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Why Chelsea will, or won't, win the Premier League this season

Here's one alternative fact I think we can all agree on: Every Premier League fan is absolutely certain of his team's fate and the future of the title race. If you're a Chelsea supporter (and thanks to manager Antonio Conte, I'll permit that), you're already making plans to mock Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger mercilessly.

And while it certainly seems that the trophy is Chelsea's to lose -- they enjoy a robust eight-point gap over second-place Arsenal with 16 games remaining -- reality won't stop optimistic Gooners or delusional supporters of Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester City from dreaming Pollyanna dreams. Well, maybe not Liverpool.

If nothing else, we've learned this season that the top five can go anywhere and win, draw or claim they were hosed by Jon Moss, and if ever there was a propitious time for Chelsea to sputter, it would be against their next two opponents: Liverpool and Arsenal. Both teams had little trouble disposing of Conte's nascent side in the fall and shouldn't be cowed when they collide with his tactically re-engineered juggernaut within four apocalyptic days of each other, starting Tuesday.

So here's what the season comes down to...

Five reasons why Chelsea will win the title

1. Only Diego Costa can stop Diego Costa

Whether you subscribe to the theory that he's an old-school warrior playing through terrible back pain or a modern-day mercenary looking to be the highest-paid bull in China's soccer shop, there can be little argument that the Brazilian-born Spaniard is thus far the Premier League's Player of the Year. When he isn't rampaging through defenses to score 15 goals (tied with the noble Alexis Sanchez for the league lead), he's muscling opponents in midfield to win back possession, setting up his teammates, and causing consternation throughout the land.

What a heart-stopping moment it must have been for fans when two weeks ago, Costa's back -- or perhaps his agent's greed -- flared up and it appeared Chelsea might be without their beautiful beast of a striker for an extended period of time. But after sitting out the Leicester game, he returned to rescue his team against a surprisingly resilient Hull City with the decisive first goal while reminding the faithful that as long as he's on the field, they need not worry.

At least, that is, until this summer.

2. Ragin' Antonio Conte is actually the coolest head among uber-managers

Much has been made of how the Italian overhauled his system after a dire start to the season that saw Chelsea residing uncomfortably in eighth place, eight points behind then-leaders Manchester City. That Chelsea have since won 15 of 16 games, turning what was supposed to be the most feverish Premier League race in 15 years into a leisurely title stroll, owes as much to Conte's man-management skills as it does to his ballyhooed three-in-the-back tactical masterstroke.

It couldn't have been easy to convince the stubbornly proud Cesc Fabregas to give up his starting role as Chelsea's creative hub for the good of the system, but rather than sulk over his demotion, the former Arsenal and Barcelona string-puller has used his sporadic minutes off the bench to contribute a team-high eight assists in all competitions.

Conte's fiery management has actually proved to be quite calmer than it looks.

Conte also gambled that the much-maligned and defensively reckless David Luiz could be counted upon; how he figured that out belongs in a future episode of "Sherlock." But maybe Conte's most significant achievement has been his canny handling of the charged Costa situation.

No stranger to volcanic temper tantrums -- Conte famously hurled bottles of water around the locker room while guiding Juventus to three successive Scudettos -- the Italian could relate to his striker's notoriously short fuse. Conte had already pulled off the neat trick of making Chelsea likable again, so what's a little tough love between a couple of hot-blooded competitors?

When all tabloid hell erupted in the wake of Costa refusing to train due to the aforementioned back injury, which happened to occur at the same time a club from China was reportedly delivering the ATM to his door, Conte refused to allow the standoff to deteriorate into the kind of toxic sideshow that engulfed Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola early in the season.

Rather than bad-mouth Costa about his sudden interest in the philosophical stylings of Confucius, the manager put a metaphorical arm around his leading scorer and hewed to the party line that the striker's problems were strictly physical.

3. Chelsea's defense is tighter than Cristiano Ronaldo's abs

The lazy stereotype of Italian managers is that their success is based on boring defensive soccer, but Chelsea excel at defending and attacking, which gives players like Eden Hazard, Pedro and Willian the freedom to express themselves without the risk of exposing their back line.

It helps, of course, that in N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic, Chelsea have the league's two best holding midfielders who work relentlessly to protect that rearguard. Sitting behind that Spartan shield is the league's hardest defense to breach, one that has recorded more clean sheets than in your local laundromat and went an astonishing 601 minutes without conceding a goal.

4. The Premier League is an all-or-nothing win for them

If Jose Mourinho's second stint at Stamford Bridge hadn't been so abject, Chelsea might well be facing the same concerns of squad rotation and midweek, Europe-hopping fatigue as Manchester City, Arsenal, Spurs and United. Instead, Chelsea's lack of frequent flyer miles, thanks to their Champions League absence, has given Conte the luxury of using that time to work intensively on his team's fitness, which is why you rarely see his players flagging at the end of games. And it hasn't gone unnoticed that Tottenham, the team that ended Chelsea's 13-game winning streak, caught fire only after they were bounced out of the Champions League.

Chelsea fans obviously hope that Spurs are foolish enough to remain active in the Europa League so that their domestic title challenge can fade as it has for the past 55 years.

