The January transfer window always looked like it could be a case of "who dares wins", and it was José Mourinho who blinked. It required a bold gambit to sacrifice Juan Mata to the heathens in the north, in return for enough money to secure an inexpensive replacement in Mohamed Salah and a much-needed controlling presence in midfield in Nemanja Matic. The latter proved to be instrumental in the win against Manchester City, and it now seems that Mourinho's gamble has made his side favourites for the title.
Despite the fact that Chelsea look likely to improve, on the face of it it will only seem that their lucky 2-0 victories will become routine 2-0 victories. Yesterday showed how that appearance can make a huge difference in other contexts, and meanwhile, Manchester City are the opposite -- solidity and rigidity are their enemies, and they have tended to come up short when they encounter them.
It's still hard to look past a side that are blowing everybody away as favourites, but history will point to the gritty, reliable types as the likeliest to seize the crown in May. Chelsea are in fact one notable recent exception to this, when they dealt out several thrashings under Carlo Ancelotti, but that hangover was postponed until the next season. The team they had beaten to the title was Manchester United, who, despite possessing one of the greatest frontlines ever seen in English football since their infamous 'holy trinity,' 1-0'd their way to first place over Rafael Benitez's erratic but more frequently gung-ho Liverpool.
Since then and before, the old clichés, which are of course clichés for a reason, all point to backing it up. Winning while playing poorly, grinding out results, killing teams off, maintaining a lead, building a solid defence, are all cited as the hallmarks of Champions-in-waiting. And they seem to apply to Chelsea more than Manchester City.
City's abortive transfer activity this January mirrored their summer acquisitions. Players who were of an ostensibly high calibre were acquired, although they were also certainly a good tier or two below the very best. Alvaro Negredo and Fernandinho both got off to ludicrous starts, and the latter has certainly become absolutely crucial to this City side, but the likes of Negredo and Navas were not significant upgrades.
Negredo has impressed, but he is not the type of striker to truly elevate a team to a higher plane -- Sergio Aguero was bought for that, as City seemingly showed more ambition and creativity in their planning years ago when they were not yet an elite force. Analysing where goals come and claiming that someone is racking up their tally against lesser teams is often an exercise in futility -- after all, nobody does worse against terrible defences -- but City were at the point where they needed something else, and Negredo has not yet shown he is a big game player. It is acceptable to question the source of his goals when he has nine in 21 in the Premier League, a poor tally for a top side dominating so ruthlessly.
The answer was, of course, that Manuel Pellegrini is playing a squad game. Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney's fitness problems have left City with the outstanding strikeforce in the league (aided by Chelsea and Arsenal being abnormally poor at present in this regard). Rotation has been the key to their success, and the addition of Fernando might have saved them from burning out Fernandinho, while Eliaquim Mangala would've given them more depth at centre-back. Both true, but neither likely to take them to the next level.
Of course, conventional wisdom in many a sport states that the leader is not the one who takes the gambles. If it ain't broke, don't fix it -- and Manchester City were playing the most convincing football in England, thrashing teams left, right, and centre. Why change? But City had already done the league, while failing miserably in Europe. The next ambition was an obvious one, and while those failures had a great deal to do with Roberto Mancini, they still needed to improve the overall level of their team rather than their squad.
Compared to their cross-town rivals, of course, and even the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool, these 'problems' are enviable ones to have. But that doesn't mean they won't need to be addressed if City really do want to become the greatest team not just in England, but on the planet. José Mourinho and Arsene Wenger both hinted that they would be found out somewhat in Europe. That promises to be a fascinating adventure, but they may find themselves at risk even more on the home front thanks to Mourinho.