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Will Chelsea or City seize the moment?
A quick look at the bookmakers’ odds for the Barclays Premier League title suggest that something with long term significance might be on the cards this weekend at Stamford Bridge (live, Sunday, 12 p.m. ET). Despite erratic moments in the opening weeks of the season, Manchester City and Chelsea -- in that order and with a sliver between them -- are current favorites to finish at English football’s summit. The chance for one of them to exert some authority, and send out a signal to all the rest, is here.
They meet in west London on Sunday, both ramping up form, both finding some flow to their game, and both in the mood for goals. As Manchester United ably demonstrate, life under new management can come with hiccups and head scratching, but the plan seems to be falling into place a little quicker for City and Chelsea.
Although Jose Mourinho managed to get himself sidetracked into a squabble about time-wasting last weekend, in his calmer moments he must be quietly satisfied with recent developments. Four straight wins, served up with 14 goals, have made their positions in both the domestic and Champions League tables look considerably healthier. Chelsea are finding a rhythm up front, and Fernando Torres and Samuel Eto’o took turns last week to stake an improved claim to be the trusted man to lead from the front.
In his first period at Chelsea, Mourinho classed Didier Drogba as one of his “untouchables.” Whoever came and went, and some highly prized attackers arrived in the shape of Hernan Crespo and Andriy Shevchenko, it was obvious that Drogba was Mourinho’s most reliable and dependable weapon.
Now it's Torres or Eto’o’s turn to seize the baton. It is an intriguing storyline, really: these two men with significant reputations are more or less auditioning for the main striking role. Neither can yet say they are at the absolute top of their game, particularly in Eto’o’s case as he adjusts after a period in Russia, but both have upped their levels.
As a focal point, they bring different qualities to the party -- Torres is a little more direct and Eto’o more inventive -- and it seems Mourinho has not yet established which one to count on as his first choice. In a key match like this weekend, it will be illuminating to see which one he plumps for.
Eto’o scored his first goal in Chelsea blue last weekend, and made an unmistakable impression with his impish part in Eden Hazard’s equalizer when he controversially pickpocketed the ball from the Cardiff goalkeeper. "As long as I can run and as long as I get pleasure from playing, I will play forever," he said recently.
Torres took the Champions League by storm with a powerful display, embellished with two goals at Schalke. It was a performance in which he looked revived, confidence restored, but a consistent run is needed to convince critics he can fully reclaim the brilliance that made him a £50 million striker. European football has inspired the bulk of his goals last season and this, but the Premier League statistics remain startling: he has managed just one Premier League goal since last Christmas.
Can Mourinho help him to flick that switch? Will the manager have enough faith that Torres can again be a terror to Premier League defenders and goalkeepers? Can the Spaniard transfer promising form into something more tangible in the goals scored column? "I’m feeling well, and if you work hard, everything comes,” he says.
Manuel Pellegrini has also been trying various combinations out but looks to have settled on his best attacking formation. Earlier this season he kept juggling his scorers from game to game. There is abundant quality to pick from, with Sergio Aguero’s phenomenal talent augmented by Edin Dzeko and summer arrivals Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic. Aguero and Negredo were paired together so thrillingly when City beat rivals Manchester United in the team’s most coherent display of the season but not for the subsequent three matches. They have since have emerged as a trusted partnership. They dovetail beautifully, and have been picked in tandem for City’s recent run of wins.
City fared spectacularly well in their only rendezvous with a top four Premier League team so far this season. They gave an exhibition of power and style in swatting aside United a little over a month ago. They have had a couple of chastening defeats since, but have regrouped.
Chelsea have had two matches so far against clubs in the bracket of potential title rivals. They drew both away from home -- a grimly goalless stalemate at Old Trafford and a slightly more interesting 1-1 at Tottenham.
The opportunity for either Chelsea or City to gather pace is here this weekend to be seized.
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