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Chelsea the Favourites, But Not Without Hazard

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Following Arsenal's impressive victory against a distinctly preseason looking Man City, the start of the season proper is now upon us. While the Community Shield rarely gives substantial clues to the destiny of the coming season's Premier League title, it usually does give an impression of how prepared two of the likely competitors are, going into the the opening weekend. As such, Arsenal unsurprisingly look ready for one of their early season sprints, while City look as though they're prepared to pace themselves, especially with key players yet to return to full fitness.

Arsenal and City are both likely to contest for the title. Both teams contested last year (one winning and the other leading the way till the spring) and both sides have strengthened over the summer. Arsenal look to have added some pace and extra goalscoring guile in Sanchez, but are urgently in need of another centre back and could do with some tactically astute bulk in defensive midfield too; but their transfer business has so far been uncharacteristically accomplished this summer, so there is hope that those requirements can be fulfilled. City, meanwhile, haven't added any superstars, as is often their vogue, but in Sagna and Mangala they've filled in some gaps in the defence, which was the weakest area of the team last season, certainly against the better sides in the league and in Europe, where Kompany's injuries and Demichilles' lack of pace could be exposed.

Liverpool also completed preseason with an impressive romping of Borussia Dortmund, but are without Suarez; Man United, meanwhile, are somewhat an unknown entity following last season's demise, but they are now managed by everyone's favourite big-headed (in more ways than one) Dutch maestro, van Gaal. Everton and Spurs will again look to slip in through the frays of the title race into an unexpected top 4 finish, though both sides are probably less optimistic than in previous seasons, with the 5 more traditionally favoured sides around them all strengthening.

Completing that 5 are Chelsea, who many, with good reason, have installed as favourites. Proven Premier League class in Fabregas, one of the world's top goalkeepers in Courtois, the return of the Drog and the signing of La Liga's top out-and-out striker from last season in Diego Costa, make for signings that should send shivers down the spines of the rest of the league. Costa is the signing who people have most doubts about because of his indifferent World Cup and the relative recency of his surge to the top as an individual player. In theory at least, even if Costa doesn't score as many as is expected for a £30+ million striker, he should give Chelsea a bulky attacking pivot point, as an energetic battering ram who can create space for Chelsea's renowned playmakers to create aplenty behind him.

With Chelsea often struggling to break down lesser teams in the league last season - teams, who unlike Chelsea's title challengers, were prepared to sit back against Chelsea's flamboyant attackers and pounce on the break - this physicality, and the extra panache and Premier League nous given by Fabregas, should help Chelsea to make up for what were ultimately silly and vital dropped points against the likes of Aston Villa and Crystal Palace last season. With Matic, Terry, Cahill, and players like Zouma and Mikel in back-up, as the defensive rearguard of the side, Chelsea have plenty of pace and skill in their midfield ahead. But the biggest question for Mourinho - who hasn't won a trophy for two seasons - is who will become the creative fulcrum of the side.

Last season Oscar often played at 10 but he offers Chelsea reliability and industry in this position compared to either the guile of Hazard or the precision of Fabregas. To my mind, Fabregas is their best candidate for number 10 in that side, because 10 has been the position in which he has found his best form for club and country since around 2008, when he became the lead man for Arsenal. Yet the presumption is that he will play from deeper, making late runs from alongside Matic into the box, a la Frank Lampard. Fabregas played in this role for Arsenal back in 2007 alongside Gilberto Silva, but was often not entrusted to play this role at Barca, playing on the wings or as a false 9 when Messi was fit. That season at Arsenal was probably his least effective in terms of goals and assists, while at Barca he was often viewed as being too direct for a traditional no. 4 or 8 role, alas, he didn't fulfil the hope that he could become the long-term successor to Xavi, instead becoming one of the many second fiddles to Messi.

Fabregas can be entrusted to play many roles in a team, such is his reliability and general endeavour, but he is at his best from the 10 spot. For Hazard, the same cannot necessarily be said for a player who has at points failed to make an impression when things haven't been going Chelsea's way. While his talent, pace and skill can make him one of the league's most frightening players from 10 or on the wings, his occasional lethargy - certainly compared to Oscar, and probably Fabregas too - has made him a figure of frustration for both his club and national managers. It is for this reason that I'd be surprised to see him playing on the wings in many of Chelsea's big matches because he doesn't offer enough support to his full-backs defensively; yet, at 10, he has yet to either influence bigger games in the way that Fabregas has done, nor has he shown the industry of a player like Oscar to harry the opposition's centre midfield.

With players like Schurrle, Willian and Salas lying in the wings - literally - as players who can either start from the winger or inside forward position in a counter-attacking set-up, or come on as impact subs - as Schurrle did so often in the World Cup - it will be interesting to see which out of the Fabregas, Oscar, Hazard trio he'd be most likely to sacrifice from the attacking trio behind Costa. It seems most likely that Fabregas will play that 4/8 role alongside Matic, with Oscar, Hazard and Schurlle/Salas/Willian ahead of him, but whether this will get the best out of the Spaniard remains to be seen. A lot of it may hinge on whether Hazard can convince Mourinho that he has more to offer in his overall contribution to the side than he has at key points of previous seasons - his record against the top sides in the league remains underwhelming.

With Hazard supposedly not close-minded about the idea of a lucrative PSG transfer, into a league in which he could easily shine without having to put as much effort in, how Mourinho gets the best effort out of the Belgian in the more physically demanding Premier League could be one of the underlying tales of the season. If Hazard increases his consistency of effort, Chelsea's attack, wherever Fabregas plays, looks unstoppable; but if he doesn't, then questions about how Chelsea best utilize their many talents could arise.

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