The Season Just Gone
The Championship is usually considered to be a long, hard slog: an inhumane marathon in which obvious talent is slaughtered by relentless stamina; a division made almost impossible to escape purely by its scale and schedule; a place where footballers go to be humiliated by muscular tackling machines. The likes of Newcastle United and Aston Villa – relative giants compared to Burnley – fear for their long-term futures at that level, despite their clear financial advantages over the other teams they’ll be playing against every weekend.
So it must be said that Burnley’s 2015-16 was a total triumph: Sean Dyche’s Clarets won the division at a canter and at the first attempt, returning to the Premier League after the briefest of absences, losing just five league games along the way. The club’s long-term planning and sound footballing and financial decisions enabled them to prepare for the campaign long before they were relegated, and they showed the way forward when it comes to anticipating and dealing with relegation from the top flight.
The Season Ahead
Whether or not such admirable administration is enough to secure them a long-term Premier League future remains to be seen. On paper, their squad looks painfully limited at this level, and anything other than another bloody battle against relegation would be a massive surprise. Dyche has spoken of the difficulty of convincing players to sign for Burnley, and although the recent capture of Belgian midfielder Steven Defour represents a coup and a massive step forward, they still look well short in terms of individual quality and tactical level.
That said, their fighting qualities, teamwork and humility, qualities fiercely fostered by Dyche, may well drag them out of trouble. Last weekend’s victory over Liverpool was a warning shot fired across the Premier League’s bow: if anyone was doubting Burnley’s ability to mix it with the best and brightest at this level and to blow them away with sheer bloody-mindedness, no doubts remain now. Chelsea have to be aware that they have to actually play and not simply show up in order to win this one.
Burnley are a newly promoted Championship team who were recently relegated and re-promoted under the supervision of a hardman former centre-back British manager: if that doesn’t tell you that they play a boxy, tight and defensive (read: mind-numbingly boring) 4-4-2 with little in the way of attacking flair, nothing will.
Chelsea can be expected to face a parked bus with no intention of moving out of the way, and it’ll be up to the Blues to find a way around it. Given their struggles doing just that so far this season, it may not be unreasonable to expect more of the same on Saturday afternoon, but the clear gulf in talent should prove too much. That said, Burnley’s strength on the counter-attack should not be underplayed, particularly when confronted with a defence as old, creaking and simply slow as Chelsea’s.
They’re admirably organised and more than capable of overcoming their obvious limitations, as last weekend’s defeat of Liverpool proved. Manager Sean Dyche’s ability to get more out of his lot than anyone has any right to expect remains Burnley’s biggest strength. In noted bigot André Gray, the Clarets have a hotshot finisher with the potential to be a prolific Premier League striker, while George Boyd retains the capability to produce a moment of genius from a sea of mediocrity.
While it’s tempting to pretend that a collection of hardworking, unpretentious journeymen present an endearing contrast to the cosseted trillionaires of Stamford Bridge, the fact remains that Burnley are basically crap compared to Chelsea. There’s just no way the Blues can’t be considered clear and absolute favourites for this game. If Chelsea turn up and play to 50% of their potential or more, Burnley shouldn’t stand a chance. Nothing more needs to be said.
Conte will surely give Cesc Fàbregas his first Premier League start of the season, while Dyche will – as ever – stick to his tried and tested settled XI, with new signing Defour coming into the side.
In spite of Burnley’s impressive win last weekend and Chelsea’s struggles so far, this really does look like an easy 3-0 win for a palpably superior Chelsea, who should have no need to move out of second gear.