London Evening Standard

Gary Lineker may be a former Tottenham striker but his hope that Chelsea do not get off to a runaway start again this season has nothing to do with club allegiances.

Last term, it took until December for Jose Mourinho’s men to be beaten, losing 2-1 at Newcastle in their 15th game of the Premier League campaign.

Aside from a remarkable 5-3 defeat to Spurs on New Year’s Day it was pretty much plain sailing for the Blues after that as they eased to the title with an eight-point advantage over their closest challengers Manchester City.

This season kicks off on Saturday and, as host of Match of the Day, Lineker would love the title race to go the distance but he fears that will not happen if Chelsea build up a similar head of steam.

“You’d have to say Chelsea are very strong favourites for the title; they’ve added to their squad, they were comfortable last season so there has to be quite a big turnaround for another club to challenge them,” says the former England striker. “Obviously the other clubs are making additions and they desperately need it. But it often takes time when you’re bringing in lots of different faces to find the balance to your side.

“It takes new players a bit of time to get themselves accustomed to playing in the Premier League, especially the foreign players. We can only have a really great season and much more competitive than last year if Chelsea don’t get off to a brilliant start as they did last year.”

It is not only in the No1 slot that Lineker expects a repetition of last season. The order may be different but he believes places two to four will be filled by the same clubs and that Arsenal and Arsene Wenger, who showed in Sunday’s Community Shield that he can get the better of Mourinho, could be top of that trio.

“I’ll be very surprised if it’s not Chelsea first and then a battle for second, third and fourth between Arsenal, Manchester United and City. I expect United to be stronger this season but Arsenal could actually be Chelsea’s most likely challengers.

“I quite admire the fact City have faith in Manuel Pellegrini. I thought tactically on occasions, particularly against strong teams last year, he played naively. Against Barcelona, or one or two of the other big sides, to play sort of two wide men, two up front and then just two in midfield meant they just got overran. He seems a real gent and, obviously, he’s had a lot of success and they won the League the year before so you’ve got to give the fellow another chance. Hopefully, he’ll reward them and they’ll push Chelsea close. But this depends on City bringing two or three more yet to really push Chelsea again.”

City’s big signing, of course, came from Liverpool with Raheem Sterling making the £49 million switch. Although the Reds have invested that money — and more — back in the squad with signings such as £32m Christian Benteke, Lineker thinks the Reds will fall short in their pursuit of Champions League football along with Spurs.

“It’s always more difficult if you’re involved in the Europa League and so you would fancy Tottenham finishing in a similar sort of position to last season (fifth). Liverpool are in the same sort of boat as Tottenham, trying to improve on last season. Whilst people say they did brilliantly to get all that money for Sterling that’s really weakened their team. It’s hard to see Liverpool getting into the top four. Everton won’t have the Europa League to distract them this time so will probably do a bit better.”

It is another of his former clubs that Lineker will be keeping his closest eye on. The lifelong Leicester City fan was thrilled when Nigel Pearson kept them up against the odds last term and dismayed when he was sacked.

The owners brought in former Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri as his replacement and Lineker says: “I’ve got absolute respect for Claudio Ranieri. He’s done some good things and has had a long career. It was a slightly unimaginative signing. When there are so many good young managers coming through perhaps you should give them a chance?

“I was also disappointed Nigel Pearson went having done such a brilliant job. They (Pearson and the owners) obviously had a bit of a fall out.

“There are clearly certain things they don’t agree with but do you have to like your manager? If you had to like your manager, some of the greatest would never have worked for very long would they?”


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