Ten Games to Go: The Premier League's Top Four

Ten Games to Go: The Premier League's Top Four

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With ten games to go, the race for the Premier League is reaching its critical juncture. Chelsea, led by their messiah Jose Mourinho, have taken a commanding lead at the head of the table. However, with Diego Costa’s goals drying up and a squad that’s challenging in Europe as well as domestically, Manchester City could yet catch them. The reigning champions are motivated and have a large squad filled with stars, but it could already be too late after such a costly defeat to Liverpool. Meanwhile Arsenal and Manchester United are all but out of the race, but need to consolidate their positions to hold off Spurs, Southampton and a rampant Liverpool and secure a coveted spot in the Champions League next season. In this article I assess the current top four and their chances at the title, as well as their recent form and upcoming games.


 

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Recent Form

The league leaders’ recent form has been steady. A typical Mourinho 1-1 draw at home against their closest competitors Manchester City has been followed up by two churned out wins over lower half sides Aston Villa and Everton, before Nemanja Matic’s moment of madness put them a man down against Burnley, who laid siege to the Chelsea goal before eventually breaking through and earning a 1-1 draw. The Blues then recovered to record an important away victory over West Ham.

Run In

Chelsea’s final eleven games are pretty reasonable. A tricky away trip to Southampton is up first, before they embark on a three game run that Jose Mourinho would expect full points from: Hull (A), Stoke (H) and QPR (A). Manchester United (H) and Arsenal (A) are much sterner challenges, but they are followed by on paper the easiest game all season, with Leicester visiting Stamford Bridge. A rejuvenated Crystal Palace (H) under Alan Pardew could give Chelsea some trouble, and then a Liverpool team who could still be battling for the Champions League come to Stamford Bridge on the 9th of May. If Chelsea get through that test with their points lead still intact, few would bet against Mourinho’s men sweeping to the title with games against West Brom (A) and Sunderland (H) the only games remaining.

High Point of the season

It’s tempting to choose the 0-5 away drubbing of Swansea, but the Welsh side practically beat themselves with some truly awful defending. As such, the 3-6 away defeat of Everton in the third week of the season marked the intent with which Chelsea would go about chasing the title. New signing Diego Costa proved he’d settled in nicely in scoring his third and fourth goals of the season, while superlative performances by Ramires and Nemanja Matic in midfield helped overrun the hapless Merseysiders.

Low Point of the season

Chelsea came in to their away fixture against Spurs confident of taking at least a point. They left with zero, as Tottenham messiah Harry Kane turned in his finest performance of a superb season, demolishing the west Londoners with two goals and an assist. The 5-3 battering proved to be an anomaly as Chelsea recovered quickly to beat Newcastle and Swansea, but the result was an embarrassing one. 

Chances of winning the title

High. Chelsea currently hold a 5 point lead over second placed Manchester City with a game in hand. It’s their title to lose, and with a slight (+3) goal difference advantage they can even afford to slip up here and there. Chelsea just need to keep on going with what’s they’re currently doing so effectively.

Key Player 

Eden Hazard has continued his development into one of the most dangerous attacking players in the world. Improving on a stellar 2013-14 season is no mean feat, but Hazard has already recorded six assists and ten goals – only one and four less respectively than last season. The arrival of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa has resulted in less of a burden being placed on Hazard and perhaps divided the attention of opposition defences, giving the Belgian more time and space to get on the ball and run at his man. Perhaps most encouragingly, Hazard has also developed a better sense of how to effect the game when out of position, making outside-to-in runs to draw defenders and give Cesc Fabregas space to find Diego Costa. With Juan Cuadrado slowly being phased into the side, Hazard will need to continue to be the side’s main attacking outlet, with Fabregas, Costa and Willian managing a mere two goals between them over the past five games.

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Recent Form 

Reigning champions though they are, Manchester City’s recent form hasn’t been great. Prior to the 1-4 away thumping of Stoke, they had recorded one win in six, with four draws and a damaging home loss to Arsenal. While City faltered, Chelsea surged, and City’s last gasp salvaged draw against Hull saw them slip to seven points behind the leaders. Since that match, the Stoke game gave them hope and a 5-0 smashing of Newcastle gave them belief, before that hope and belief was wrecked by Liverpool, who scored two spectacular goals to City’s one. A regulation 2-0 home win over whipping boys Leicester will not be enough to convince the naysayers that City still have a chance at the title. 

