2016: The Year of Chelsea.
Get ready for it.
Look, it's the New Year, it's that time of year to make some wild predictions and spend the next 12 months trying desperately to justify them, before giving up and trying to hide them by the time it gets to November and December. Then you go and do it all again in January. It's basically tradition.
In that spirit, here's a nice, clear prediction that's next-to impossible to weasel out of: Chelsea will finish 2016 at the top of the Premier League table.
They're obviously a long way from being completely 'back', but just look at the improvement in their short time under Guus Hiddink. Four games, two wins, two draws, no defeats. If you want a stat that's both pretty damning for their first half of the season and pretty promising for the near future, that's twice as long as their previous unbeaten run in the league this season. Twice as long!
Now, obviously that's skewed a little by just how bad the Blues were under Mourinho this season, only ever stringing together two games before losing, but the fact that Hiddink's doubled that in some far-from easy games (Palace away? Manchester United? Tricky!) speaks to the immediate improvements he's made by, it appears, simply not being Jose Mourinho.
For all of their underperforming this season, there's still a squad of spectacularly good players at Stamford Bridge. When he's not picking fights, Diego Costa can be one of the most destructive strikers in the country - if not the continent. Cesc Fabregas may be looking more and more like a quietly poisonous dressing room influence with each passing month, but he's got an eye for a pass like few others in world football. Eden Hazard...well, he's Eden Hazard.
John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic may be lost causes at this point given their advancing ages, but they're the only first-teamers older than 30. This isn't a team in terminal decline, this is a squad which has the time and quality to bounce back.
This season's title race has shown that there's not a perfect team in the league this season - maybe not even a particularly good one, with the amount of money available to the mid-to-lower table teams meaning that they've begun to snatch top talents away from the top four. It's excellent for keeping the Premier League competitive at every level, for sure, but the top teams are weaker than ever - and it's starting to show in European competition.
The overall weakening of the top flight's a topic for another day though - the point here is that it creates an environment where Chelsea really don't have to make that many changes to climb back to the top of the tree after their dominant 2014/15 season. Guus Hiddink and whomever follows him at the end of the season 'just' have to bring in a defender and a backup striker (let's face it, we're looking at John Stones and someone like Charlie Austin here, aren't we?) and get the rest of the squad playing at their natural level, and they've got probably the best squad in the league. It's that easy...right?
'Easy' might be oversimplifying it, but it's not hard to look at Chelsea's squad and think 'this is a team who should be challenging for the title'. It's a title-winning squad waiting to explode back into life, and if Hiddink and [unnamed 2016/17 manager] can harness the obvious frustration in the club's ranks the right way, they could bounce back strong than ever. Plus - and this does matter - the likely lack of European games will allow for a much fresher squad. It's the little things.
There are caveats and pitfalls all over the shop, obviously. The possibility that Cesc Fabregas continues to look completely disengaged can't be ignored. Diego Costa could decide that he'd rather keep treading on people's toes than scoring goals. Eden Hazard could carry on...well, it's hard to pinpoint one thing wrong with Hazard this season. He's just 'off'. But unless the new manager can turn him back on (stop sniggering in the back), the Blues are minus a formidable attacking weapon.
Who cares, though? We're not far enough into the New Year to have stomped all over those resolutions, so this is still a time of optimism and positive thinking. Chelsea. Top of the table at the end of 2016. You heard it here first.
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