August 9, 2017

Why Are Chelsea Not Favourites?  (Sky Sports)

Antonio ConteChelsea are not fancied to repeat their title win, but why exactly is that? We pick out three big problems for the Premier League champions…

Chelsea may have won the Premier League title at a canter last season but it is Manchester City - a team they finished 15 points clear of - who are the bookmakers' favourites to lift the trophy this term. Antonio Conte's men are the same price with Sky Bet as Manchester United, despite Jose Mourinho's side having finished a lowly sixth last time out.

Given that Chelsea became the first team ever to win 30 games in a Premier League season, it might seem strange that there is so little faith in them to maintain their form. Especially when Conte's record of sustained success is considered. The Italian won three Serie A titles in a row with Juventus, after all. But the doubts are not without some substance…

Repeat wins are rare

Supporters naturally expect standards to remain high regardless but the psychological challenge of retaining the title is real. Only Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson have achieved the feat in the Premier League era. In fact, the last eight teams to attempt to defend the title ended in failure - dramatic failure in the case of Chelsea's previous effort.

That struggle was largely attributed to off-the-field issues as Mourinho's conflicts caught up with him but he was not the only factor. Eden Hazard's appetite was questioned and other key figures in that malaise are still at Stamford Bridge. With other teams redoubling their efforts, the onus is on Chelsea to match that desire but history suggests it is tough.

Key players have left

The task is made more difficult because it is debatable whether Chelsea's squad is as strong as it was last season. Diego Costa, the team's 20-goal top scorer in each of their last two title triumphs, is set to depart. He has been replaced by Alvaro Morata, an expensive acquisition but a player who is yet to hit more than 15 goals in a top-flight season.

This is just one of a number of changes that need to work for Chelsea. Nemanja Matic was a mainstay in midfield last season but has been sold to Manchester United and replaced by Tiemoue Bakayoko. Fellow midfielders Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Nathaniel Chalobah have also been allowed to leave so Conte looks a little short in the centre of midfield.

Money has been spent in defence with Antonio Rudiger set to cover the loss of John Terry, at least on the field, but the overall sense is that man-for-man Chelsea have not improved. Conte appears acutely aware of this. "The transfer market is still open, and for sure we are looking hard to improve the number, and the quality, of players," he pointed out recently.

The Europe problem

Conte's sense of urgency is driven by the knowledge that this season was not supposed to be about merely maintaining standards. The return to the Champions League means that Chelsea need to get better with greater squad depth a big factor in that. Conte was able to get away with minimal rotation but that is no longer an option with a packed schedule.

"Now we need to improve our squad because we have more games and we need a bigger team to face these competitions," the Chelsea boss pointed out in his Community Shield programme notes. A glance at a substitute bench that included Kyle Scott, Jeremie Boga and Charly Musonda at Wembley suggests this is yet to happen.

The last two Premier League champions achieved the feat without the distraction of European football, an indication of how tricky it is to manage this workload. But are Chelsea making it more difficult that it needed to be? With rivals strengthening so conspicuously, the fear is that their advantage has been lost. Time will tell if the bookies are right.

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