Run In 

With Burnley (A), West Brom (H) and Crystal Palace (A) all eminently winnable fixtures, the first big test will come in the form of an away Manchester derby on the 12th of April. City then have another couple of reasonable home games in West Ham and Aston Villa before travelling to White Hart Lane to take on Spurs. QPR (H) shouldn’t provide too much trouble before Wilfried Bony returns to Swansea (A) in the penultimate game of the season. Coming in to the final game, City will hope they’re still in with a shot at the title, though Southampton (H) will be stiff opposition regardless. 

High Point of the season 

Locked at 1-1 away at Stoke at half time, faltering in the league and looking short of ideas, City roared back in the second half to score three unanswered goals. Sergio Aguero was irresistible as ever, and Samir Nasri continued his return to fitness with a goal and an assist. Perhaps most impressive was James Milner playing in the attacking central midfield role he made his own at Aston Villa and recording a goal, an assist and even a clearance off the line.

Low Point of the season

 Part of the reason why City were so delighted to have won that away match against Stoke was because of the disaster at the home fixture. After two wins in two as the reigning champions, City were pushing for a goal when Mame Diouf picked up the ball deep inside his own half before running directly at Joe Hart’s goal. City’s defence was as ineffective as Hart’s attempt at a save, and Stoke held on to throw the champions’ season into an early setback. 

Chances of winning the title

Manchester City are most certainly the best of the rest, being four points clear of Arsenal, but of the contenders they seem to be in the worst shape. United are inexorably picking up points and Arsenal are hitting some irresistible form. Worst and most critically of all, Chelsea do not look like the kind of team who would slip up in the same way that Liverpool did to hand City the title last season, and Jose Mourinho is generally inexorable when given this advantage in a title scrap. City must keep picking up wins, pile pressure on Chelsea, and hope.

Key Player 

Sergio Aguero is still one of the world’s premier strikers. Having missed crucial stretches of last season with injury, Aguero has again succumbed to niggling problems that have kept him out of matches where his lethal finishing ability could have nicked goals. Despite that, the Argentine has already racked up more minutes than last season and stacked up the exact same amount of goals and assists; 17 and six respectively. Aguero’s importance to City is impossible to overstate, with Edin Dzeko looking short of form, Stevan Jovetic seemingly being frozen out and Wilfried Bony still acclimatising to his new team. City have no problems scoring goals when Aguero’s in the team, but the drop-off from him to his replacements is weighty, and keeping him fit is vital to City’s fight for the title.

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Recent Form 

From a disjointed, disappointing start to the season Arsenal have gradually gained steam as the new year set in. Apart from defeat at Southampton on New Year’s Day and a demoralising loss to Spurs in the North London derby, Arsenal have won every game since the turn of the year. Defensive concerns have been eased as Per Mertesacker has begun to return to a semblance of form, goals have started flowing from sources other than just Alexis Sanchez, and Francis Coquelin’s emergence has given Arsenal a solid midfield platform to build on. Arsenal have inexorably rolled over their four opponents since that loss to Spurs, giving them the best form of the current top four.

Run In 

One hand giveth form, the other hand taketh away momentum-building easy runs of games. Arsenal should expect good points from their next two fixtures, West Ham (H) and Newcastle (A), but those games are immediately followed by Liverpool at home. Burnley (A) and Sunderland (H) give the Gunners a bit of a breather before a huge home clash with Chelsea. Yet another run of two winnable games pops up in Hull (A) and Swansea (H) before the penultimate game of the season, an away game at Manchester United. Arsenal finish their season at home to West Brom.

High Point of the season 

Despite Arsenal showing signs of good form, nobody gave them a chance away at Manchester City. The Gunners had to contend with a teenaged right-back, a backup left-back, a defensive midfielder who had been playing for Charlton barely two months prior, and something of a goalkeeping crisis following Wojciech Szczesny’s dropping from the team due to a horror show against Southampton. Nevertheless Arsenal came out and battled the champions to a standstill, ceding the possession battle in favour of breaking through the pace of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanchez. Santi Cazorla was magnificent, battling for the ball in midfield before carrying it forward at his feet. Cazorla finished the game with 10 successful dribbles and a coolly-taken penalty, and City had no answer to him all game.

Low Point of the season 

Arsenal haven’t lost a game by more than two goals all season, but it was a one goal loss that particularly rankled. Harry Kane once more served notice of his meteoric rise to power by scoring twice, one an opportunistic rebound and another a glorious, soaring header five minutes from time. North London derby defeats are always tough to stomach, but the fact that it was the one solitary defeat in a run of eight games will be particularly irritating.

Chances of winning the title

Unlikely. Arsenal may be in good form, but they’re nine points behind a Chelsea team that looks like it can only be delayed as opposed to stopped in its tilt at the title. Goal difference doesn’t favour the north Londoners either, with Arsenal a whopping -10 down on City and -13 on Chelsea. Luck will be required in large quantities.

