January hasn’t been kind so far to Chelsea Football Club. The Premier League’s form team and previously runaway leaders were on a 13-game winning run, a record that cannot be overstated given the immense competition for places in the league and Chelsea’s own catastrophic start. However, London neighbours Tottenham, under Mauricio Pochettino, are more than just the pushovers they have been for most of the new century, and they had no interest in adding their name to Chelsea’s record books. A swift return to Earth followed for Antonio Conte and his men as they lost to two Delle Alli headers.
And then the January transfer window and the newly minted Chinese super clubs happened.
Poor spunky, self-sustaining Chelsea. Success against all odds and on a shoestring budget has come at a price for the London outfit, with big, bad, disruptive China training their money on their club-honed and nurtured stars. Club legend John Obi Mikel had his head turned after 10 years with the club, the Brazilian Oscar threw away the chance to stay and compete for the Premier League title, and now the catalyst for their strong showing this season, Diego Costa, is eyeing money enough to satisfy all retirement plans.
While the irony of Chelsea complaining about the influence of sugar daddies and money in the sport in palpable, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the club would be severely impacted if the want-away Costa did leave. A bust-up at the training ground with Conte and the club fitness coach over a supposed phantom niggle might have hastened the process, with Conte refusing to include him in the squad to face Leicester on the weekend.
All this is music to the ears of Messrs Klopp, Guardiola, Pochettino, Mourinho and Wenger, as they’ve been reduced to silent observers as the Chelsea juggernaut rolled on. They and their players must have been praying for a slip or three from Chelsea, as it was looking like the daylight between them and the leaders might prove insurmountable before long. And suddenly, most, if not all, are right back in with a chance.
In the middle of January, 10 points separate the club at the top to the one at sixth, and suddenly the five-point gap between toppers Chelsea and Liverpool at second looks easier to make up.
Key strengths for the challengers
Chelsea and Manchester United, at the two ends of the top-six table, have been obdurate in defence and relatively stingy with the goals this season. Conte revolutionised Chelsea’s tactical system by making them play with three at the back and that move proved to be the key factor for their resurgence. Costa with 14 goals has been the standout attacker, with Hazard chipping in as usual.
At United, Mourinho has been impressive in his focus on defence and the old warhorse Zlatan Ibrahimovic has proved quite a few doubters wrong with an impressive 13-goal haul already. Henrikh Mkhitaryan has grabbed the opportunities provided to him with both feet and has proved his credentials to an initially sceptical manager. Mourinho himself looks like he’s enjoying the sport again, although he will be hoping the rest of his team can discover their scoring edge.
Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal and, in particular, Liverpoool, have had an excellent season. Liverpool have scored 48 goals this season, playing some scintillating football along the way. Adam Lallana has provided the star turn for the Merseysiders, with his excellent runs into the box and great technical ability fashioning chances and goals seemingly at will. Sadio Mane’s departure for the African Cup of Nations will leave a big slot to fill, although Philippe Coutinho’s imminent return should soften that blow.
Manchester City have had a chastening time in the league with some consistent runs followed by massive downs. Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne would light up any side in world football. Their experience and ability will help City as they step up their challenge in the league and Europe.
Arsenal and Tottenham are locked in an interminable battle for North-London supremacy, but each will have their sights on a solid title challenge as well, backed by an impressive attacking line-up.
Chelsea, seemingly with little or no weakness after Conte’s restructuring, will have fresh doubts placed in their minds. Their depth in the strikers position isn’t outstanding, and the 3-4-3 formation isn’t impenetrable, as Tottenham have proved.
Liverpool’s defence remains their biggest liability, with uncertainty starting from the goalkeeper’s position. Mane’s absence could remove some of the sting from their counter-attacks as well.
Manchester City have had an up-and-down season so far, as Guardiola still adjusts to a frantic, high-pitched battlefield. Disciplinary issues have been troublesome, and with captain Vincent Kompany’s playing future up in the air due to injury setbacks, the first-choice centre-backs inspire no confidence as such.
Spurs have the experience of having challenged for the title last season, although they also have the experience of wilting under pressure from then. Pochettino will goad his men to produce that much extra effort this season to prevent a sequel.
Arsenal’s weaknesses remain in their mind. Having led against City and Everton in the recent past, they conspired to completely capitulate and lose against both. No clean sheets for long stretches will be a cause for concern as well.
United will continue to chip away, but a lot depends on young Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial producing the goods up front. There is a sense that they might be a confidence team, which wouldn’t augur well for tougher tests ahead.
No Europe could be the deciding factor
Manchester City and Arsenal are currently set to face Monaco and Bayern Munich in the round of 16 of the Champions League, while Thursday nights beckon for Tottenham and Manchester City. With little or no distraction for Chelsea and Liverpool, they seem best placed to take their title challenge forward.
Arsenal have historically dropped off towards the business end of the season, and might do so around February, while United’s challenge is entirely dependent on them keeping a genuinely excellent run going for almost the entire season hence. A slip-up or two could mean curtains. Manchester City look too disjointed to pose a credible threat on both fronts, and Europe could prove to be their undoing.
There are multiple twists and turns yet in a Premier League which has seen the moneyed clubs back in the thick of it this season. Experience, consistency at the back and the density of the playing schedules will be key factors.
The Premier League six-shooter is ready to fire in the remainder of the season.