One of the constants in the Premier League over the past couple of months has been Chelsea’s position at the top of the table. They have been a rare example of stability as the rest of the division continues in a state of flux. The relegation battle has been shaken up by managerial changes at Swansea and Hull that have galvanised their campaigns while champions Leicester have found themselves dragged into the mire. In mid-table, a previously brittle West Ham have rediscovered their backbone at the same time as Bournemouth and Southampton have mislaid theirs.
Further up the table the situation has been the same with form appearing and disappearing at a rapid rate. At the dawn of 2017, after Liverpool beat Manchester City 1-0, Jurgen Klopp’s side looked to be Chelsea’s principal rivals for the title, sitting six points behind. A catastrophic run of three points from their next five games saw them overtaken in the running by Tottenham with the gap to Chelsea almost doubling
The team from north London beat Chelsea 2-0 in their second match of the new year before dismantling West Brom 4-0 and then miraculously coming from two down to draw 2-2 at Man City. Just five points from their next four games, however, saw their momentum checked. Now, Manchester City are the closest challengers to Chelsea with their 2-0 victory at Bournemouth bringing them to within eight points of the leaders who could only draw 1-1 away to Burnley.
So who is best placed to lay down the challenge to Antonio Conte’s men? On the face of it, City do look the likeliest contenders which is extraordinary to say about a team that got obliterated 4-0 by Everton less than a month ago. Ten points from the next 12 available, however, has straightened their course. Their next two matches are also eminently winnable games against Sunderland and Stoke.
Part of their resurgence has been due to the arrival of Gabriel Jesus so his enforced absence due to a metatarsal injury suffered against Bournemouth –which could rule him out for up to three months — might just stifle their progress. City also sit out the next round of Premier League fixtures as their prospective clash with Manchester United has been postponed due to their opponents featuring in the EFL Cup final that weekend. That situation strips them of the chance to potentially apply more pressure on Chelsea’s eight-point advantage as will the distraction of their Champions League meeting with Monaco.
A similar scenario afflicts fourth place Arsenal whose match against EFL finalists Southampton will also now be played later in the campaign. To add to their tribulations their next league game is away at Liverpool with the task made more difficult by being bookended by their two-legged Champions League tie with Bayern Munich.
Tottenham’s run of fixtures appears kind with them playing only two of the current top ten — Stoke and Everton – in their next nine games and both of those are at White Hart Lane. The complication for them is their participation in the Europa League where any progress will mean a continual stream of domestic Sunday fixtures and often playing their matches after Chelsea have completed their own.
Liverpool got back on track with a 2-0 win over Tottenham last time out but face Arsenal and Manchester City as well as a Merseyside derby against Everton in their next five matches. Although they tend to raise their game for the big occasion and have no cup distractions, it is likely that some points will be dropped during that run even if they manage to remain undefeated.
Probably the team with the most benign immediate fixture list is Manchester United as they don’t face a team in the top five until the middle of April. Unfortunately for Jose Mourinho, his team are in sixth place and 12 points off the top and still have to face Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Tottenham before season’s end. A winning run from now until then would give them a chance of overhauling Chelsea, though, their simultaneous quest for the Europa League and the lure of a place in next season’s Champions League for the victors means doing so will be incredibly difficult.
In truth, the title is now Chelsea’s to lose. The draw at Burnley showed that they are not infallible but the lesson should only sharpen their focus even more. Conte is not the type to be complacent and his players will have been made well aware both of their shortcomings on Sunday and the need to put them behind them against Swansea in their next Premier League match. Subsequent games against West Ham, Watford Stoke and Crystal Palace will give Chelsea the opportunity to further stamp their authority on the title race. Do so and it should make no difference what any of their rivals do.