Jose Mourinho changed the rules of engagement.
Before his arrival as Chelsea manager in the summer of 2004 teams could start the season sluggishly and yet finish the campaign as champions.
The 2002-03 season was a classic case in point. Manchester United struggled in the early part of the campaign and still trailed defending champions Arsenal by eight points on March 2. Come May though, it was United who lifted the title, with the Gunners five points back in second.
Twelve months later the Special One entered the fray and ushered in a new era by beating Manchester United 1-0 on the opening weekend of the 2004/05 season. The Blues went on to win 10 of their opening 13 games, lose just one game all season and finished the campaign as champions with a record points tally of 95, 12 more than runners up Arsenal.
They repeated the dose the following season, failing to win just one of their opening 10 games and retaining the title by eight points from United.
For Alex Ferguson the lesson was clear: in the past poor starts could be overcome. Not any more. Ferguson heeded the lesson and in 2006/07 United started with a run of 11 wins from the first 13 games to seize an initiative they wouldn’t relinquish. The season ended with United dethroning Chelsea to win their first championship in four years.
Last season followed a similar pattern, with the two sides who would contest the title on the last day flying out of the traps. After seven games the Manchester clubs were joint top with 19 points from seven games and both sides had run riot on numerous occasions, notably when City put five past Tottenham at White Hart Lane and United demolished Arsenal 8-2. Ultimately, while only difference separated City and United, the gap back to third-placed Arsenal was an enormous 19 points.
It all started again at the weekend and the lesson is simple: a title can’t be won before Christmas but it can certainly be lost. Of the group of what we would loosely term the ‘big six’ it is United who have the kindest start. Yes, an away game at Everton tonight is hardly a gimme but United, buoyed by the capture of Robin van Persie, have a superb record at Goodison Park and the Toffees are notoriously slow starters. United’s next three games against Fulham, Southampton and Wigan are eminently winnable and while a trip to Anfield is never easy, United’s next match is a home game against Tottenham, who are yet to win a Premier League game at Old Trafford.
The fixtures computer has been equally kind to Chelsea and having started their campaign with a win at Wigan yesterday, Roberto Di Matteo’s men will fancy their chances of picking up maximum points from their next games against Reading, Newcastle, QPR and Stoke.
As expected, champions Manchester City began their title defence with a home win over newly promoted Southampton yesterday — but things get significantly tougher from now on as Roberto Mancini’s men face taxing trips to Liverpool, Stoke and Fulham (all of whom they dropped points against last season) in their next six.
Add in a home game with Arsenal into the equation and it becomes clear City will do well to repeat last season’s imperious start this time around.
Perhaps fittingly, Arsenal began the post van Persie era with a scoreless draw against Sunderland on Saturday and Arsene Wenger has reason to be concerned. The Gunners face a hazardous programme with away dates at Stoke, Liverpool and City and a home game against Chelsea in their early season programme.
After Saturday’s horror show at West Brom, the fixture list looks similarly daunting for Liverpool. None of their next five league games — trips to Sunderland and Norwich and home ties against Man City, Arsenal and Man United — could be labelled a banker and new manager Brendan Rodgers would have hoped for a kinder schedule. The inexperienced Antrim man could find himself under pressure very quickly.
Like Liverpool, Tottenham began the campaign on a losing note but, although they face a trip to Old Trafford as part of their early itinerary, home games against West Brom, Norwich and QPR and a trip to Reading provides Andre Villas-Boas’s side with a chance to get early points on the board.
And that, as Mourinho proved, is the name of the game.
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