There’s an obvious danger in reading too much into pre-season results – Arsenal providing the perfect case in point last Sunday.
The Gunners absolutely demolished opposition in their warm-up fixtures, claiming five wins with an aggregate scoreline 15-1 to lift the Asia Trophy, the Emirates Cup and the Community Shield, adding further hype to their already overhyped title bid.
But Arsenal were quickly brought down to earth with a lethargic, disorganised and underprepared display as West Ham ran riot at the Emirates in a 2-0 win, almost as if they assumed pre-season form would naturally manifest into a humiliation of the Hammers on the opening day of the campaign.
In truth, pre-season only really prepares you for one game – the first one – and even then, it doesn’t guarantee anything. Even if you’re fine-tuned physically, you still need to rediscover that competitive spirit and cutting edge so vital in the Premier League.
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That’s what Chelsea lacked as they found themselves drawing 2-2 with Swansea City on their own turf last Saturday. And whilst Arsenal can be accused of overconfidence, the Blues quite frankly looked a little undercooked, as if they were still nursing a hangover from their title-winning end to 2014/15 and coming to terms with the Premier League starting up again.
Make no mistake about it, the Blues were lucky to claim a draw at the weekend. They could have been left with an equal amount of egg on their collective face as their north London title rivals. Swansea were on the front foot from the first minute to the last; with a bit more boldness and precision going forward, they could have taken the lead (and subsequently three points) after Thibaut Courtois’ sending off.
Chelsea, on the other hand, scored their first by way of an Oscar free kick that passed through everybody to trickle into Lukasz Fabianski’s far post and their second via an incredibly fortunate deflection; a Willian cross that traveled just centimetres before cannoning off Fernando Federico’s shin and looping into an unreachable section of the net.
Overall, the Premier League champions finished the match with less shots, less shots on target, less corners, less successful aerial duels and less tackles than the visitors, in what was quite simply an inferior performance.
Looking back at the west Londoners’ pre-season, however, the result perhaps shouldn’t have caught so many by surprise. Chelsea, albeit facing challenging opposition in Barcelona and PSG at the International Champions Cup and the Gunners in the Community Shield, didn’t win a single game in regulated time over the summer whilst conceding a collective nine goals in disturbingly un-Mourinho fashion. Their first fixture was also a week later than Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United’s; perhaps the biggest cause of them jogging, rather than sprinting, out of the starting blocks.
Of course, Saturday’s affair was just one game out of 38 and in the eyes of many Chelsea are still title favourites. They do, after all, have the best player in the league, Eden Hazard, the best manager in the league, Jose Mourinho, one of the two most potent strikers in the league, Diego Costa, and the best home record over the last two seasons.
Yet Chelsea are now already two points behind their biggest title rivals, Manchester City, and unless rapid improvements are made that margin will increase to five after facing the 2013/14 champions at the Etihad on Sunday.
The Citizens were hardly preponderant in pre-season, securing wins against only the 153rd-FIFA-ranked Vietnamese national team and two Australian League sides, but looked sharp and energetic against West Brom on Monday night, recording three goals and a clean sheet at the Hawthorns. Clearly they’ll enter the weekend’s early six-pointer from a much healthier position – essentially a week ahead of their title rivals in terms of preparation.
Indeed, if Chelsea are to get anything out of their visit to the Etihad, a fixture that despite being so early in the year could have a monumental effect on this term’s title race, their performance must be incomparable to last weekend’s showing against Swansea City.Whilst the Citizens are raring to go, the Blues look fattened on their own success.
Although the 2-2 draw can perhaps be pardoned as typical opening weekend upset – by no means uncommon in the Premier League’s history – there will be no room for excuses if Chelsea are chasing a five-point deficit by Monday morning. They quickly need to rediscover their title-winning edge, their clinical approach and most crucially of all, their ability to claim important results in important games.