What a stunning season of Premier League football it’s truly been. The relegation dogfight has been turbulent to say the least, the battle for fourth spot has taken a late, deviating twist, but it’s the English top flight’s title race that’s been by far the most captivating contest.
Billed as a six-horse affair back in the summer, 652 Premier League fixtures later, and the race for the English crown has whittled down to just three parties – Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool.
Jose Mourinho has claimed, with the Blues four points off the pole position pace, that his side’s title chances are over, which, as we learned from Roberto Mancini in the 2011/12 campaign, means in fact they are anything but.
Likewise, Brendan Rodgers insists his odds-defying Liverpool outfit can only look as far as their next game, which is coincidently against title rivals Manchester City, but leading the Premier League’s summit with just five fixtures remaining, the Reds undoubtedly have their greatest chance to date of claiming their first league title since 1990.
And the Citizens, are by far the most complete title-hunting outfit of the three, possessing world-class stars and a squad depth currently unrivalled in the top flight. They also have two games in hand on Chelsea and Liverpool, but the pressure of putting these fixtures to the Etihad’s advantage could work against them.
But as much as you can highlight all of the mitigating variables, Mourinho’s press conference mischief and tactical mastery, Luis Suarez’s world-class form and Liverpool’s unique sense of fearlessness, Yaya Toure’s new-found lethality from midfield and the potency Sergio Aguero’s return to fitness could provide, in truth, the Premier League title race now depends firmly on two Anfield fixtures alone.
This weekend, Manchester City visit Merseyside in what has already been billed as the ultimate title decider. Most excitingly for Premier League neutrals, it has all the makings of a classic multi-goal thriller. City and the Reds have been by far the Premiership’s most free-scoring sides this season – the Citizens have netted 84 times in 31 fixtures, equating to an average of 2.7 per match, whilst their Mersey counterparts have generated 90 goals from 33 games, averaging out, coincidentally, to 2.7 per match also.
Likewise, you have the awesome fire-power of the SAS, whose 49 goals this season represents four more than the entire Tottenham roster combined, verses the world-class marksmanship of the expected to return Sergio Aguero, who had netted 15 in 15 before being sidelined with a hamstring injury in January.
But in truth, the Anfield fixture against Chelsea at the end of April has the potential to be the most defining. Providing City haven’t run away with the league by then, the Blues have a monumental opportunity jump to the forefront of the title race with just two fixtures remaining, should they beat Liverpool on their home soil.
Furthermore, one could argue that the Liverpool tie only plays to the Blues’ strengths. Jose Mourinho has illustrated his ability to record vital away results on numerous occasions this season, and the West Londoners’ 1-0 win at the Etihad earlier in the season, in which they contained the potent threats of Serigo Aguero, Yaya Toure and Alvaro Negredo whilst also making the most of their opportunities on the counter-attack, will undoubtedly serve as a template for their visit to Merseyside.
There are some interesting scenarios to consider. The lowest projected points total of the three is Chelsea, who can now only finish the campaign with 87. But if Liverpool beat Manchester City, then the highest possible return for the Etihad side is only one point more. setting up for an incredible season finale. Likewise, if the Blues were to win all their final games, including against Liverpool, then the Reds can only amass at most 86 points, setting up for an incredible end of season finale.
Similarly, should Liverpool win every match between now and the end of May, their total would be 89, and having beaten Manchester City and the Blues at Anfield, the Citizens would at most be able to secure only 88, whilst Chelsea would be left some way short with 84.
If both Anfield fixtures end in draws however, City could finish the year with 89, Liverpool with 85 and Chelsea with 85. Drawing against City but winning against Chelsea would leave the Reds with 87, which probably wouldn’t be enough to stop the Eastlands club, who still have the potential to grab two points more.
With that in mind, regardless of Manchester City’s two games hand, the title ball firmly lays in Liverpool’s court. They are the variable in which the other title contenders vitally depend upon, and as demonstrated above, the Merseysiders’ hopes rest on both fixtures ending in wins – something which they’re more than capable of, and in fact is a scenario far better suiting of their cavalier, seemingly fearless style and mentality.
Furthermore, not only do the Reds have the intrinsic home advantage, having won 13 out of a possible 15 matches in front of the Kop already this year, but most importantly, Liverpool have hit form with perfect timing; Brendan Rodgers’ side haven’t lost in 15, in turn winning their last nine on the bounce.
Comparably, although the Citizens haven’t lost in the Premier League since February, they were held to a draw against Arsenal two weekends ago, and were defeated by Wigan and Barcelona in the space of three days back in March. Chelsea, similarly, have lost their last three away fixtures in a row, and Jose Mourinho’s dismissals of his side’s title chances have become incredibly self-fulfilling in recent weeks.
More important than any other factor however, or any likely or unlikely mathematical scenario one could conjure up out of the remaining fixtures, two Liverpool victories would send out a huge psychologically-debasing message to both Chelsea and Manchester City. Regardless of the Citizens’ other remaining Premier League opponents including such rank-and-file sides as Sunderland and West Brom, the hangover from losing by far their most crucial match of their season would surely trickle in to later performances, whilst victory against the Blues would simply give them no time to recover.
In a nutshell, more than Manchester City or Chelsea, the Premier League title race now firmly depends on Liverpool. They’re currently the division’s most in-form side, and having finished seventh last season, it’s still incredibly unclear what they’re actually capable of. As much as I’ve praised the Reds throughout this article, the ultimate test remains whether or not they have the quality and mindset to handle the pressure.
We will get our answer on Sunday afternoon, in what will be remembered as one of the two most defining fixtures of an unforgettable season.