5. Chelsea play Sunderland at home in their final game

Not only does Chelsea have the easiest final-day fixture of all the contenders, but their run-in, while perhaps not as Charmin-soft as Spurs', is hardly daunting.

Of Chelsea's final six games, realistically only Manchester United away poses a genuine threat. Yet Conte has obviously read his compatriot Claudio Ranieri's treatise on talking up weak opponents until you board the open-top bus for the championship parade. The Chelsea manager has gone to great lengths to point out that even the lowliest teams in the league are capable of conjuring an upset down the home stretch.

"In my experience, in my career as a footballer, I once won and once lost a title when [there was] a seven-point lead four games from the end of the season," said the former Juventus and Italy defender. "We have an eight-point lead with 16 games to play, so we need to know this league will be very tough until the end."

Nice try, Antonio, but the fact remains that Chelsea haven't lost to a single opponent in the bottom half of the table. If that record continues, it means they can afford to drop every remaining game against top teams and still breeze their way to the title.

As much as I'd like to see a madcap scramble right to the end, I'm afraid that's going to happen only between Spurs and Arsenal.

Three reasons Chelsea won't win the title, or "What is the sound of an Arsenal fan clutching at straws?"

1. Diego Costa's evil twin is due for a return

There have always been two Costas, the Good Jekyll Diego and the Bad Hyde Costa, and they war constantly. This season, thanks to Conte's shrewd handling of his meal ticket, we have largely seen Diego Bueno, the one who focuses his internal fury on the opponent's goal. The Diego I prefer -- the theatrically flopping, mayhem-creating, red-card-inducing, cheap-shot artist -- has been oddly muted. But in the high-stakes crucible of the title run-in, who's to say that the Blues' chief provocateur won't surrender to his worst instincts?

And yet, incredibly, he's been sent off only once in his Chelsea career, a tribute to his ability to expertly time his knee jabs and elbow digs when the referee's back is turned. (See his eye swipe and chest bump on Arsenal's Laurent Koscielny last season that resulted in Gabriel being dismissed for kicking out at the sheepish Spaniard.)

One can only hope that over the course of the next 16 games, opponents will try to goad him into doing something stupid, and if that were to happen, Bad Diego's reappearance would sorely test Chelsea's title credentials.

Diego Costa has been cool, calm and productive for Chelsea. But it wouldn't take much for things to change.

2. No team stays healthy forever

Well, they do: Leicester proved that last year, but they were the exception to every rule. This season, unlike their closest competitors, Chelsea have been relatively lucky in avoiding injuries to pivotal players. The only long-term setback has been to promising young central defender Kurt Zouma, who was lost for the season at the start of February with a ruptured ACL.

John Terry, the once-indestructible on-field leader, has also been sidelined for much of the campaign (and inept when he's been fit), but not to worry. If Chelsea wins the league, the 35-year-old will no doubt leap off the trainer's table and do his Clark Kent routine, suddenly changing into his Chelsea kit and bounding onto the podium to join in the celebration.

Of the players Conte could ill afford to lose (Kante, Hazard and Luiz), Hazard is the most fragile. After an unhappy and unproductive spell during Chelsea's implosion under Mourinho, Hazard is back to his old exhilarating self. Liberated from any defensive duties by Conte, the resurgent Belgian has been able to focus solely on terrifying opponents with the blistering pace and silky ball skills that made him the Premier League Player of the Year in 2014-15.

The only potential downside to this newfound freedom is that Hazard's defense-shredding dribbles often result in desperate challenges from embarrassed opponents. He was knocked out of the West Brom game early and sat out the next match against Sunderland. The possibility of losing someone as valuable as Hazard in the run-in is just one of the many reasons why Conte continues to downplay Chelsea's apparent arm-lock on the trophy.

3. Spurs have supplied the blueprint for how to beat Chelsea

The myth of Chelsea's impregnable defense was blown apart by Spurs in their hugely impressive victory at White Hart Lane when the league leaders were twice caught out on eerily similar goals. Much of the credit goes to the inspired tactics deployed by Tottenham's Mauricio Pochettino, the first manager to successfully exploit Chelsea's one area of vulnerability.

Everton manager Ronald Koeman tried a similar gambit, setting up his team in the same 3-4-3 formation that Conte used to win 13 games on the trot, and was pulverized 5-0 for his efforts. But Tottenham's higher-caliber players were able to nullify Chelsea's dangerous wing-backs who are at the heart of Conte's system.

Chelsea's excellent Cesar Azpilicueta and versatile Victor Moses weren't able to push forward with their usual menace, so justifiably wary were they of the pace and power of counterparts Kyle Walker and Danny Rose.

Pochettino targeted another flaw in Chelsea's setup. At 5-foot-10, Azpilicueta was the shortest man on the field and was particularly susceptible to deep crosses at the far post, especially when up against taller, more powerful opponents such as, say, 6-foot Dele Alli. Twice, Christian Eriksen found the on-rushing Spurs midfielder in a pocket of space between Azpilicueta and Moses; the pair could only look on helplessly as Alli soared over them to head home.

Let's hope Liverpool and Arsenal were taking notes. But mostly Arsenal.

David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.


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