New year cheer for Chelsea Scrooges

It took Steve McClaren around an hour after close of play at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday to emerge from the dressing room to share his thoughts on the pummelling his Middlesbrough side had taken. No surprise there, because football common sense dictates that a bad defeat, coupled with a late manager, means that, somewhere in the stadium, the losing side are involved in an angry, one-sided de-briefing.

Perhaps then it was a measure of Chelsea's progress this Christmas that when McClaren finally spoke he had no complaints about his team. He was pleased with them for "not folding" after conceding two goals in 17 minutes and he praised their attitude. If the manager of the sixth-place side in the Premiership will settle for a two-goal defeat by Chelsea then you shudder at what those below him will accept.

English football has hurled all it can at Jose Mourinho's Chelsea side in the last three weeks and is now casting around desperately for one more obstacle to lay in front of the blue juggernaut. McClaren knows title-winning form - he joined Manchester United four months before they won the Treble in 1999 - and while he described Chelsea as "the team to beat" there seemed few left who are ready for the task.

In winning all four games over Christmas Chelsea have not shredded the opposition in the same way that the United once did. Instead they have overwhelmed and dominated their opposition. They have squeezed the dangerous elements in their opponents, like Stewart Downing on Tuesday night, into assuming defensive roles. But most of all they have refused to concede.

As Chelsea shape up to beat Liverpool's top-flight defensive record - just 16 goals conceded in the 1978-79 season - they have dismissed the one argument that McClaren could find against them winning the title. Their one advantage, McClaren suggested, was that they "haven't had injuries to key players." But in Ricardo Carvalho and Robert Huth, Chelsea have lost two centre-backs and compensated without blinking.

If Mourinho regards John Terry, Carvalho, William Gallas and Paulo Ferreira as his optimum back four, then he can point to five games over Christmas without that quartet which have yielded five victories and not a single goal conceded. It has been a run that has broken the chasing pack. "To have taken 10 points out of a possible 12 over Christmas is not bad," Thierry Henry said. "It's just that Chelsea have done even better."

As the Premiership emerges aching and exhausted from the self-imposed punishment of its Christmas programme, Chelsea look in far better shape than their pursuers. Didier Drogba, has come back "like a new signing" said assistant Steve Clarke, while Carvalho is expected to return soon. By contrast, Manchester United have lost Ryan Giggs, their form player of the last month, to six weeks out with a hamstring injury. Liverpool will be without Chris Kirkland for the rest of the season.

At Arsenal, Henry is forced to carry on, as ever, without a rest. The French striker admitted after the draw with Manchester City on Tuesday that he has found it difficult. "Like I always said, sometimes people rely on me to play and yet I was feeling a bit tired," he said. It was an admission of weakness that seemed astonishing in the context of Henry's season, but it was telling that even the PFA player of the year could offer no greater defence against the supremacy of Chelsea than reference to their "wallet".

"We just do what we can do," Henry said. "Chelsea have the likes of Geremi who is not even on the bench. He's a Cameroon international who can't get in their team." It is the old argument against Chelsea, which is starting to wear thin. As thin as the theory that because Kevin Keegan blew a 12-point lead in 1996, Mourinho might do the same. McClaren's response on Tuesday told you that Chelsea have developed from a big squad into a fearsome team.

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