History says elite group ought to settle title in battle among themselves
The English Premiership winners will 'come from a small group of one', according to Chelsea's boastful chief executive Peter Kenyon. Most pundits seem to agree: Chelsea are in a league of their own.
Jose Mourinho's team are worthy title favourites, but their advantage might not be as big as it appears. Although the championship is decided over 38 games, the most crucial factor is how teams perform in the 'mini-league' between the Big Four - Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool (also referred to as the elite in the team-by-team guide alongside).
Chelsea won the mini-league last season with 14 points (out of 18), while Arsenal scored just five. That nine-point difference made up most of Chelsea's total winning margin of 12 points.
The previous season, when Arsenal were unbeaten champions, the positions were reversed. Arsenal won the mini-league with 14 points and Chelsea managed just seven, while the Gunners' overall winning margin was 11. The mini-league has a clear effect on the destiny of the title - the mini-league winner has won the Premiership in seven of the past nine seasons. The highest points-getter against the Premiership's other 16 teams, by contrast, has been overhauled four times out of nine due to poor performance in the mini-league.
Mourinho was probably being more realistic than Kenyon, therefore, when he admitted last week that he expected the championship race to be much closer this season.
There is not much to choose between Chelsea and Arsenal in their performance against the rest of the Premiership - last season Chelsea accumulated 81 points against Arsenal's 78. The previous season, the score was 76-72 in Arsenal's favour.
This is an area where United and Liverpool need to improve but, with the gap widening between the best and the rest, the championship race increasingly looks likely to be decided by the mini-league. The rest of the Premiership looks as tight and unpredictable as ever. Spurs and Middlesbrough are solid top-half teams who could be ready for a big push, Bolton continue to excel under Sam Allardyce, and nobody will write off Everton after last season's heroic fourth place.
The middle 10 places will be closely fought, however, with Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Blackburn Rovers, Charlton Athletic, Manchester City, Newcastle United and even Fulham all legitimate contenders for a top-half finish.
And at the bottom it may be too easy to write off the newly promoted sides - Sunderland, Wigan Athletic and West Ham United. More on them in Footy, the South China Morning Post's new soccer magazine in today's edition.