An unlikely 2-1 defeat at Newcastle at the beginning of December, a cagey draw at Southampton and a devastating 5-3 loss at Tottenham have confounded these expectations. Chelsea, despite their fine start, appear beatable and breakable.
Correspondingly, Manchester City have found their way, only failing to win once since the end of November. That run of form reflects Pellegrini’s debut season near on perfectly – start slowly, then kick on. Last season, just like it’s looking at the moment, City won every league game bar one between the end of November and the end of January.
For now, both teams are level on 46 points, but that will soon change. City face Everton away next, followed by Arsenal at home on the 18th, before heading to Stamford Bridge in a spectacular showdown the following week.
Meanwhile, Chelsea have a fairly routine run of fixtures for a while – barring that City game – with the club not facing another top side until April when they’re at home to Manchester United and away to Arsenal.
Ultimately though, the lottery of the already-determined fixture list is no real hard evidence to suggest why a Jose Mourinho Chelsea will beat City to the finishing line.
There are a range of other factors to consider. Away from the fact that in Mourinho’s career, the seven times he’s been top at Christmas he’s always been top in May, there’s the strong issue surrounding the depth of the Chelsea squad, which is seemingly a bottomless pit of talent. That, despite what you may think, doesn’t quite ring true with City.
One of Pellegrini’s great achievements in the last month has been to prove that his team is not entirely built around Sergio Aguero. The Argentine seemed indispensable following his Champions League hattrick against Bayern Munich, but City have not slowed in his absence. James Milner has filled in up front, and David Silva, Samir Nasri and Yaya Toure have come into their own to supplement a changed attacking outlook.
Still, Aguero’s absence has been timed impeccably. Since he sustained his knee ligament injury against Everton, City have faced Leicester, Crystal Palace, West Brom, Burnley, and Sunderland in the league. They couldn’t have wished for a better run of league fixtures in the absence of firepower.
That implies that City haven’t truly been tested without their main man and if he was to sustain another injury – which given his track record, is likely – in the midst of March or April their vulnerabilities will be exposed to a greater extent.
True, in their big test in the Champions League without Aguero, they eased past Roma with an outstanding display. But that Roma defence was questionable – they has just shipped seven at home to Bayern Munich.
And without digressing too much, it also seems that City have hardly missed Vincent Kompany in his absence. While it rarely gets attention, the Belgian has been largely out of form for the last two years – his mesmeric stature and charismatic captaincy has papered over those cracks – fooling many into blaming City’s defensive inadequacies on others (Martin Demichelis, for example).
His decisions to come out of City’s defensive line and come hurtling up the pitch, often leaving his team woefully exposed, make him reminiscent – in the words of Gary Neville – of a player being steered by a twelve year old on a game’s console.
Regardless of that, while City are in a rich vein of form and Chelsea have stalled, these last few weeks have been generally unrepresentative of each teams qualities, implying misleading permutations of where one another will finish.
Chelsea’s significantly easier run of fixtures and more resilient squad will see them through to the finish. While City will push Chelsea well into 2015, Chelsea are still far and away favourites for the Premier League.