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History points to Chelsea for the title as holiday stats weigh in Blues’ favour

Antonio Conte’s men have had a strong first half in the Premier League and not many teams at this stage from the recent past have relinquished their lead

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 December, 2016, 2:33pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 December, 2016, 8:14pm

Chelsea’s lead in the English Premier League title race is a commanding six points and, with two home games to come before the end of 2016, their advantage looks more likely to increase than diminish over the festive season.

Being No 1 at Christmas is no guarantee of success in the long term, as several commentators have pointed out in recent days. In the 24 years of the Premier League era, exactly half of the Christmas leaders have gone on to take the title but the other half were overtaken and one of them, Aston Villa in 1998-99, faded so badly they ended up in sixth place.

But there are a couple of underlying stats that are highly encouraging for Chelsea. The first is that most of the failures for Christmas leaders came in the early years of the Premier League: in the first 12 seasons only three of them wound up as champions, but in the last 12 seasons there has been a complete turnaround and nine of the Christmas leaders were still top at the end of the season.

That reflects a change of approach among the top teams that stems back to Jose Mourinho’s entry into English football as Chelsea manager in 2004, which happens to be the mid-point between the start of the Premier League and now.

Mourinho set out to break the mould established first in the great Liverpool era and adopted by Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, whereby their teams steadily built up a head of steam and reached full power in the second half of the season. The classic example was United’s pursuit of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle in 1995-96 when they trailed by nine points in early February but ended up winning by four after a storming late run.

Ferguson was forced to change his thinking by Mourinho’s fast-from-the-start approach, which in his first season saw Chelsea lead United by six points after 10 games and by nine at Christmas. This time there was no coming back for Ferguson’s side and Chelsea won in a canter with 95 points, 12 ahead of Arsenal and 18 clear of United.

Chelsea did the same the next season by taking the crown after leading at Christmas and so did United in three of Ferguson’s five later title triumphs. Leicester were top this time last year and carried on to be unlikely champions, even with the pressure of being in front for so long.

The other positive for Chelsea is that the size of the lead at Christmas is also significant. The last five Christmas leaders who did not end up as champions had a lead of no more than two points at this stage, whereas the last five who led by at least five points all went on to take the title.

Chelsea are going to take some catching and the task may well become even more difficult for the chasers if Antonio Conte’s side stretch their winning run to 13 in the Premier League with home victories over Bournemouth on Monday and Stoke a week today. Few would bet against them taking maximum points again.

Of the pursuers, only Arsenal kick off at the same time as Chelsea on Monday, with Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham all having to wait until later on the programme for their matches. If Chelsea beat Bournemouth, as expected, the pressure on the chasing pack will be even greater.

Points over the festive period will be important to every club, and some of Monday’s lesser matches offer the best betting opportunities.

One of them is Swansea v West Ham, which has some semblance of a relegation battle as the hosts are 19th in the table and the visitors 13th. But West Ham are dragging themselves towards safety after a good response since the 5-1 drubbing by Arsenal and they rate the bet on the handicap.

Middlesbrough were 3-0 winners over Swansea last Saturday and they look capable of continuing their solid form away to Burnley. The only teams to beat Boro in the past two months are all in the top seven and their only loss to a struggling team was against Crystal Palace early in the season before Alan Pardew’s side slumped so badly that he lost his job this week.

Palace, only a point above the relegation zone, will be looking for an immediate boost when they visit Watford in Monday’s early kick-off. They have a reasonable chance even without significant improvement, but Watford still rate the handicap bet.

The other handicap bet to consider in the lesser games is Leicester, whose home form looks good enough to cope with Everton.