TEAMtalk believes Chelsea can lay realistic claim to being title favourites after a thrilling derby success over Tottenham on Saturday.
After eight games of the Premier League season, Chelsea are sitting pretty at the top of the pile, with their only dropped points coming from the 0-0 draw with QPR which was overshadowed by the John Terry-Anton Ferdinand hand-shake row.
Terry continues to dominate the headlines, despite not featuring in the six-goal thriller at White Hart Lane as he served the first of his four-game ban imposed by the Football Association for racially abusing Ferdinand 12 months ago.
Despite the off-field distractions which have dogged the Blues this term, Roberto Di Matteo's men have continued the momentum of last season's Champions League and FA Cup successes, with their exciting summer signings producing some scintillating football which will doubtless please owner Roman Abramovich.
Tottenham suffered a major setback in the run-up to kick-off with Gareth Bale ruled out at the last minute as his partner had gone into labour. Tom Huddlestone replaced the Wales international in the starting XI and his electric pace was clearly missed by the home side. Mousa Dembele (hip) was another key absentee for the hosts, with Gylfi Sigurdsson coming in, while Brad Friedel was brought back at the expense of Hugo Lloris.
Gary Cahill, as expected, was brought into the starting XI in place of Terry alongside David Luiz at the heart of the defence. The England international did not disappoint, forming a generally sound partnership and also opening the scoring with a blistering volley. Frank Lampard was available for the Blues after injury, but had to be content with a place on the bench.
Tottenham boss Andre Villas-Boas sent out his troops in a 4-2-3-1 formation against his former club with Huddlestone and Sandro the holding midfielders behind an attacking trio of Aaron Lennon, Sigurdsson and Clint Dempsey, with Jermain Defoe the focal point in attack. Sigurdsson had a number of opportunities to find the net but could not truly test Petr Cech, while Dempsey was taken off 16 minutes from time.
Chelsea counterpart Di Matteo is another disciple of the popular 4-2-3-1 selection, with his exciting attacking triumvirate of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata providing the ammunition for Fernando Torres as John Obi Mikel and Ramires screen the back four. Mikel, in particular, was excellent throughout, while Oscar, Hazard and Mata can be unstoppable when they click. Lampard may have to be patient despite returning to fitness.
Villas-Boas' substitutions were reactive rather than pro-active, with Huddlestone hooked for Jake Livermore immediately after Chelsea had equalised in the second period and Dempsey replaced by Emmanuel Adebayor with the home side trailing following Mata's double. Neither man was able to have a positive influence on the fixture as the absences of influential duo Bale and Dembele were keenly felt.
Di Matteo had little need to change his starting XI, such was their attacking verve even after falling 2-1 behind early in the second period. His first change only came seven minutes from time when Oscar was brought off and Daniel Sturridge sent into the fray, with the young England forward adding the fourth at the death from point-blank range. Lampard did make it onto the field in the closing stages as he replaced Hazard, but was barely involved.
Mike Dean was mainly impressive throughout what was a feisty derby encounter played at a typical break-neck Premier League speed. Branislav Ivanovic was cautioned for diving in the first period, while William Gallas was perhaps unfortunate to go into the book for a challenge on Torres when he appeared to win the ball. There were half-hearted penalty appeals from Chelsea after tackles on Ashley Cole and Torres in the second period, but Dean gave them the short-shrift they deserved.
Juan Mata was the undoubted man of the match for Chelsea as he scored two and set up one for the Blues. His first was an instinctive first-time effort from the outside of the box and the second a cool finish beyond Brad Friedel after an excellent passing move. The Spain international could have had a hat-trick but had missed arguably an easier opportunity in the first period.
Jermain Defoe is currently enjoying one his hot streaks in front of goal and it is no surprise that he is keeping Adebayor out of the side - much to the apparent disappointment of the former Arsenal and Manchester City man. Defoe proved once again he only needs half a chance to convert, with an excellent snap-shot from Aaron Lennon's ball into the box.
A derby defeat will doubtless disappoint the Tottenham faithful, but it should be taken into account that they were missing two key men in the shape of Bale and Dembele, while this is only the second defeat for Villas-Boas' men this season. William Gallas did not enjoy his best afternoon in defence, with his errors directly leading to goals for Cahill and Mata, and while Kyle Walker tested Petr Cech in the closing moments, his lapse then led to Chelsea's fourth.
Chelsea can now lay realistic claims to being favourites for the Premier League title this term. Their summer signings have settled immediately and present an attacking threat from all over the pitch. The Stamford Bridge club's handling of the Terry saga remains hugely questionable from a moral standpoint, but they seem unaffected by the off-field saga when the cross the white line. They have strength in depth in most departments, with the only question mark on their reliance on striker Torres up front.
Next weekend, Chelsea host closest challengers Manchester United at the Bridge on Sunday, with Tottenham in action at Southampton the same day.