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Chelsea early league title favorites

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Patrick Barclay

Patrick Barclay is one of England's most experienced soccer writers. He has covered the game for every broadsheet newspaper and attended eight World Cups. Barclay is the author of biographies of Jose Mourinho (Further Anatomy of a Winner) and Sir Alex Ferguson (Football - Bloody Hell!) You can follow him on Twitter @paddybarclay.

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LONDON, ENGLAND

Chelsea return to Europe to resume their defense of the Champions League title in Denmark on Tuesday – and Roberto Di Matteo’s squad could hardly be in better heart.

Top of the English Premier League and unbeaten after winning five of their six matches, they came through their toughest test Saturday by overcoming Arsenal 2-1 at Emirates Stadium.

I warned you not to expect too much too soon from Chelsea because of the change of style Di Matteo must oversee at the behest of billionaire owner Roman Abramovich. It looks like I underrated the work ethic in the squad, which was the main reason they prevailed in a fascinating London derby.

The more we see of the coaching abilities of Di Matteo, the former Chelsea midfielder who took charge after Andre Villas-Boas – to whom he had acted as assistant – was sacked six months ago, the more impressive it appears.

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Here Di Matteo is with no Didier Drogba, the hero of the Champions League final in Munich having been let go to China; and an ageing Frank Lampard on the substitutes’ bench because of the trio of little technicians who have been assembled to work their creative magic behind main striker Fernando Torres. The results are coming.

Let’s qualify that: the results are coming domestically. Chelsea was thrashed 4-1 by Atletico Madrid in the Super Cup game in Monaco a month ago – no one who saw that match would believe Saturday’s lineup was the same team – and Juventus deservedly tied 2-2 in the opening European group game at Stamford Bridge. So whichever players Di Matteo picks for the next game at little Nordsjaelland, the Danish side most remarkable for the inclusion of American Michael Parkurst, need to come back with maximum points.

Although no team – not even Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona – has retained the Champions League in two decades since Europe’s leading club competition was reorganized and expanded, Abramovich and everyone connected with the club will want Chelsea in the mix when the knockout stages begin next year.

But in England everything has gone so smoothly that the visit of Manchester United to the Bridge in late October seems certain to be portrayed as a title pointer, if not decider, with more than six months of the season to run. The trip to Arsenal put paid to the reservation that Chelsea’s start had involved no fellow top-four aspirants (Newcastle United might have disputed it anyway) and such was the performance that Arsene Wenger’s team had its own bubble pricked.

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True, Arsenal defended poorly. Laurent Koscielny, who had taken time off from an excellent contribution to a more convincing back four to equalize against Manchester City in the previous game, was culpable in both goals, allowing Torres to finish neatly from one Juan Mata free-kick before he conspired with goalkeeper Vito Mannone in letting Mata claim the winner with a second set piece, a wickedly curling effort.

But Arsenal’s failings were not the story. Chelsea’s dogged application of technique and teamwork was.

From being a powerful team in the English image – Drogba always struck me as the ultimate reinvention of the old-fashioned English center-forward, while Lampard and former national captain John Terry were long-standing stalwarts of both Chelsea and England – Chelsea has suddenly become a rival to Arsenal in what you might call the passing movement.

The starting team at the Emirates featured just two Englishmen in Ashley Cole and Terry, who was able to play only because he is considering an appeal against the four-match ban imposed last week by the FA.

There were three Brazilians (David Luiz, Ramires and Oscar), two Spaniards (Torres and Mata) and a Belgian who plays like a Brazilian or a Spaniard (Eden Hazard). And what had everyone in the press gallery purring was the readiness of even the likes of Mata, Hazard and Oscar, all natural No. 10s, to work and track back when the team lost the ball. This is proof that the lesson of Guardiola’s Barcelona is being absorbed in England. Arsenal will have to re-learn it to get their season back on track.

Meanwhile Chelsea are the kings of London and England as we await Terry’s decision on whether to contest his punishment, which also entails a fine of $330,000 – a week’s salary according to figures supplied to the FA. And there’s a side note here: why is Terry so powerful, so highly regarded at the Bridge that American chairman of the board Bruce Buck attended every session of his hearing? A clue might have lain in his nerveless performance against Arsenal. And don’t rule out a continuing fight to clear his name of the taint of racism.

Terry is a very popular Chelsea captain and just as unpopular in the rest of the land, perceived as a boor with a record of marital infidelity. But there are some who believe him the victim of a witch-hunt in this case. Whatever the truth, the whole episode still sours a season whose promise was in fully display at the Emirates.

Patrick Barclay is one of England's most experienced soccer writers. He has covered the game for every broadsheet newspaper and attended eight World Cups and nine European Championships. Barclay is the author of biographies of Jose Mourinho (Further Anatomy of a Winner) and Sir Alex Ferguson (Football - Bloody Hell!) You can follow him on Twitter @paddybarclay.

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