The Three Horse Title Race enters the final furlong this weekend
Going into this round of Barclays Premier League fixtures, the top three teams are all firmly in the hunt for the final prize. Following the 2-2 draw for Manchester City on Wednesday to follow on from the hard-fought 3-2 loss at Liverpool at the weekend, the top of the table now has a very different look to it compared to a week ago. Liverpool currently lead Chelsea by 2 points, with Manchester City a further 5 points back but with 1 game in hand. How will the next set of fixtures affect the title race as the season enters the home straight?
Liverpool are still sitting pretty in first position after the crucial win over The Citizens in an emotional afternoon at Anfield. Regardless of what both managers involved have said after the game, the result was a pivotal one and almost certainly bears more significance than any other match this season. The Reds went toe to toe with arguably the best squad in the country and came out on top in the end. The effect on the Liverpool players was clear to see as they engaged without exception in a group hug upon the culmination of the game.
Belief and hope that was growing in magnitude beforehand has now morphed into expectation. Having come through what is widely acknowledged as their toughest remaining test, the pressure is very much on now. Before that match, both Liverpool and City could have won the league should they have won all their remaining fixtures. Now however, that burden is shared between themselves and Chelsea. For Liverpool now, withstanding the expectation from the entire nation poses the biggest threat.
Sandwiched amongst three eminently winnable games is the always tough home fixture against Chelsea that many now see as the match that will determine the final outcome. Liverpool will definitely be without Jordan Henderson’s energy as he sits out the second of a three match suspension, but will hope to have Daniel Sturridge back in the fold. A tweaked hamstring suffered in the defeat of City is not as serious as first feared and re-partnering the SAS against Chelsea will greatly help their chances.
Liverpool always seem to win against Norwich, and further still Luis Suarez adores playing them, having scored 3 hat-tricks in four matches against Sunday’s opponents. I do not see the trend being bucked this weekend despite Norwich’s desperation to escape their current demise. Determination instilled into Liverpool’s minds by Gerrard’s rousing team talk last Sunday will surely give them the motivation to play with the same intensity. I predict a 3-1 victory to Liverpool with Suarez bagging a brace, moving them onto 80 points.
Chelsea have been a vintage Mourinho side this year with Stamford Bridge remaining an impenetrable fortress. This can only be what we all expected, having not lost a home game while manager of Porto, Inter Milan, or Chelsea in both spells in charge. Mind games have been prevalent for weeks as he declared his side out of the title race even when in first position. Even now, they find themselves only 2 points behind the leaders and the match at Anfield to come next weekend. It is absolutely the case that all is not lost and they ground out another win against Swansea on Sunday in typical style.
I foresee a similar game for Chelsea at home to Sunderland tomorrow; a potentially frustrating one for long periods of time but at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea will get the job done. Were Sunderland to pull off a huge shock and hold The Blues to a draw even, then it may even be that on-loan Liverpool forward could have a large part to play. The win that I expect to happen would retain Chelsea’s position of 2 points off the top when the weekend’s action is concluded.
One factor that may play a vital role in Chelsea’s trip to Anfield on the following weekend is that it falls directly between the 2 legs of their Champions League semi-final clash. We shall have to wait and see how Mourinho is able to manage his selections through this period and to what extent the players and both mentally and physically drained after their exertions. With the tie likely to still be in the balance after the first leg, José would surely have to prioritise one game over the other. It will be intriguing to see how those seven days play out.
Prior to their trip to Merseyside on Sunday, Manchester City were most people’s favourites for the title. Now though, less than a week on, they have picked up only one point from a possible six and so are lagging behind somewhat. Their manager Manuel Pellegrini blamed the abject performance on Wednesday on being “mentally tired” after the trials and tribulations at Anfield only 3 days earlier.
Under normal circumstances then, a home fixture against West Brom would be the ideal tonic. However, will the home support be less boisterous than usual and become frustrated easily if things are not going their way? This will only harm their team’s chances against a side who are effectively safe from relegation for another year and so will go out playing with freedom.
I can’t see 2 disappointing results in a row for Man City at home and it would be unthinkable for them to only obtain two points from a possible nine. Sergio Aguero will have gained a little extra match sharpness and his presence will provide a serious danger to the Albion back line. I predict that Man City will be out to prove a point at the Etihad on Monday and will win comfortably, with Aguero netting at least once.
If all these results do go as predicted, then that would leave the points separating the sides unchanged. However, it is now the job of the teams below Liverpool to close the gap. Therefore, by maintaining the distance between them and their rivals with one less game left in the season, it would remain advantage Liverpool with their clash against Chelsea fast approaching on the horizon.