Only eight of London’s sprawling miles separate the stadiums of Crystal Palace and Chelsea – but this week it seems the clubs inhabit different worlds.
While Tony Pulis, the coach who last season dragged Palace out of relegation trouble and inspired an eleventh-place finish, left before the first ball of the new campaign had been kicked, claiming he was being denied the tools necessary to keep up the good work, Jose Mourinho continued his preparatory duties with a lavishly refurbished squad.
Mourinho even said his latest collection could keep Chelsea at the forefront of the English and European game for five to ten years – a shade optimistic, given that the average age of the likely starting line-up at Burnley on Monday is likely to exceed 26, but still in keeping with the general view that Mourinho’s men are most likely to take the Premier League title from Manchester City.
I’m certainly of that mind. Chelsea are my tip because they have recruited so impressively, filling such gaps as appeared in their armoury last season by signing a top-rated striker in Diego Costa and a natural attacking left back in Filipe Luis – both from Spanish champions Atletico Madrid – and the best possible midfield replacement for an ageing Frank Lampard in Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona.
The trio cost $125 million, but overall it looks very astute business — especially when you consider that at least as much was received for David Luiz, Romelu Lukaku and Demba Ba, helping the club to comply with Financial Fair Play.
It’s a little reminiscent of the prelude to Mourinho’s previous arrival at Stamford a decade ago, when among those hired, to buttress a squad already featuring the likes of Lampard, John Terry and Claude Makelele, were Petr Cech, Arjen Robben and Didier Drogba. And no Chelsea fan will need reminding of what happened then: The club won two consecutive Premier League titles.
Of course they were operating in a free market in 2004, able to lure players with Roman Abramovich’s billions. It’s tougher now. But Chelsea have done well to put quality in every position. Including the dugout, where Mourinho’s experience in winning national titles with Porto, Inter and Real Madrid as well as Chelsea should fill the squad with a confidence to match that exuded by Manchester City after their success under Manuel Pellegrini last time.
These seem certain to be the top two with Chelsea replacing Liverpool as the main threat to City. Liverpool have to cope with the dual demands of Premier and Champions League now and that will be a real challenge for Brendan Rodgers, whose side went so close in May.
Remember how they eventually fell short? Three goals up at Palace, they conceded three to Pulis’s team. And now Pulis doesn’t have a team – though he’s expected to be jobless only until the right Premier League offer comes along – because he and chairman Steve Parish couldn’t see eye to eye on transfer policy.
In other words, players Pulis wanted such as Gylfi Sigurdsson, who instead left Tottenham for Swansea, and Steven Caulker, relegated with Cardiff and now at Queens Park Rangers, were deemed too expensive. Pulis, having enjoyed a decent budget at his previous club Stoke, felt he could not take Palace forward in such circumstances.
Considering the vast amounts all Premier League clubs receive from television revenue, it may seem strange that financial constraints afflict any of them. But everything is relative and some club finance officers believe the gap between those who can afford to be ambitious and the rest is growing.
Even the ultra-competitive nature of the most recent season – a classic by universal acclamation – involved layers of rivalry. There were those who competed for the title; Everton, who tried with much success to hang on to their coat-tails; Southampton, who with Spurs formed a small middle class; and the rest, looking over their shoulders, merely striving to survive.
Palace burst out of this group, but now the coach who supervised this feat has gone. Southampton have also lost their coach, Mauricio Pochettino, and a lot of key players, so it will be a devil of a job for Ronald Keoman to keep them where they were. Who, apart from Everton, can challenge the notion of a two-tier League? Newcastle might have a chance, Tottenham will be interesting under Pochettino and Steve Bruce’s Hull could improve.
But I’m clutching at straws. There is too great a difference between the outlook of the Chelseas and the Palaces. And that’s before either have trodden Premier League turf. If, as I fear, Palace prove vulnerable to a tails-up Arsenal at the Emirates on Saturday, the class divide could be all too immediately apparent.