Pretenders will be crowned

 

Nine years ago, when Stamford Bridge could last boast a table-topping side, Old Chelsea were as unlikely to sweep to long-term power as Old Labour. They had only just been promoted to the old First Division the summer before and Bobby Campbell's side's brief flirtation at the top on November 11th, 1989, was followed by just nine more League wins all season as they then crumbled away.

But new Chelsea under Gianluca Vialli would seem to have considerably more staying power as they go in search of only their first title since 1955.

Chelsea, perennially the glamorous pretenders, are still by no means clear favourites to succeed in what - at the virtual half-way stage - looks likely to be one of the most competitive title races in recent years. But although Chelsea have only occasionally reached the peaks which their manager Vialli demands, there is a steel to the side that few other teams from Stamford Bridge have ever shown.

It starts, as it always must, at the back, with their World Cup-winning duo of Marcel Desailly, the capture of the summer, and Frank Leboeuf. Ahead of them, Gustavo Poyet is not only their tireless workhorse but also the leading goal-scorer, while Gianfranco Zola remains their artist supreme alongside either Vialli or Tore Andre Flo.

The feeling persists that with such an impressive squad behind the automatic first choices, Chelsea will be too strong for their main rivals in the New Year. Manchester United, though, can never be ruled out but a pre-occupation with European pre-eminence exists at Old Trafford and the demands of the Champions' League have hardly helped United's league campaign.

United, too, have developed defensive frailties. Peter Schmeichel has been reduced to a mere mortal and although Jaap Stam is starting to live up to his huge price-tag, there is a common malaise in the United back four, as the failure to keep a clean sheet in the past 11 games shows.

Meanwhile, Arsenal are beginning to show signs of rising from injury-related dormancy. Last Sunday's 3-1 victory over Leeds was not only vital for confidence but also marked the return of Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp to the form of last season. , while even Marc Overmars threw off his post-World Cup lethargy. Anyone who writes off the Gunners at this stage is foolhardy in the extreme.

However, question marks remain over their squad if injuries resurface as they are so dependent upon Bergkamp and the precocious Nicolas Anelka.

Aston Villa have been constantly written off since their early season charge began but John Gregory has proved an astute manager both in terms of instilling a remarkable spirit in his side as well as in the transfer market and Villa are equipped to last the distance, particularly since the addition of Dion Dublin, a striker who will give Villa the 20 goals a season Villa require for a sustained challenge.

Prediction

1st - Champions: Chelsea.

2nd - Runners-up: Manchester United.

3rd - Champions' League spot: Aston Villa.

4th - UEFA Cup spot: Arsenal.