In an alternate universe, Manchester United's won their fourth consecutive Premier League, with neutrals and rivals shaking their head. If not this year, then when, they ask, thinking about the United team in the wake of Cristiano Ronaldo's sale. Where does the legaue go now?
Even if you're a United supporter, that universe sounds a lot less interesting than the one created by Chelsea's title, but rather than thanking Chelsea for restoring what limited diversity the Premier League has, let's sit back an think about where Chelsea was after the 2008-09 season.
The season was the most disappointing of the Roman Abramovich era. The club fired Luiz Felipe Scolari mid-season, left the title race to Manchester United and Liverpool, and suffered a bitter Champions League exit. The FA Cup that culminated Guus Hiddink's brief tenure provided consolation, but Chelsea was in need of repair during the summer of '09.
Enter Carlo Ancelotti. In hindsight, it's easy to say the Italian was an ideal hire, but before the season started, the move looked to target Champions League, not England. The only title Chelsea had yet to win under Abramovich was Champions League, and Ancelotti - having won Europe in 2003, 2007 - was considered a Champions League coach. One season removed from leading Milan to a fifth place finish in Italy, Ancelotti was not necessarily looked upon as the guy to secure the Premier League.
Yet that's exactly what he did. Combining training pitch discipline with a respectful disregard for his players' private affairs, Ancelotti proved to be the perfect fit for a veteran Chelsea squad. His combination of guidance and detachment allowed the team to police itself. While at times that approach created the impression of a locker room out-of-control, the results came. Chelsea won their first title in three seasons.
This season will be less about correcting course than maintaining it, a task that will force Ancelotti to continue putting-off the decline phase of his aging them. While that's not something he did particularly well in his last days at Milan, Ancelotti's shown a particular understanding of Chelsea's players. For a team with JohnTerry, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard - a cadre of strong-willed leaders - Ancelotti is the right man to maximize the final parts of his stars' prime years.
Major Comings: Yossi Benayoun was bought from Liverpool, an insurance policy against Joe Cole's departure. Ramires is expected to arrive this week, adding some much needed depth to Ancelotti's midfield.
Significant Goings: The Joe Cole insurance proved prudent. Michael Ballack moved back to Germany. Deco was allowed to go to Fluminense. Ricardo Carvalho left for Real Madrid.
Still There: Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka return up-top. Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou provide options that bridge the gap between the strikers and midfield. Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel remain the core of the midfield. John Terry, Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa feature in front of Petr Cech. What Chelsea lacks in depth, they make up for in stars.
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Why: I'm actually surprised the goals for is so high, considering another 51 league goals from Drogba and Lampard is unlikely. However, more games from all of Jose Bosingwa, Ashley Cole and Michael Essien help. Yossi Benayoun came out as an improvement on the 2009-10 version of Joe Cole, while there was an uptick for Salomon Kalou. The goals allowed go up more than I would have otherwise predicted, but even a slight regression should be enough to see Manchester United pass them.
Best Case Scenario: While Manchester United is the favorite to win the league, Chelsea is one of three viable candidates. It wouldn't take much for them to not only repeat as champions but also have an easier time of it than they did in 2009-10. If the Blues stay healthier than last season, it could more-than-offset age and regression. Chelsea fans should be optimistic.
Nightmare: Unfortunately, it's not difficult to imagine the worst-case scenario. With the age and mileage of key players, they may not only regress but also fail to see better health. Ancelotti's intent on switching back to a four man midfield even though midfield's the thinnest position on the team. The Premier League may have the strongest top eight in the world, so if there's the planets align in a bad way, there'll be a number of clubs set to make Chelsea's 2010-11 mirror Liverpool's 2009-10.
Most Likely: Chelsea's nearly as good as last year's title-winning team, but with stiffer competition, the Blues find themselves closer to third than first.