Fri | Oct 20, 2017

Chelsea, Conte standing out as normality returns to EPL

Published:Monday | December 26, 2016 | 12:50 AM
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte.
Chelsea's Diego Costa.
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MANCHESTER, England (AP):

In one sense, normality has returned to the English Premier League after the craziness of Leicester's improbable surge to the title last season.

The top six on Christmas Day were the teams most pundits predicted would be challenging for the title: Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United.

There's nothing normal about Chelsea's current form, however.

After 11 straight wins, Chelsea lead the league by six points from Liverpool, heading into the hectic period of festive fixtures that is unique to British football. Only once — Arsenal in 2001-02, with 13 straight wins — has a top-tier club had a longer winning streak in one season since World War II.

In the first year of the "super-coach" era in the Premier League, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte is standing head and shoulders above the rest, although they needed a September switch to his favoured 3-4-3 formation to get the team to click.

With a stingy defence (two goals conceded in the last 11 games), a dynamic midfield marshalled by N'Golo Kante and a forward line led by the league's top scorer, Diego Costa, there are no apparent weaknesses in Conte's line-up. On current evidence, it's hard to see how the team from southwest London can be stopped.

One thing is for sure, there'll be no miracle sequel for Leicester in the Premier League. Languishing in 15th place in the 20-team standings, the reigning champions are closer to the relegation zone than the Champions League qualification spots.

It's back to the heavyweights challenging for the title. And Chelsea is the big favourite.

One factor is particularly helping Chelsea and Liverpool in their quests for the title: No European competition.

Such was the extraordinary nature of last season that neither team qualified for the Champions League or even the Europa League. That failure is now allowing them to focus purely on the domestic games, give their players more rest, and have a full week of preparation for Premier League games.

Chelsea haven't dropped a point since a 3-0 loss at Arsenal on Sept. 24, during which Antonio Conte changed formation to a 3-4-3 and hasn't looked back. Like Chelsea, Liverpool have two losses so far.

Man City are in third place, a point behind Liverpool, as coach Pep Guardiola gets to grips with the physical and non-stop demands of English football, including no rest at Christmas. Arsenal are a further two points back on 34 points in fourth, Tottenham have 33 and Jose Mourinho's Man United have 30. For United, some 13 points behind Chelsea, the target has already switched from winning the league to securing Champions League qualification with a top-four finish.

Chelsea have three tough away games left — at Spurs, Liverpool and United — and is proving adept at eking out 1-0 wins. Four of their last six games have finished with that scoreline, including the last three.