We’re almost at the halfway mark of the season and the Premier League is taking on an all too familiar and predictable shape. Chelsea are top, Manchester City are snapping at their heels and that, head on the block time, is how I expect the table to look come May.
History indicates that the team top at Christmas usually ends up as champions, as has been the case in seven of the last 10 seasons, but you can’t legislate for the occasional anomaly.
As things stand this Yuletide Chelsea are the best team in the top flight. They are ruthlessly efficient and possess tremendous strength in depth. Mourinho’s team has a strong spine and at least two top players contesting each place in the team and, significantly Mourinho has kept some major egos in check – ‘it takes one to know one’ is the phrase that springs to mind. While, for me, Manchester City are easier on the eye.
Chelsea’s unbeaten run ended at Newcastle and coincided with City’s resurgence that took them level just before Christmas to suggest more of a two-horse title race in the New Year than had looked likely at the start of December.
That parity was even more significant by virtue of the fact that up until the ruthlessly efficient dismantling of Stoke, the goal difference between Chelsea and City was only a single goal. The 2-0 win for Chelsea at the Brittania stretched the difference to three. For Chelsea it is the third time they have topped the table at Christmas and on the previous occasions they have gone on to win the title.
When a title race looks as close as it does this campaign, one of the major factors is how well the title chasing sides do against the top teams. As ever, teams from lower down the table are usually dispatched to plan, but in top of the table head-to-head encounters a win over closest rivals is not only three points gained but three lost by a rival – a real six-pointer.
When City travel to Stamford Bridge at the end of January it could be the most significant fixture of the season, depending on the relative points total at the time. And that result could depend on what happens before the game takes place, what Manuel Pellegrini does in the January transfer window may have a major say in the destination of the title.
The major concern for Manchester City is if anything happens to take Joe Hart out of the picture. Loss of form or injury to the big man will reinforce how irreplaceable he is, perhaps the most valuable member of the team. Even the absence of Agüero didn’t have the kind of impact a missing Joe Hart would, as underlined by the win over Crystal Palace that was achieved without a recognised striker in the side.
However, goalkeeper cover apart, City are almost as well off for strength in depth as Chelsea. Mourinho has already declared he will not be buying in January and he may even be true to his word. Pellegrini on the other hand may just shake up his current squad with a new arrival or two.
The two teams are matching each other in the goals for and against column but City always seem the more likely to smash four or five goals in than Chelsea, and it may just come down to goal difference come May and that game at Stamford Bridge.
So with Chelsea and City going head to head for the trophy, that leaves the other two Champions League places.
Despite their obvious defensive frailties and their talented though injury ravaged midfield I think Arsenal are the best of the chasing bunch and should finish third. I expect Arsène Wenger to buy in January. The key is how well he spends his money.
As for fourth place, Spurs are looking good going into Christmas and may just be on track for the kind of consistency required for that fourth slot. Southampton have slipped but Ronald Koeman, again with January strengthening, is the right man to get them on track. And what about Liverpool?
If Brendan Rodgers gets a proper goalkeeper, a dominant centre half, a goalscoring midfielder and buys Wilfried Bony then Liverpool may just steal fourth place. However it turns out it is going to be one hell of a run in to May.