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Is this a two-team Premier League title race? A former Chelsea midfielder gives his verdict

It was at this point of last season that the pressure started to be ramped up on Frank Lampard, before he was sacked in January.
Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel. Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel. Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Kevin Palmer

HISTORY is in danger of repeating itself for Chelsea and this time, no-one saw it coming.

It was at this point of last season that the pressure started to be ramped up on Frank Lampard, with Thomas Tuchel’s sacking at Paris Saint-Germain adding to the suspicion that the ice was cracking under his feet heading into Christmas.

Lampard’s failure to reverse Chelsea’s slump heading into the first weeks of New Year cost him his job, with Tuchel hastily hailed as a managerial master as he revived a side that had lost its way and lifted the Champions League trophy last May.

A month ago, Tuchel was being mentioned in the same breath as Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp as the best managers in world football, but that glistening image has been chipped away of late.

From Premier League leaders to a side that are now six points behind table-toppers Manchester City after their 0-0 draw at Wolves on Sunday, this is a dip in results has set alarm bells ringing at a club where managers are always a few weeks away from a crisis.

The winning machine that was built around a rock-solid defence has become nervy, uncertain and edgy when defending against set-pieces, with the aura Tuchel has built up chipped away in rapid fashion.

Rediscovering that winning formula will not be easy and in the opinion of the ex-Chelsea midfielder Craig Burley, what looked certain to be a three-team Premier League title race a month ago is in danger of losing one of its contenders.

Speaking exclusively to the Sunday World from his base in America where he works for ESPN, the former Scotland international suggests Tuchel is now facing to his first real test as Chelsea boss and he needs to find solutions quickly.

“Is it is a two-horse race now? I don’t think so just yet, but Chelsea suddenly look like the horse that has the blinkers on,” Burley told us.

“A month ago, Chelsea appeared to be the team to beat, but now we are asking whether they can keep up with Liverpool and Manchester City.

“This is a massive change in mentality and it’s weird that seem to have hit the buffers at the same time of the year, when Lampard lost his job.

“The warning signs are flashing for Tuchel, there’s no doubt about that and the trouble for him is that his side are up against two sensational teams in Liverpool and City.

“They are going to keep winning every week and if you don’t match them, they’ll leave you behind.

“For me, City are the best team in the world right now and even though Liverpool have not been at their best, they have forward players to blow anyone away.

“They are going to keep winning every week and if you don’t match them, they’ll leave you behind.

“Chelsea have to try to match the brilliance of those two and it won’t be easy for Tuchel and his players, so he needs to get that winning mentality back quickly.

“At the moment, they are six points off the pace of the league leaders and they can’t let that gap grow.

“If it gets to seven, eight and nine points, then you are facing an uphill battle to draw it back because Liverpool and City won’t be dropping too many points if they carry on playing the way they have been of late.”

With key men missing for Tuchel again after a Covid outbreak at the club’s Cobham training base in the last week, Burley suggests the Blues boss needs to prove he is the real deal.

“For a long time, Tuchel was hailed as a manager could do no wrong,” he continues.

“He was rotating that Chelsea team and whatever he did, they won for most of the last year.

“Now that isn’t happening anymore and cracks are appearing in their make-up for the first time, with the manager being looked at to sort it out.

“Edouard Mendy couldn’t put a foot wrong in goal, the defence looked solid whoever Tuchel picked and they scored enough goals to win without having an outstanding striker.

“It looked like the addition of Romelu Lukaku last summer was going to be the final piece of the jigsaw, but Tuchel has not found a way to get the best out of him so far and that’s a problem.

“Chelsea are a good side and they have some top players, but I don’t see them getting over the line in the most demanding title race in the whole of European football if Lukaku is not leading their line.

“He’s the striker who can take Chelsea to the next level and there is no doubt they need to get to that level if they are going to finish ahead of Liverpool and City this season.”

Chelsea are due to play Liverpool and Manchester City by the middle of January and they also have the challenge of squeezing in the FIFA World Club Cup into their schedule in Abu Dhabi in early February.

By then, their Premier League title dream could have been shattered beyond repair, with Tuchel’s success in his opening months at the club likely to be forgotten by Chelsea owners who demand relentless success from the man calling the shots in the home dressing room at Stamford Bridge.

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