The Premier League title race is heading into the final stretch. Unlike most years, it is a genuine and open one. Four teams – Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool – are within four points of the top spot. Here is a break down of the respective strengths and weaknesses of their candidacies.
Home: 12-0-2 (+20)
Away: 6-3-4 (+8)
Top 7: 5-1-3 (+4)
Chelsea knew what marriage to Mourinho would be: monotonous, romance free and fruitful. This team is, finally, filling his mold. They don’t allow goals (just 21 in 27 matches, fewest in the EPL). They don’t drop points at Stamford Bridge (just four of a possible 42). Chelsea’s lead now is slim, but the schedule favors the Blues down the stretch. Chelsea play just three of their 11 remaining games against top seven teams. Two of those, Arsenal and Tottenham, are at home. The away trip is to Anfield.
Their concerns do not overwhelm, but they are worth noting. Jose Mourinho was caught saying he did not have a striker. That sentiment is well founded. Torres has been a non-entity. Samuel Eto’o has been as well, except for a somewhat fortunate hat-trick against Manchester United. Scratching out 1-0 wins is much easier with a Drogba. Without one, Chelsea place a lot of impetus for magic on their midfield. Teams that can nick a goal have a good chance at stealing points.
Chelsea also could be held up by mild fixture congestion. They may have to divide resources for the latter rounds of the Champions League. Manchester City and Arsenal have been all but eliminated.
Home: 10-1-3 (+19)
Away: 8-3-2 (+6)
Top 7: 2-3-3 (-5)
Arsenal are contenders. Their place has been earned by throttling the scrubbers. The Gunners are 16-1-2 against the bottom 13 teams. Their one defeat came in the season’s first match versus Aston Villa. They would be running away with things, had they not been proportionally poor against the top sides. Arsenal have won just three points from their last six matches against teams in the top seven. That doesn’t bode well with a four-game stretch of Tottenham (A), Chelsea (A), Manchester City and Everton (A) looming.
Squad depth may prove Arsenal’s undoing. The Gunners had a thin squad last season. They did not reinforce in numbers over the summer. Their only January addition was an already cracked Kim Kallstrom. Potential game-changers Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud are in sore need of a refractory period. They dearly miss Theo Walcott’s pace. An untimely injury up front or at the back could sink Arsenal. Worth noting: the Gunners have built statues of their last title winners.
Points: 57 (1 game in hand)
Home: 12-1-0 (+36)
Away: 6-4-3 (+8)
Top 7: 6-2-0 (+17)
Manchester City have the deepest and most talented squad in the league (and should for the amount of money spent). Winning their game in hand could put them back to the top. They have firebombed teams at the Etihad, but have been very mediocre away from home, winning just six of 13. Part of that is coming out flat. Part of that is being poor defensively without the ball. Teams are more apt to come at them away from home. Those teams are having success.
That away form is a concern, as the toughest trips are still to come. City still travel to Manchester United, to Arsenal, to Liverpool and to Everton before the season closes. The team has also looked quite stale of late. They have scored just one goal in four matches in the Champions League and EPL since Feb. 1. Manchester City is the most fearsome EPL team to play on a given day, but can they be that team every day?
Home: 12-1-1 (+30)
Away: 5-4-4 (+5)
Top 7: 4-3-1 (+10)
Liverpool have scored the most goals in the EPL, 70. They have the league’s two leading scorers, with Suarez and Sturridge combining for 41. They have gone after even the best sides this season, posting five on Arsenal and Tottenham and seven over two games against Everton. As exciting as Liverpool has been going forward, they have been poor and mistake-prone at the back. They have conceded 17 goals in their past 10 matches, a rate that has and will continue to cost them results.
The Reds have destroyed teams at Anfield. Playing Tottenham, Manchester City and Chelsea there could help Liverpool make up ground. However, Liverpool have been entirely unreliable away from home, dropping points in just nine of 14 matches. You can’t trust them not to lose any ground gained against a relegation candidate the next week. Liverpool, however, do have the benefit of singular focus. They are out of Europe and the FA Cup. They play their final seven matches with at least a week’s rest in between.
Much could (and probably will) happen before the end of the season. But it’s hard to see Chelsea not ending up on top. They have the easiest schedule, even if they do get bogged down in the Champions League. Arsenal are gutted over their tough four game stretch. They make a late run against easy teams late, but it is not quite enough. Failure to invest or come through when it counts cost them a winnable division. City drop too many points away from the Etihad. Ditto for Liverpool away from Anfield. Steven Gerrard’s league title drought continues.
Final- Chelsea 84, Arsenal 81, Man City 80, Liverpool 76