Belt-and-braces Blues always dressed to kill

No-risk style puts champions close to becoming only fifth team since war to retain title
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The Independent Football

Hernan Crespo lounged nonchalantly against a wall in the tunnel, Joe Cole chatted amiably and Asier Del Horno looked so relaxed he could have been daydreaming. The only problem confronting the champions- elect in the build-up to yesterday's game against Bolton Wanderers was John Terry's shorts.

Twice he tried and failed to tie the cords to his satisfaction, and succeeded only at the third attempt. A chink at last in the champions' armour? Chelsea's admirers would attribute it to attention to detail; they are a belt-and-braces side who leave very little to chance.

Yesterday's match was a case in point. Jose Mourinho could have blazed a path to the title by fielding two wingers and going for the Bolton jugular. Instead he dropped his flank men - Damien Duff did not even make the trip to the North-west - the game was more drab than dazzle and he did not contemplate going for width until the match was won.

Which they did, of course, in their efficient, little-risk manner and, with a nine-point lead with four games to go, the contest laughingly called a race could be over tomorrow. Chelsea will become only the fifth team to retain the title since the Second World War, and the sad thing for those who like a genuine contest is that it is going to take an exceptional team or outrageous ill fortune to stop them making it a hat-trick.

Because, in some ways, Manchester United have been exceptional this season, their blunder against Sunderland notwithstanding. To win nine successive Premiership matches was a notable achievement, they could lose to Chelsea on 29 April and still compile a points tally that would have won them the title on seven of the previous 13 Premiership seasons, and yet they are still a distance behind Chelsea.

It is harder to win the title in the second season because opponents crave the champions' scalp on their belts, as Terry conceded. "It's been a lot tougher. Every place we have gone teams have been up for it, and if you look at our fixtures, nine times out of 10 it's been 0-0 or 1-1 at half-time. Thankfully we have come through." To an extent that Chelsea could still surpass their points total of last season.

The problem for the chasing pack is that their challenge is unlikely to worry Chelsea, whose greatest opponent is likely to be complacency. If the squad remained the same, there is reason to believe there is better to come from Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Arjen Robben, but Mourinho's ferocious drive and Roman Abramovich's millions means reinforcements will be coming. Michael Ballack is on his way to Stamford Bridge and Andriy Shevchenko could follow.

So players are unlikely to enter the comfort zone too quickly and, while peripheral figures might be jettisoned, there is no reason for Mourinho to get rid of players who have played a pivotal part this season. They have conquered England; the next target is Europe. So much the better if you have a squad so strong they can overcome both.

Rumours linking Frank Lampard with Barcelona refuse to dissipate, but would Mourinho willingly give up a player who has assumed almost talismanic status within his team of all-stars? His goal yesterday, begun and finished by himself, was like an advert for his talents. He swept the ball to the wing and then left his marker gasping in his wake to reach Robben's return pass. Even then his pace could have unbalanced him as he sought control, but his first touch was perfect, his second deadly.

It was Terry, a colossus yesterday, who propelled Chelsea to victory, however, with his first-half header, and it was the captain who led his team-mates to salute the visiting supporters at the end. The body language said that the championship had been won, and who would disagree with him?