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Chelsea give rivals the Blues as they pursue PL crown

GOOD TIMES: Rejuvenated Victor Moses with Chelsea manager Antonio Conte (right)

THE USUAL suspects were expected to bounce back this season but only Antonio Conte’s Chelsea look convincing at the halfway mark.

Keeping the Blues in their sights is all the chasing pack can do as 2017 approaches, although Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham all look more liable to drop points than their Stamford Bridge rivals. Their winning run looks increasingly ominous, especially coming as it does without European distractions.

Victor Moses is rejuvenated, Diego Costa is dangerous again, David Luiz is confounding his critics as a sweeper, and the indefatigable N’Golo Kante has taken his Leicester form to Stamford Bridge.

Liverpool, City and Arsenal could all push the leaders but their shared defensive flaws make any punt look optimistic when stacked against Chelsea’s current relentlessness.

Jurgen Klopp will hope that the injured Philippe Coutinho, arguably his most impactful attacking player, returns to action soon because this current Liverpool relies heavily on out-scoring the opposition.

City have floundered as squad and manager strive for synergy, although sympathy for Pep Guardiola is in short supply given the resources at his disposal and the disdain of many for the reverence the Spaniard inspires in some quarters. The likes of Sergio Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne will push City close, but regardless of where they finish, City’s Project Pep will more likely reach its apogee in seasons to come.

The wheels look to be coming off for Arsenal, as always seems to happen sooner or later. Few currently trust this talented but occasionally flaky team to be challenging for anything more than their seasonal top four finish.

Tottenham’s lack of pace and width makes them as a shadow of the team that pressed for the title last term. More is expect- ed in forward areas, although Hugo Lloris has once again been exceptional in goal and their defence looks firm.

Manchester United are proving resilient rather than brilliant as their results continue to improve. Paul Pogba is starting to shine in a midfield three and though Jose Mourinho’s side have seldom troubled the top four thus far, the title challengers are firmly in their crosshairs.

IMPROVING: Man United midfield dynamo Paul Pogba
Photo by Ken Passley

Southampton deserve immense credit for another summer of regeneration and though the peaks of recent years seem out of reach, Claude Puel’s team are still amongst the best of the rest in the Premier League.

West Brom have a greater cutting edge this term, with Matt Phillips, Salomon Rondon and the returning Chris Brunt trumping the turgid fare served up in the Black Country last season.

Ronald Koeman’s Everton have under-performed in his first five months. Their recent defeat of Arsenal showed what they can achieve when the cobwebs have been shaken off and more of the intensity they displayed that night will be expected.

Bournemouth continue to make friends with their neat, ambitious football. It is tes- tament to Eddie Howe and the Cherries’ reputation that Howe is able to take players of Jack Wilshere and Nathan Ake’s calibre on loan for a season, although more invention is needed in attack to help Bournemouth keep their heads above water.

Watford have enough quality in their ranks, from captain Troy Deeney to Etienne Capoue, to ensure that defeats never take hold in the manner that afflicts most of the teams below them in the table.

With Stoke there is a sense they should be further along in their development under Mark Hughes given the quality dotted around their squad. Will 2017 deliver more of the

Middlesbrough have struggled for goals and it has shown in their results. Their recent win over hapless relegation rivals Swansea elevated them into lower mid-table. Odd victories here and there will do that but none of the teams juking it out at the foot of the league look safe.

Leicester’s title was a result of players enjoying the form of their life, an effectively employed skill set, and the floundering of regular title challengers. It could not last, but the fairytale continues as long as the Foxes remain in the Champions League.

West Ham have struggled at their new home due to injuries, poor form and uninspired summer recruitment. To think their talk was of the Champions League in the summer.

Sean Dyche continues to extract the best from a limited Burnley squad, while Crystal Palace have been poor under Alan Pardew all year. He paid the price with his job just days before Christmas.

Sunderland are finally showing signs of stirring under David Moyes and Jermain Defoe’s goals may once again prove crucial to their hopes of survival.

GOALS: Black Cat Jermain Defoe

Swansea and Hull look like Championship teams in waiting. Bob Bradley has not been able to halt the Swans’ slide and Hull are short of quality, with little prospect of significant January reinforcement.

Yet such is the lack of aptitude at the bottom that neither side is cut adrift and hope is not lost.

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