THE title race is a marathon but it has started with a sprint.
The first round of fixtures in the Barclays Premier League has now passed, with many of the expected pace-setters leading the way; Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool getting out of the blocks early with opening wins. A referee's whistle got Chelsea's new campaign under way last night but Michael Oliver might have used a starter's pistol instead.
The London side would suffer something of a false start at Turf Moor, conceding after just 14 minutes to a delightful finish from Scottish midfielder Scott Arfield. By half-time, Chelsea had found their stride again - galloping to a 3-1 victory following goals from Diego Costa, Andre Schurrle and Branislav Ivanovic. They face another newly-promoted team in their next match as Leicester City visit Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
Loading article content
Burnley are unlikely to look ahead to the weekend just yet. The match last night allowed the Lancashire club to both live out a fantasy and be reminded of the harsher reality of playing in the English top flight. They have returned to the upper level of English football this summer after four years away, and were allowed to revel in the moment for all of 17 minutes.
A wave of thundering cheers had greeted Sean Dyche and his players as they emerged from the tunnel to signal the start of an exciting new dawn at Turf Moor. The hosts nearly went behind within three minutes - Kieran Trippier's nerves got the better of him as his misplaced pass went straight to Costa, with the striker laying the ball off to Schurrle, whose deflected shot drifted wide - but that moment was drowned out by a support warmed by the glow of the spotlight.
They roared their team on, Lukas Jutkiewicz spurning a good chance to test Thibaut Courtois, who had been preferred in goal for Chelsea ahead of Petr Cech, as he drilled the ball into the side-netting from inside the box. Turf Moore gasped. It was a chance to score and to catch one's breath before Burnley cried out in celebration.
Chelsea's back four were slow when clearing the ball from the box after a corner and Matt Taylor, played onside by John Terry, found Arfield with a neat pass. The unmarked midfielder, once of Falkirk and released by Huddersfield Town two years ago, accepted the invitation to blast a volley past Courtois, who froze as the ball flew past his right ear.
The stands rocked as Burnley started to believe an upset was possible. The floodlights beamed down on their team; Turf Moor was a stage.
But three minutes their script was torn asunder. Chelsea were level. Ivanovic latched on to a backheel from the peerless Cesc Fabregas and flashed a low cross from the right that which deflected off defender Jason Shackell and hit the far post. Costa shifted his feet and swept the stray ball through Michael Duff's legs.
The Burnley defence was brought to its knees again just four minutes later. They were deflated by the speed of Chelsea's movement, their passing but it was a move which left everyone else desperate for a second look. Eden Hazard surged deep inside the Burnley half, beating three defenders before laying the ball off to Ivanovic. The Serb then found Fabregas, whose perfectly-weighted, clipped pass was converted with one decisive touch from Schurrle.
Hazard may have failed to light up the World Cup, but the Belgian was shining bright on this chilly night in east Lancashire. He slalomed through the Burnley defence and lofted a ball over Tom Heaton, the home goalkeeper, but Costa could not get on the end of it.
The Spain forward was sharp enough to pick up on Ben Mee's careless back pass a few minutes later, but was booked for taking a dive. It had appeared as though his trailing leg had been caught by Heaton, but he had already dusted himself by the time his Chelsea side had sealed an opening day win with a third goal.
Fabregas floated a corner straight on to the right boot of Ivanovic, who prodded the ball into the net after surging ahead of his marker.
His side have burst out of the blocks with similar intent.