Chelsea face weight of history in race for the title

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The Independent Online

If Chelsea are to maintain the Premiership lead they lengthened at Highbury on Sunday, they will have to overcome a hurdle which has stood for a third of a century. Not since Derby County lifted what was then the plain old Football League championship in 1971-72 has a club won the English title without the benefit of a single player who had previously enjoyed such a success.

If Chelsea are to maintain the Premiership lead they lengthened at Highbury on Sunday, they will have to overcome a hurdle which has stood for a third of a century. Not since Derby County lifted what was then the plain old Football League championship in 1971-72 has a club won the English title without the benefit of a single player who had previously enjoyed such a success.

In the days leading up to Sunday's game, both Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson spoke in rare harmony. Each felt their experience of successfully chasing Premiership titles could prove crucial when the season entered its denouement. Experience, they noted, was what Chelsea lacked.

It is an old gambit, one which in Ferguson's case is born out of bitter experience, his team cracking under the pressure of leading the table in 1992. But neither are likely to appreciate just how accurate it is. Ferguson will recall that the following season, when United finally secured the title, the rookie contenders, Norwich and Aston Villa, fell away. He has subsequently seen Newcastle United, Leeds United and Liverpool similarly collapse. Blackburn Rovers, in 1995, and Arsenal, two seasons later, were steadfast but both had challenged United the previous season. In addition, Arsenal retained the back four which had formed the foundation of their 1989 and 1991 triumphs. Blackburn had previous experience in their squad in the shape of David Batty (a winner with Leeds) and Bobby Mimms (Everton).

Even with this knowledge, neither Ferguson nor Wenger can have imagined that the hoodoo predated the Premiership by more than 20 years - but both can draw encouragement from that fact. It seems to confirm that winning championships, especially doing so from the front, requires a particular mental strength, a factor can than only have increased in the modern, over-hyped world of the Premiership. Derby won that title in a different era - most of the squad were by the pool in Majorca, the manager on holiday with his family in the Scilly Isles, when the news came through that results elsewhere - Liverpool's draw at Highbury and Leeds' defeat at Wolves - had crowned them champions.

So will Chelsea crumble as Wenger and Ferguson hope? On the evidence of Sunday's match they will not. Twice Chelsea trailed the champions, the first time after barely a minute, twice the challengers responded, underlining the sense of self-belief which infuses their game. Even taking into account the absence of Patrick Vieira, and Arsenal's doubts about the goalkeeping position, Chelsea looked the classier, better balanced side with Arsenal over-reliant on Henry's genius. That said, against determined, resourceful opponents, Chelsea struggled to create clear chances from open play. However, their power at set-pieces gave them a second string which they utilised to the full.

Yet there remains that question: when spring arrives, and the stresses of competing on several fronts kicks in, can Chelsea overcome their lack of title-winning experience? Aside from the sheer quality of the players Jose Mourinho has at his disposal, and the depth of his squad, there are three significant factors to consider. First, much of the team was involved in Chelsea's title tilt last season. Then they drifted off the pace having led into December - with a better points return per game than this season. While they never subsequently threatened Arsenal's pennant, they rallied sufficiently to edge out Manchester United for the second automatic qualifying spot for the Champions' League.

Furthermore, Chelsea are not novices when it comes to championship campaigns: their dressing-room can produce quite a collection of winners' medals. Mourinho steered Porto to back-to-back Portuguese titles; Paulo Ferreira and Ricardo Carvalho were in the team; Peter Cech won the Czech title with Sparta Prague; Claude Makelele won the French title with Nantes and the Spanish twice with Real Madrid, once with Geremi alongside; Arjen Robben and Mateja Kezman lifted the Dutch championship with PSV Eindhoven, Kezman also won the Yugoslav championship with Partizan Belgrade; Celestine Babayaro won two Belgian titles with Anderlecht. With such an array of glitter, William Gallas probably does not mention his French Second Division title with Caen but even without him eight Chelsea players have won championships in seven countries.

Then there is the Mourinho factor. Last year he took an unheralded Porto team to Champions' League triumph. Porto had not gone beyond the quarter-finals in 10 years and it was Mourinho's first campaign. The unknown does not worry Mourinho.

Which brings us back to May 1972. The manager who went to Tresco, with his wife, children and parents, while his players and assistant went to Cala Millor and the rest of the football world waited in England to discover the identity of the champions, was Brian Clough. In almost his last observation, Clough wrote: "I like the look of Mourinho, there's a bit of the young Clough about him".

Not all the omens are so favourable. On 13 December, 1971 one club led the table, as Chelsea do this morning, by four points. Manchester United it was, the United of Best, Law and Charlton. They finished eighth. Front running is never easy, whoever you are.

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