves back into the argument for a Champions League place next season. It has taken Jose Mourinho four months to find the right blend, but with Michael Carrick now anchoring the midfield, Paul Pogba has found the freedom to look the powerhouse than he is, and that has improved the supply line to a red hot Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who says: “I can play until I’m 50.”
The central-defensive pair of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo has been a surprise hit, too. No team has scored more than one goal past United in the league since they lost 4-0 at Chelsea on Oct. 23. Other than Chelsea, Mourinho’s men are probably the team most opponents would want to avoid right now. As the manager knows, a top four place is the minimum requirement.
The Premier League plot thickens, even if the waistlines of the players don’t during this busy festive season. Most will have to train on Christmas morning and play the following afternoon. As you know, they are reasonably well rewarded for their efforts.
Compliments of the season to one and all.
Ian Darke, who called games for the network during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, is ESPN’s lead soccer voice in the U.S. Reach him on Twitter @IanDarke.