It goes without saying that this is the most exciting title race that we’ve experienced for many years. Liverpool, Man City and Chelsea* are all in with a very good chance of clinching the Barclays Premier League, and over the next seven weeks we’re in for one hell of a rip-roaring ride.
(*Disgruntled Arsenal fans who see that their team is not named among the title contenders – I apologise, but I really regard it as highly unlikely that Wenger’s side will be in the mix come May 11th.)
In order to whet our appetite for what promises to be a contest that goes right down to the wire, we thought we’d bring you a preview of what could well be the tightest title race run-in in Premier League history.
Crystal Palace (A), Stoke City (H), Swansea (A), Sunderland (H), Liverpool (H), Norwich (H), Cardiff (A)
On the face of it, Chelsea’s run-in is the easiest of the three title contenders. One would think that will make short work of visits to Crystal Palace, Swansea and Cardiff, whilst they would be entitled to expect maximum points from home games against Sunderland and Norwich.
However, one of the things that may count against Jose Mourinho’s men is the fact that they are playing so many relegation candidates. The battle at the bottom is as tight as at the top and with three points proving an especially precious commodity in the last throes of the season, these teams will be more motivated than ever to perform against the Blues.
One other key factor in Chelsea’s title bid will be how they fare in their Champions League quarterfinal with Paris Saint-Germain next week. Chelsea are the sole Champions League participants in the title race and if they were to beat PSG over two legs, they would be required to squeeze another two games in for the semi-final, with the first leg taking place four or five days before a crucial clash with Liverpool and the second leg a mere two or three days after. A victory over PSG would almost guarantee that Mourinho’s team would go into that game with Liverpool more fatigued than their opponents, and given that the Portuguese does not have a particularly substantial squad at his disposal, these fine margins could prove to be telling.
If Chelsea go out of Europe at the hands of PSG one would think they should have enough to cross the finish line first. Mourinho has proved this season that he knows how to win the big games and will not be afraid of facing Liverpool at Anfield, whilst he knows that he has enough quality at his disposal to beat every other team Chelsea will face in between now and May 11th.
Arsenal (A), Southampton (H), Liverpool (A), Sunderland (H), West Brom (Home), Crystal Palace (A), Everton (A), Aston Villa (H), West Ham (H)
City’s emphatic victory at Old Trafford emphasised the gulf in class between the two sides, but it also reminded us of something: City are a very, very good football team. In Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and David Silva, the Sky Blues have perhaps the best spine in the league, and when these three players are on song, it is very difficult to stop them.
The good news for City fans is that unlike Liverpool and Chelsea, Manuel Pellegrini’s side have their destiny in their own hands. Win all of their remaining fixtures, and City will be crowned champions for the second time in the Premier League era. The bad news is that with two games in hand on their title rivals, they start this particular race two and three points behind the teams in front. Whilst games in hand in theory give a team an advantage, there’s a lot to be said for already having the points on the board.
Further bad news for City: they probably have the hardest run-in of the three title contenders. They begin this final period of the season on Saturday at the Emirates knowing that a loss to Arsene Wenger’s men could seriously dent their title aspirations. This will be followed by a clash with Southampton at the Etihad, and as anyone who has watched Saints play over the last couple of years knows, this will not be an easy fixture. After entertaining Pochettino’s men, Pellegrini will then head west to face Liverpool. Failure to extract a minimum of seven points from these first three fixtures will almost certainly see City fall out of the title race.
After these three make-or-break fixtures, City will have to face the not inconsiderable challenges of Sunderland, Everton and West Ham United, as well as a Villa side who triumphed over them at Villa Park in September.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the Citizens though: they have the most complete squad of the title challengers. With news that Sergio Aguero is back in training, City boast a fearsome strikeforce, enviable creativity and very solid midfield and defence (although Martin Demichelis remains a perennial weak link). If they can keep their key players fit, they should feel confident in each of their remaining games.
Tottenham (H), West Ham (A), Man City (H), Norwich (A), Chelsea (H), Crystal Palace (A), Newcastle (H)
Brendan Rodgers’ side are very much the surprise package in this year’s title race, and their improvement has been as delightful as it has been unexpected. For a team that finished in seventh place last season, the Reds’ rise has been astronomical and Rodgers must be thoroughly congratulated for the work that he has done.
It is difficult to decide who has the most difficult run-in out of Liverpool and North West rivals Man City, but given that all three of Liverpool’s ‘big’ games take place at Anfield, it is City who just about take that dubious honour. Following Wednesday night’s win at home to Sunderland, Rodgers’ side will face Tottenham at Anfield, and given the 5-1 scoreline in their previous clash, Liverpool will be very confident of taking all three points in that fixture.
Following the Spurs match, the Reds will travel to West Ham before a massive game at home to Man City on the 13th April. A trip to Norwich will follow the week after before heading back to Anfield for what could well be a title decider with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea.
Whilst Liverpool are currently in second place, they could easily be leapfrogged by Man City when the Citizens have played their games in hand and for that reason, Rodgers’ side have to be considered as third favourites. However, this is not to say that the title race is out of their hands. Whilst they are currently a point behind league leaders Chelsea and have played two games more than City, Rodgers’ side will play both sides in their run-in, and if they can extract six points from those two fixtures, they will then most likely be in pole position to lift their first league title for 24 years. Liverpool fans might need to blink, but this really could be their year.
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