Key Player 

Having at times single-handedly dragged Arsenal to wins and draws with his goals earlier in the season, Alexis Sanchez has taken more of a provider role as the season wore on and Arsenal’s injury victims returned to the fold. Sanchez marries his selfless, hard working nature to exceptional technique, skill and pace, and despite his shift back to the wing he remains an important cog in Arsenal’s attack. Sanchez has already scored 13 and assisted a further seven, and although the goalscoring has dried up somewhat, it’s important to note that Arsenal have remained threatening throughout this relative drought. That speaks volumes for Sanchez’s versatility and ability to make those around him perform better, and with a nearly full squad Arsenal just need to keep playing the way they are to secure a Champions League spot.

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Recent Form 

In a way, there’s a strange sense of déjà vu surrounding Manchester United this season. The way Louis Van Gaal’s side has been playing like a mid-table side and yet snatching point after point when they have no right to be is reminiscent of the sheer dogged determination that so indelibly marked Sir Alex Ferguson’s United sides through the ages. The difference here, however, is that Ferguson often took workmanlike players and elevated them beyond their natural abilities, whereas the opposite seems to be happening with this United side. Star players brought in at great expense like Juan Mata, Robin Van Persie, Falcao and Angel Di Maria are all playing like cheap imitations of themselves, and yet United continue to grind relentlessly onwards. The other major difference, of course, is where Ferguson’s United would challenge for titles, this side are battling for Champions League qualification only, in wake of their elimination from the FA Cup by the hand of Arsenal.

Run In 

United fans look away now: it’s not pretty viewing. Right off the bat they face a Tottenham side at home capable of beating anyone on their day, before travelling to Anfield to face hated rivals Liverpool. Aston Villa (H) is a short breather before another derby, with a Manchester City side still in the title hunt coming to Old Trafford. Even worse, United’s next game is Chelsea away, a mere six days after City. After that brutal run, things ease off a little, with Everton (A), West Brom (H) and Crystal Palace (A) substantially less challenging fare. There’s one final push to be made before the end of the season, however, with Arsenal (H) hoping to wrap up a top four spot. The last game, Hull (A) should be something of an anticlimax.

High Point of the season 

With stuttering early season form morphing into a run of five games won on the trot, United came in to a critical home clash with Liverpool cautiously optimistic. The result was a 3-0 win that perhaps flattered United, not that the gleeful home fans cared. David De Gea was in superlative form, and he had to be, with his defence nowhere to be seen. The win sent United ten points clear of the Merseysiders, but more important were the bragging rights. 

Low Point of the season 

Four games of the season gone, and United had rather tripped out of the blocks. An opening day loss to Swansea was compounded by draws with Sunderland and Burnley, but a 4-0 drubbing of QPR laid a few fears to rest. Next up were Leicester away, a fixture no doubt earmarked by Louis Van Gaal as a chance to get three away points. As it turned out, lower league journeyman Jamie Vardy put the chaotic United defence to sword, scoring one, creating another and winning a penalty as young Tyler Blackett saw red. United’s vaunted attacking trio did their work, with Robin Van Persie netting and Wayne Rooney and Falcao grabbing an assist each, but their good work was undone as Leicester walked away with a 5-3 victory.

Chances of winning the title 

With a disjointed team, a tough run-in, misfiring players and a ten point deficit to leaders Chelsea, United surely don’t have any chance at a tilt at the title. That’s almost certainly not the main focus for the Red Devils though, with Liverpool having woken from their early season slumber and a mere two points behind them in their battle for fourth. The title is almost certainly gone, but with Liverpool as well as Spurs (3 points behind) and Southampton (4 points behind) breathing down their neck, United cannot afford to ease up.

Key Player

It’s been a strange season for Wayne Rooney. He’s been by far and away United’s most consistently effective attacking player, creating and scoring goals as well as popping up to help out in defence. Louis Van Gaal responded to this by moving him into central midfield as his expensive array of forwards such as Van Persie, Falcao and – bizarrely – at times Angel Di Maria all faltered as strikers. Rooney continued to excel, and his recent move back up field has resulted in a much more effective United attack. Rooney has scored ten goals and made another four – not a bad record considering the range of positions he’s played this year – but it’s his all-round contribution to play outside of stats that most impresses. United will need to ride Rooney’s form in a way they haven’t for quite a few seasons now, and the steadily improving defence (protected by the duo of Ander Herrera and the quietly brilliant Daley Blind in midfield) might well give United the platform to keep winning games.