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LONDON, England (AFP) – Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho believes the Premier League title race will be more open than ever ahead of his long-awaited return in Sunday's season opener against Hull.
Mourinho will be back in the Stamford Bridge dug-out for the visit of Steve Bruce's newly-promoted team, six years after he left the club following a glorious three-year reign.
The Portuguese guided the Blues to successive league titles and his return has seen Chelsea installed by many as favourites to take the crown away from reigning champions Manchester United.
Yet while Mourinho, who quit Real Madrid at the end of last season, claims the contest will be more open than in recent years, he believes quality at the head of the table is not what it was.
"I believe the Premier League is stronger because there is a bigger number of teams who can fight for the title," he said.
"Probably stronger because there's more balance. But I think, a few years ago, the better teams were better."
"Maybe by December or January you will find somebody wasn't strong enough to be there fighting for the title. But at the beginning, I think six teams are there competing."
Mourinho admits he expects an emotional reunion with Chelsea's supporters and is planning to visit the stadium with his players 24 hours before kick-off.
A gruelling pre-season tour has taken Chelsea around the globe but the new signings, including Andre Schurrle and Marco van Ginkel, have yet to play on home turf.
"I will go so I try to feel something. I want to share. It's not just me, it's also the new boys who don't even know where the dressing rooms are," Mourinho said.
"We will train there on Saturday so the boys can work out where the dressing rooms are, where the tunnel is, about the pitch. They've never been there.
"To be back there will be a different feeling. I had it when I came back here with Inter, but now I go to my dug-out, my stadium, my people."
Chelsea's Brazil defender David Luiz is ruled out, while Spanish midfielder Juan Mata faces a late test on an injury picked up in pre-season.
Van Ginkel and Schurrle are in contention to make their competitive debuts along with Kevin De Bruyne who spent last season on loan at Werder Bremen.
Hull manager Steve Bruce is set to hand debuts to Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore, the midfielders signed from Tottenham this week.
Scotland goalkeeper Allan McGregor, defenders Curtis Davies and Maynor Figueroa and forward Danny Graham are all likely to make their first Premier League start for the Tigers, who earned automatic promotion last season from the Championship.
Hull have failed to win in their 19 visits to Chelsea, stretching back more than a century.
The odds may be firmly stacked against his side as they aim to spoil Mourinho's welcome home party, but nevertheless, ex-Sunderland, Wigan and Birmingham manager Bruce is relishing the challenge as Hull return to the top flight for the first time in three years.
"If we needed a wake-up call to what the Premier League is all about then we'll find out at Chelsea," he said.
"It's going to be packed to the rafters and the interest in it is remarkable because of Jose.
"We couldn't have wanted a bigger test or a bigger challenge. I'm not sure if it's better getting the trip to Chelsea out of the way first up, I'll tell you after the game.
"We're under no illusions as to how difficult it will be. We're here, let's enjoy it, and see if we can make a real fist of it. My job is to make sure we keep the spirits high.
"Of course there will be games that we lose, but it's how you bounce back from those and the character you show in defeat."