Cesc Fabregas was adamant when asked the question. Could Chelsea remain unbeaten? “No, no, this is a joke. This is a joke. There will only be one team who can do that – the Arsenal Invincibles team of 2003.” Respectful of his former club’s achievement and downplaying expectations.
Of course, Fabregas is right to stress it is early days. His manager Jose Mourinho did the same earlier this month. “It’s something that happened once in a lifetime. I don’t see, in modern football with the competitiveness of this Premier League, one team being champion without a defeat. That will stay in the history as the second and last time. My opinion, but we don’t know.”
And yet, Chelsea are looking so strong that the notion should not be dismissed out of hand. The difference between that Arsenal and this Chelsea might not be so big. The Gunners actually lost to Inter, Dynamo Kiev and Chelsea in the Champions League that season. Manchester United beat them in the FA Cup, while a weakened side lost both League Cup semi-final legs to Middlesbrough.
That’s not to belittle their stunning efforts. Chelsea are 14 to 1 to repeat the feat for a reason – the relentlessness required to remain unbeaten for so long is barely believable. But it does illustrate that while going 38 games without defeat is an outrageous accomplishment, the group of players who did it were no more infallible than this Chelsea team.
Other Premier League teams have won more points – Mourinho’s Chelsea did so the following year. Some have scored more goals too – Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea managed that in the 2009/10 title-winning season. In fact, it would be something of a surprise if the Blues lost more than six times this year. However unlikely, it is tempting to believe it is within the scope of these players.
It’s been relatively trouble free so far. With 10 wins and two draws from their 12 games in all competitions, Chelsea have not come close to losing. Indeed, they’ve only been behind twice – for three brief minutes at Burnley and in a first half against Swansea that preceded a four-goal burst.
One of the draws was against Schalke in a comfortable-looking Champions League group and the only dropped points in the Premier League came away to the champions. It’s been serene progress and with that Manchester City fixture out of the way, they have already negotiated the trickiest game in their diary.
This weekend sees what the bookmakers regard as the second toughest – a trip to third favourites Manchester United at Old Trafford. Chelsea start the match as marginal favourites due to their big-game record and United’s shaky defence. But in Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao, Louis Van Gaal has the strikers to hurt any opponent.
That’s an area of the field in which Chelsea have problems and could be reliant on 36-year-old Didier Drogba on Sunday. Injuries to Diego Costa and Loic Remy have created an issue but Mourinho is sanguine about the situation. “We don’t cry on injuries,” he said. “We just think one injury means an opportunity for somebody else.”
It’s an understandable attitude given that, while Costa has nine goals so far in seven appearances, Remy scored when deputising in midweek before Drogba also added a goal from the spot when replacing him. Even so, continuity will be key if Chelsea are to maintain their fine start.
Arsenal’s Invincibles were able to count on their first-choice side for much of the season. All of the principal starting line-up were fit to feature in at least 28 of the Premier League matches with the reliable figures of Edu and Ray Parlour able to fill in for a further 55 appearances between them. Likewise, despite Chelsea’s squad depth, Mourinho will need his core group to stay fit.
The midweek win over Maribor saw the first minutes of action that Gary Cahill has missed for club and country all season and that includes the Capital One Cup victory over Bolton. Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Matic and captain John Terry have also played every minute of Chelsea’s Premier League and Champions League campaigns so far.
Even further forwards in midfield, Cesc Fabregas and the explosive Eden Hazard have sat out just 90 minutes between them. Mourinho has expressed a willingness to bring through the talent in Chelsea’s youth team but the signs are that he will demand plenty from his star names.
In part, that’s because he believes they are now ready for the responsibility. There was a sense in which Mourinho awarded himself a free pass last season, downplaying ambitions even when they were a fair bet for a Premier League and Champions League double as late as mid-April.
This year the mood has been different from the outset, having solved any remaining deficiencies in his team with just two signings. “The team was building in a way where we were waiting for a certain type of striker,” said Mourinho. Enter Costa. “Last year we had problems when the opposite team was closed in a low block,” said Mourinho. Enter Fabregas.
In a revealing interview with Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville in the Telegraph last week, Mourinho also stressed the improvement in his team’s mentality. That was something he had questioned following the 1-0 defeat at Crystal Palace in March. Now he believes they are capable of sustaining performance levels game after game. They are ready to win.
Sunday’s game against Manchester United will be a test of that belief. Last season Chelsea closed the game down at Old Trafford to get a draw, while even a defeat wouldn’t knock them off top spot. But if Mourinho’s side go there and win, maybe even Cesc Fabregas will start to think the real joke is on the rest of the Premier League.