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Friday, Aug. 12, 2005

PREMIER REPORT

Chelsea leads three-horse race in quest for Premiership title


LONDON -- According to Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon the 2005-06 Premiership title will be won by "a small bunch of one" with manager Jose Mourinho predicting the Blues will confirm their second successive English crown in the last fixture on May 7 at Newcastle. So that's this season then. Roll on 2006-07.

Christopher Davies

What is as certain as can be is that the champion will be either Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United which is as brave as predicting night will follow day. Even European champion Liverpool are outsiders for domestic glory.

Chelsea's rivals have some catching up to do because after waiting 50 years to claim their second English title they eventually won it with ease.

Its tally of 95 points from 38 games, with just one defeat and a miserly 15 goals conceded, left the trailing pack as challengers in name only. Arsenal and United, winners of 11 of the previous 12 Premiership titles, finished 12 and 18 points adrift, respectively. In other words, it was a one-horse race and the winning horse has become even stronger during the summer with £56 million spent on new recruits.

Hernan Crespo, revitalized after a successful season-long loan with AC Milan, will compete with Didier Drogba and Carlton Cole for the main the strike role.

Midfielder Michael Essien's on-off £27 million move from Olympique Lyon seems to have finally broken down, leaving Shaun Wright-Phillips who cost £21 million from Manchester City as the summer's most expensive signing.

Spain left-back Asier Del Horno's £8 million arrival from Athletic Bilbao led Mourinho to declare that he now has cover in every position.

It's difficult to argue with him -- indeed, Chelsea could almost field two sides in the Premiership with the B-team better than most other clubs' A-teams.

How about this for a shadow side? Cudicini; Johnson, Huth, Gallas, Bridge; Wright-Phillips, Tiago, Geremi, Joe Cole; Crespo, Carlton Cole -- 10 full internationals who are not likely to be in Mourinho's best XI.

Yet Chelsea is difficult to love because talent and arrogance are in equal supply at Stamford Bridge where Roman Abramovich's riches -- he has enabled the club to spend more than £350 million in two years -- have changed the face of football.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger had a valid point when he said Chelsea pays double the sum any other club would be asked for a player, but it would be dangerous to presuppose the Blues give a damn about such things.

Mourinho's man-management skills will be tested to the limit with having to keep established internationals who are on the sidelines happy, though, win bonuses paid to all the first-team squad members tends to help in this respect.

While Chelsea seems stronger than last time around, Arsenal appears weaker after the departure of captain Patrick Vieira to Juventus. Belarus international forward Alexander Hleb who cost £10 million from VfB Stuttgart and impressive in preseason, is the Gunners' only major summer buy.

Arsenal will need young players such as Philippe Senderos, Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini, Robin van Persie and Jose Reyes to continue their progress, fast-tracked if possible with the F.A. Cup winner again relying heaving on new captain Thierry Henry for goals.

United has also been relatively quiet in the spending department, with goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar and South Korean midfielder Park Ji Sung hardly likely to leave Mourinho searching for the worry beads.

However, Sir Alex Ferguson is happy that Rio Ferdinand has finally signed a new contract and the fans who protest about the takeover by Malcolm Glazer, owner of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are dwindling in numbers.

Liverpool has been the busiest club in the transfer market by far, as Rafael Benitez puts together a side which reflects his emphasis on team ethic rather than the individual. Antonio Barragan, Peter Crouch, Mark Gonzalez, Jose Reina, Mohamed Sissoko and Boudewijn Zenden represent more than £20 million of investment, loose change by Chelsea's standards, though.

The vast majority of Premiership moves in the close season have been loans, free transfers or around £2 million -- Charlton has brought in seven players for a total of £3 million.

The surprise team?

Tottenham looks a good bet for the top six with the arrival of Dutch international Edgar Davids and Wayne Routledge (Crystal Palace) strengthening its midfield.

Inevitably, the promoted sides are most at risk for a speedy relegation and Wigan is on most lists to go down after just one season among English football's elite.

"I would love to stuff their words down their throats," said manager Paul Jewell. "No one thought Wigan would be in the Premiership but we are there on merit."

Wigan has traditionally been a rugby league stronghold, but the 1995 takeover by Dave Whelan, owner of the JJB Sports chain, gave the club the financial backing to challenge for honors, though not even Whelan dreamed Premiership status would be achieved within 10 years.

Sunderland and West Ham have Premiership experience but will probably be battling for survival with Fulham which is this correspondent's tip as one of the three to go down.

Whatever the quality on the field, rest assured Mourinho, Wenger and Ferguson will provide wonderful entertainment off it in the Mind Games League.

For starters -- Wenger: "I am not envious of Chelsea. There is a way to beat them despite the fact they have more money than anyone else."

Mourinho (on Ferguson): "Maybe when I'm 60 I'll have the power to speak to people and make them tremble a bit."

Ferguson: "If Chelsea drop points the cat's in the open. And you know what cats are like, sometimes they don't come home."

IT CAN BE SAID with confidence that there will not be a more unusual story this season than Zinedine Zidane's revelation that a mysterious voice inspired his decision to play for France again.

The Real Madrid midfielder had retired from Les Blues after Euro 2004 but explained: "One night, at three in the morning, I woke up suddenly and then, I talked to someone.

"It's somebody you will probably never meet. I can't explain the encounter myself. The person really exists but it all comes from very far. And then, during the hours that followed, I took the decision to come back.

"I was dumbfounded before that force that was guiding my behavior and I had something of a revelation. I had to obey to that voice that was giving me advice."

While such sentiments will inevitably leave Zidane open to ridicule by some, it was incredibly brave of the France captain to go public with this.

Claude Makelele (Chelsea) and Lilian Thuram (Juventus) have also come out of international retirement as France tries to salvage its hopes of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup finals. Their tie next month in Dublin against the Republic of Ireland will be crucial -- defeat for France would almost certainly leave them looking for a place in the playoffs at most.

The Big Three's return is a sad comment on France, and coach Raymond Domenech is virtually saying the current team is not good enough. Their return means three players will lose their places, which will leave a trio of grumpy young men in the squad.

Ireland will remember that even with Zidane, Makelele and Thuram, France were hugely disappointing at Euro 2004.

Defeat in Dublin will trigger a lot of harsh words for Domenech and the players and, unlike the voice Zidane heard, these will be very loud and public.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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