by Hal Walker - @HalWalker
Chelsea’s 2-0 defeat at White Hart Lane on Wednesday night confirmed that the Premier League race is very much still on going into the New Year.
Antonio Conte’s side have recently found a level of consistency and momentum to win an extraordinary and record-equalling 13 straight league games in a run where a formation of 3-4-3 appeared to be tailor-made for Chelsea’s side.
Five points clear (1st with 49 points) of second-placed Liverpool, Chelsea are no doubt a rejuvenated side this season, with a manager who has succeeded in rediscovering the players thirst for glory at the club, crucially of those world-class individuals who were so out-of-form and criticised in Eden Hazard and Diego Costa under previous management. They are one of only two clubs not to have a single injury currently affecting the first-team squad and after failing to qualify for European football in last year’s treacherous campaign, they are benefiting so greatly from the lack of Cup distractions.
However, Tottenham’s dominance and superiority in the London Derby on the 4th January highlighted not only that Chelsea are by no means infallible, there are weaknesses in the team (lack of free-scoring, susceptible full-backs and possibly centre-backs too) but also that there are five other hungry teams in the hunt who boast too much quality to be ruled out of the race at this early stage; the sides are listed as follows:
Liverpool: 2nd with 44 points- Arguably one of the most impressive free-scoring sides in the league. Jurgen Klopp’s side play with a high-intensity expansive freedom, averaging almost 2.5 goals per game. Goals can come from any of their midfielders, wingers or forwards. The likes of Adam Lallana, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino are enjoying the form of their careers. Jurgen Klopp’s tactical astuteness was revealed in the recent 1-0 victory at home to Man City where their usual open free-flowing style was sacrificed to absorb City possession in an impressive defensive performance; a trait they will be obliged to repeat in forthcoming big games this season.
Squad depth and injuries could well be the biggest potential hurdle to Liverpool’s title challenge as their most gifted player in Philippe Coutinho has been out injured since November (is nearing a first-team return). Their other major worry is the constant uncertainty between goalkeepers Loris Karius and Simon Mignolet; the majority of Liverpool’s fellow challengers have a world-class goalkeeper they can call upon. What Klopp would do to have this luxury.
Chances of overhauling Chelsea: 7/10
Tottenham: 3rd with 42 points- Not only have Tottenham just resoundingly beaten leaders and London rivals Chelsea, they are in scintillating form; having won their least five games consecutively, blowing away both Southampton and Watford with 4-1 away wins. They boast one of the best goalkeepers and centre-backs respectively in Hugo Lloris and Toby
Alderweireld, combined with the most attacking, buccaneering full-backs in the Premier League in Danny Rose and Kyle Walker. Dele Alli’s exuberance and ability is shining through after a poor European Championships and quiet start to the domestic season and Harry Kane’s goals and leadership show no signs of relenting. Tottenham look a side hungry for honours to illustrate their remarkable tutelage and progression under manager Mauricio Pochettino since his arrival in 2014.
Whether Tottenham can banish the memories of last year’s capitulation at Stamford Bridge, is another matter. They are due to restart their Europa League campaign again in February in the knockout-rounds and they do lack the experience and arguably squad-depth that other contenders can boast, but the ability and talent is there in abundance.
Chances of overhauling Chelsea: 8/10
Man City: 4th with 42 points- Despite boasting some of the world’s top talents and a manager who has claimed a title in six of his seven seasons in club management, defensive problems have been rife this season; resulting in City trailing leaders Chelsea by seven points, a shortfall that was not predicted by most upon Pep Guardiola’s arrival to the club. John Stones is still learning the game, Claudio Bravo has proved vulnerable, Vincent Kompany is frequently injured and Pablo Zabaleta and Alexsandar Kolarov are inconsistent at best. There is also a worrying discipline problem at the club, receiving seven red cards this season in all competitions; more than any other Premier League team.
However, on their day Man City are a formidable force and with their world-class trio of Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, City pose a creative attacking outlet that can unlock the sternest of defences at any point in a game. City fans will look back to the 2013/14 season (when City overtook Liverpool on gameweek 37 to clinch the title after winning their final five games of the season) for title-marching inspiration. In their recent 5-0 win in the F.A Cup 3rd tie at the London Stadium, City displayed a cutting edge and an exhibition of ruthlessness that will give them momentum going forward.
Chances of overhauling Chelsea: 7/10
Arsenal: 5th with 41 points- The side that typically divide so many an opinion. Arsenal have endured an inconsistent campaign thus far that has offered many similarities to every previous season for the past ten years. Capable of a mesmerising creative style and devastating counter attacking-play on their day (displayed best in their 3-0 demolition of Chelsea in September), but suffer from that soft underbelly, the lack of a commanding centre back (despite Shkodran Mustafi’s impressive arrival last summer) and a rousing leader.
An injury list that does not seem to relent, poor away form, the imminent Champions League knockout ties to nemesis Bayern Munich and the enduring worries regarding the
expiring contracts of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil does not favour their prospects of assembling enough impetus to challenge leaders Chelsea.
Chances of overhauling Chelsea: 6/10
Man United: 6th with 39 points-A team boasting an array of superstar footballers and ego’s for any global club to envy. A fairly inconsistent first three months of the season consisted of a very disjointed looking United team, with various new signings and certainly their manager taking time to settle. Many dropped points this season have in fact come at Old Trafford in games they have completely dominated but have struggled to break down resolute, stubborn defences. The demanding Thursday-Sunday schedule will recommence in February as they return to action in the Europa League.
However, it must be said that after seven straight wins (in all competitions), United are rightly in buoyant mood as they are experiencing a consistent run of form that will build significant momentum for a title charge if they can maintain their current run; despite being 10 points off leaders Chelsea at this halfway stage. United also have strength in depth, having the luxury of being able to call on the likes of Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial from the bench when chasing a game. Furthermore, there is certainly no shortage of winners or experienced heads in the squad, with eight of the current squad holding Premier League titles to their career honours history.