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Chelsea start has rivals in the dumps

Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic, center, celebrates
Chelsea are off to a stellar start in the Barclays Premier League this season.
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Warren Barton

Warren Barton draws on 16 years of professional soccer experience as a studio analyst for FOX Soccer. With more than 350 Barclays Premier League appearances, Barton starred for Wimbledon before rising to prominence with Newcastle United and the England national team. Follow him on Twitter.

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MANIC MATCHES

Review the best images from week eight of the Barclays Premier League.

It’s still early days yet in the Premier League, but we head into the international break with a sense of how things are shaping up in this year’s race for the title. I think we see four teams — Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal — who are going to have a say in how things are decided, and only one of those teams looks complete as it stands.

That team is Chelsea, and while I worry about a club peaking too soon, they head into the international break with a lot of confidence. Yes, they have issues — John Terry and Ashley Cole’s woes have not helped them — but Roberto Di Matteo has made them very pleasing to the eye while managing to keep their tradition of toughness.

The thing that makes Chelsea stand out is that they have a solid, sure number one keeper and a very strong defense – the other three teams cannot say the same. Chelsea add to that with what may be the best midfield in England, with Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard all playing very attractively. Those three men are able to get the ball in behind defenders to Fernando Torres, and the goals are coming. You have to credit Di Matteo there too: he’s got Torres running onto the ball where everyone else had him playing with his back to goal.

I thought City had their most complete performance of the year so far, and that was after a real tough night against Dortmund in the Champions League. Roberto Mancini came right out after their win against Sunderland and said it was about the clean sheet and he’s right, because Joe Hart’s performances have given the rest of the squad a lot of confidence. They got a wake-up call from the Germans, so to rebound the way they did was vital.

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United came out with all guns blazing at St. James and I think we see how frail Newcastle are without Tim Krul, Ryan Taylor and Fabricio Coloccini. Set pieces account for something like 60% of the goals in our sport, and you have give Sir Alex credit: he saw that weakness in Newcastle’s game against Reading last week and went for the throat today. Other managers would have had Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in the box, but he had them delivering lovely dead balls. Rooney was brilliant in Transylvania midweek and today up North, he made it tough for my team to handle.

Arsenal also got a very solid win against a West Ham side that is better than average. Andy Carroll was really up for that game, but in Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla you have some really tremendous skill. Cazorla is five-foot tall, and he’s still running through men, pulling the strings and scoring a goal of impeccable quality. Getting Per Mertesacker back in made a huge difference as well – leaving him out was a mistake against Chelsea and Arsene Wenger doesn’t make them twice. The question I have is: how good would they be had they kept van Persie and Alex Song? They can beat anyone on a given day – but I still don’t think they can win the title.

A couple of managers will be looking to this break to sort matters out. Both Mark Hughes and Brendan Rodgers are under pressure and time is ticking.

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Last season, Mark Hughes saw his old teammate Steve Bruce go in November, and I think he has two game to turn it around, or else. He’s got the dreaded kiss of death already, the support of his chairman and if Hughes was sacked, I expect he’d understand it. QPR spent a lot of money and still lack an identity. I don’t know on a given day what they are going to look like or what style they will play. Hughes has to sort that out if he’s going to keep his job.

Rodgers is under a lot of weight. He’s been criticized heavily in the UK as we’ve seen from BEING: Liverpool, and I’m starting to think that Liverpool’s best games might come away from Anfield in the near term. The pressure at home is just overwhelming. If Luis Suarez is not on, Liverpool find it very difficult, and other teams know now they can go in and close up shop. I can see what style Rodgers trying to play, but he’s got to get some wins and time is not on his side.

Last I do want to say that the Brad Friedel situation left a bad taste in my mouth. All things come to an end, and Brad – who is a good man, and a great professional – knows that. His streak of 310 consecutive games is superb. But the excuse Andre Villas-Boas gave for sitting him out – and it was an excuse, a weak one – doesn’t sit right. Now, Spurs got a clean sheet, and won the game. And you do know in this game that one week you can be winning and the next you’ve got a pink slip. But I think AVB should have just said flat out, “I bought Hugo Lloris, and I’m going to play him.” That was a mistake and I hope he learns from it.

As always you can follow me on Twitter at @warrenbarton2 and ask a question any time at @FOXSoccer. Good luck my lads against San Marino and Poland this coming week and to the USA as well against Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala!

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