Incoming Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri will be competing for the Premier League crown against a Manchester City side who won’t be as dominant as they were in their title-winning campaign last time of asking.

That’s the verdict of Blues legend Gianfranco Zola, who is keeping a watchful eye on the Stamford Bridge situation as time continues to ebb by without a firm decision on who will lead the team next term.

Sarri, who is currently obligated to Italian giants Napoli, is said to be the preferred candidate to replace Antonio Conte, although there has been no official word yet that the present incumbent is on his way out of the club.

Napoli are battling to keep their coach and at the same time Conte is digging his heels in over his departure – with sources claiming he wants the last year of his deal paid in full before he leaves the club.

It all makes intriguing viewing for Zola, who is said to have spoken with Chelsea about returning to his former outfit in one senior managerial role or another.

And if, as seems most likely, Sarri does take the reins eventually, Zola says they have a manager who is strong-minded and must be allowed to get on with the job without any outside interference.

If they do that, Zola believes Chelsea can challenge City and the other hopefuls as the title race unfolds. He said:

“Manchester City are favourites but in the Premier League there are no guarantees; it’s not that because City won the league last year they are more likely to win it again this year.

“It’s a very competitive league, between United who’ll invest a lot, Chelsea themselves, the always improving Tottenham, Arsenal. It’s a very lively league and very open to other clubs. City won’t dominate the way they dominated this past year, I’m almost certain about that.

“It has to be said that Conte has done an impressive job at Chelsea. I would hope that, should Sarri move to London, they will let him do his job, which means planning and organisation leading to constant improvement in the players.

“I hope he can achieve the same results as previously. It’s certainly a very different challenge and a different situation compared to where he’s been before, but one with lots of advantages. We’re talking about an exceptional coach, who will have the chance of doing a great job.”

Zola, the former Italian international who played for Chelsea between 1996 and 2003, says he has followed Sarri’s career for a while now and likes what he sees. He added: “I’ve been following him for a long time, since I was at Cagliari and I was analysing clubs on the same level and one club that I had a particular fondness of was his Empoli.

“I liked Empoli because their attitude was rarely seen in a club fighting for those parts of the league table; they were playing as if they were a big club, always looking to take the initiative on the pitch. Sarri’s ability became more evident to all when he moved to Napoli. He is good — the results speak for themselves. Anyone who loves football cannot help but fall in love with the way Napoli have been playing these years.”