Chelsea challenge Man City and Liverpool for Premier League title
LONDON -- As tempting as it is to bill Liverpool's clash with Manchester City next Sunday as the fixture most likely to provide this season's Premier League champions, Chelsea might just have something to say about that between now and May.
Just like the two protagonists at Anfield, Maurizio Sarri's men remain unbeaten in the league this season and they are gathering momentum with each positive result.
This was another. Despite surrendering a lead with just two minutes left following Daniel Sturridge's late equaliser for Jurgen Klopp's team, a 1-1 draw with Liverpool is not a bad result in a title race and it ensures that Chelsea can continue to point to a zero in their defeats column.
"When you are winning 1-0 and concede a goal at the end, you can be sad," Eden Hazard said. "But I think the draw is the fair result.
"I think we can challenge against Liverpool, with City too," Chelsea's goalscorer continued. "These are the best teams in the country, but we are not far away; we are winning games and confidence is high."
Having failed to mount any kind of defence of their title last season with Antoniuo Conte in charge, Chelsea look like a team again under Sarri and Hazard's spellbinding early season form is a sign of the improving mood at the club.
No club does yo-yoing quite like Chelsea -- it has been boom one year, bust the next, far too often for the club's liking in recent seasons -- but the bounce is back at Stamford Bridge and that makes them a dangerous outsider in this year's race for the title.
The lack of a reliable centre-forward, as well as juggling the demands of a deep run in the Europa League, are issues Chelsea might have to address if they are to win a third Premier League title in five seasons, but as former Napoli coach Sarri admitted following this game, they are beginning to believe in themselves.
"I thought City and Liverpool were the two strongest teams," Sarri said. "But I now believe we are closer than we were a week ago. They are both one step ahead of us, but we can fight for the champion."
So do we have a two-, three-, or maybe even a two-and-a-half horse race?
City and Liverpool are going to slug it out at the top of table; both teams are strong and Liverpool have improved significantly since last season due to a major spending spree.
Yet while next Sunday's encounter might give an indication as to which team is the most likely to emerge as champions, Chelsea have many aspects in their favour to argue their case as a third challenger.
Hazard's form is the obvious one and Chelsea desperately need the Belgian international to stay fit and firing, but this is also a squad packed with players who know how to win the title. City also have that, but Liverpool do not and the experience of going down the finishing straight is something that cannot be overlooked.
But Chelsea's credentials are not just down to Hazard and their ability to draw on recent successes. While Liverpool and City are both faced with the demands of the Champions League and the inability to rest players in the competition, Chelsea can use the Europa League group games as a chance to rotate and ensure that fringe players get crucial competitive action.
The benefits of that were borne out against Liverpool in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday, when Hazard's late goal sealed a 2-1 come-from-behind win and Chelsea appeared to have a stronger and more convincing second string than their opponents.
In terms of their best XI, Kepa Arrizabalaga is proving himself to be a sturdy replacement for Thibaut Courtois in goal and the midfield axis of Jorginho, N'Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic is as good as any in the league.
Jorginho has been an exceptional addition but Kovacic, on loan from Real Madrid, has quietly improved the team and he is not short on big-game experience.
The key weakness in their title aspirations is the lack of goals being scored by Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata. Six-goal Hazard is making up for that at the moment, but it may require a move into the January transfer market to resolve that problem if Chelsea continue to threaten top spot.
But in a league featuring several weak teams that will be beaten convincingly by the pace-setters, Sarri and Co. know that they can blow the lesser sides away at the same time as being competitive against City and Liverpool.
Therefore, while they might be third favourite in the race, they are a horse with pedigree and cannot be ruled out. It would be wise not to focus too heavily on the top two; Chelsea might just surprise them both.