Monday, December 18, 2017
Sports

Chelsea, Conte standing out as normality returns to EPL

MANCHESTER, England — In one sense, normality has returned to the English Premier League after the craziness of Leicester's improbable surge to the title last season.

The top six on Christmas Day were the teams most pundits predicted would be challenging for the title: Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United.

There's nothing normal about Chelsea's current form, however.

After 11 straight wins, Chelsea leads the league by six points ahead of Liverpool, heading into the hectic period of festive fixtures that is unique to British soccer. Only once — Arsenal in 2001-02, with 13 straight wins — has a top-tier club had a longer winning streak in one season since World War II.

In the first year of the "super-coach" era in the Premier League, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte is standing head and shoulders above the rest, although it needed a September switch to his favored 3-4-3 formation to get the team to click.

With a stingy defense (two goals conceded in the last 11 games), a dynamic midfield marshalled by N'Golo Kante and a forward line led by the league's top scorer, Diego Costa, there are no apparent weaknesses in Conte's lineup. On current evidence, it's hard to see how the team from southwest London can be stopped.

One thing is for sure, there'll be no miracle sequel for Leicester. Languishing in 15th place in the 20-team standings, the reigning champions are closer to the relegation zone than the Champions League qualification spots.

It's back to the heavyweights challenging for the title as action resumes Monday with eight games. And Chelsea is the big favorite.

TITLE RACE

One factor is particularly helping Chelsea and Liverpool in their quests for the title: no European competition.

Such was the extraordinary nature of last season that neither team qualified for the Champions League or even the Europa League. That failure is now allowing them to focus purely on the domestic games, give their players more rest and have a full week of preparation for Premier League games.

Chelsea hasn't dropped a point since a 3-0 loss at Arsenal on Sept. 24, during which Antonio Conte changed formation to a 3-4-3 and hasn't looked back. Like Chelsea, Liverpool has two losses.

Man City is in third place, a point behind Liverpool, as coach Pep Guardiola gets to grips with the physical and nonstop demands of English soccer, including no rest at Christmas. Arsenal is a further two points back on 34 points in fourth, Tottenham has 33, and Jose Mourinho's Man United has 30. For United, some 13 points behind Chelsea, the target has already switched from winning the league to securing Champions League qualification with a top-four finish.

Chelsea has three tough away games left — at Spurs, Liverpool and United — and is proving adept at eking out 1-0 wins. Four of its last six games have finished with that score line, including the last three.

PICK OF THE PLAYERS

While Liverpool playmaker Philippe Coutinho, Man City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, Chelsea midfielder N'Golo Kante and Arsenal forward Alexis Sanchez have starred in patches, Diego Costa has been the only player to have had a consistent impact this season.

Last season the Spain striker appeared to be more interested in picking fights than scoring goals. Costa is a changed man, though, and has scored a league-high 13 goals while providing five assists.

Five of the goals were winners (against West Ham, Watford, Middlesbrough, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace), an overhead kick earned a draw at Swansea, and another goal sparked a come-from-behind win at Man City in December.

EMERGING TALENT

There's another "Harry" making a splash at White Hart Lane.

Harry Winks, 20, is a central midfielder who is getting a run in Tottenham's first team, starting four of the past eight games at the expense of internationals like Moussa Sissoko and Eric Dier. He scored against West Ham on his full league debut in November and is an intelligent passer with a good technique.

Mauricio Pochettino is renowned for giving youth players a chance to shine during his time at Southampton and now Tottenham. Harry Kane has matured into one of the best strikers in the Premier League under Pochettino, and Winks could be next in line.

SURPRISE TEAM

When it was announced in August that West Bromwich Albion had been bought out by Chinese investors, the future of manager Tony Pulis looked precarious despite his record of never having been relegated from the Premier League.

The new owners were wise to keep hold of Pulis, 58.

Away from the likely title contenders, West Brom is proving to be the best of the rest in the Premier League and at one point early in December was in the top six.

Known for setting his teams out with a solid defensive structure, Pulis has added some flair up front in forwards Nacer Chadli — a club-record signing in the offseason — and Matt Phillips, who operate behind Salomon Rondon. The Baggies have scored three or more times in four games this season, testament to their new-found attacking approach.

POINTS TO PROVE

The season started with rival coaches Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho expected to be battling it out for the title. The way things are going, they'll be fighting just to secure Champions League qualification.

Both coaches have had tough spells in the first season with their respective clubs, with Mourinho in particular criticized for public outbursts against his players and a run of poor results over September and October. United has won its last three league games to get back on track, but a current position of sixth is not good enough.

Guardiola started his City tenure with 10 straight victories but has won only six of his next 17, raising questions about his tactics, the team's defensive stability and whether Guardiola can get to grips with English soccer.

It will help Guardiola to have Sergio Aguero on the field. The Argentina striker has missed seven of City's 17 league matches through suspension and needs to make amends in the second half of the season.

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