Fixtures favour Chelsea in title chase

Posted by Mark Worrall

With recent results beginning to separate the wheat from the chaff in the race for the title, a glimpse at the Premier League table shows a gap opening up between the current top three, Arsenal (51 points), Manchester City (50 points), Chelsea (49 points), and Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, both on 43 points, seemingly reduced to jockeying for fourth place and the coveted Champions League slot that comes with it.

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Since Christmas Day, the leading trio have been in irresistible form, each winning all five of the Premier League games they have contested. Arsenal have scored ten goals and conceded twice. City have scored 12 goals and conceded five, while Chelsea have netted 11 times and conceded on two occasions.

During this period, the Gunners have arguably had the easiest opponents (West Ham, Newcastle, Cardiff, Aston Villa, Fulham), while the Citizens (Liverpool, Crystal Palace, Swansea, Newcastle, Cardiff) and the Blues (Swansea, Liverpool, Southampton, Hull, Manchester United) have faced more daunting programmes.

The season may still have 16 games to run, but the fixture list for the next couple of months, which embraces a return to Champions League action for all three clubs, suggests that by the end of March we may have a much clearer indication about the destination of the title.

The fact that Arsenal have had it comparatively easy can only mean one thing for Arsene Wenger and his men: there may be trouble ahead. This coming weekend's FA Cup tie with League One Coventry City is followed by winnable Prem games against Southampton and Crystal Palace, but then the sequence looks brutal. Liverpool (a), Manchester United (h), possible FA Cup 5th round tie, Bayern Munich (h), Sunderland (h), Stoke (a), possible FA Cup 6th round tie or Swansea (h), Bayern Munich (a), Tottenham (a), Chelsea (a), Manchester City (h).

Arsenal have an excellent first team, but a lightweight squad. Already shorn of the services of Theo Walcott, should the Gunners fail to add any quality players to strengthen resources before the current transfer window slams shut, they may face difficulties competing on all fronts if more key players get injured. In a desperate quest to end a barren spell of eight years without a trophy, Wenger may decide to prioritise competitions as he aims to bring silverware to the Emirates. Progress in the FA Cup may be left in the hands of fringe players and members of the youth team, but it's a gamble. The Arsenal boss will want to avoid being humiliated by Champions League holders and runaway leaders of the Bundesliga, Bayern Munich, and matches against the remainder of the Prem's current top five will provide a season-defining test of the Gunners' title credentials and Wenger's management skills.

Manchester City manager, Manuel Pellegrini, doesn't have the depth of experience of managing in the Premier League that Wenger and Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho boast, but it matters little as he has the squad to cope with the rigours of chasing four trophies. Tuesday night, the Citizens eased into the final of the League Cup with a 3-0 semi-final second leg victory over West Ham at the Boleyn Ground. The 9-0 aggregate pummeling of the hapless Hammers tells its own story: City are scoring goals for fun... 106 in 35 matches across all competitions so far this season.

Strikers Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Negredo and Edin Dzeko are in prolific form, as is midfielder Yaya Toure. In the league, Manchester City's current goal difference of plus-38 is significantly better than that of Arsenal's plus-24, and Chelsea’s plus-23, and could be a deciding factor should they rival another team’s points tally at the end of this campaign.

Pellegrini's managerial task in the coming months isn't an easy one though. A straightforward-looking FA Cup tie at home to Watford this weekend is followed by a trip to a revitalized Spurs, and then Mourinho brings Chelsea to the Etihad for what supporters of both clubs will view as a title-decider of psychological sorts. Norwich (h), Sunderland (a), possible FA Cup 5th round tie, Barcelona (h), Stoke (h), League Cup Final, possible FA Cup 6th round tie or Aston Villa (h), Barcelona (a), Hull (a), Fulham (h) and Arsenal (a) are City's opponents through to the end of March. Not exactly easy. And it's worth adding that the League Cup Final takes place on the weekend they were originally due to play neighbours Manchester United at Old Trafford, a game which will need to be rescheduled.

Arsenal fans looking at City's congested fixture list will remind themselves of the catastrophic 2010-11 season when the Gunners were on course for four trophies, but in losing to Birmingham City in the League Cup Final, being knocked out of the Champions League by Barcelona, the FA Cup by Manchester United and sliding out of contention for the Prem title (won by United), they finished the campaign empty-handed. A poor run of form during a busy February and March cost Wenger's team dear, so how will Pellegrini's men fare in similar circumstances? Time alone will tell.

If Mourinho and Chelsea face a less daunting task over the coming weeks, it may be attributable to a kinder draw in the Champions League Round of 16 where Galatasaray, who will have Blues legend Didier Drogba in their ranks, provide the opposition. Stoke City visit Stamford Bridge on Sunday for an FA Cup 4th round tie which will be followed by West Ham (h), Man City (a), Newcastle (h), West Brom (a), possible FA Cup 5th round tie, Everton (h), Galatasary (a), Fulham (h), possible FA Cup 6th round tie or Tottenham (h), Aston Villa (a), Galatasaray (h), Arsenal (h) and Crystal Palace (a).

While many may see the three current title challengers head-to-head Prem clashes before the end of March being pivotal, it could be that the rest of Chelsea's fixture schedule may leave Mourinho's team better placed not only to deal with matches against Manchester City and Arsenal, but with the rest of their opponents.

Mourinho maintains that City are the team that he considers to be the Blues' main rivals for the Premier League title, but the Stamford Bridge boss will be quietly confident he has the tactical nous to outwit Pellegrini, and few would be surprised if Chelsea turn out to be the team leading the pack as this most intriguing of seasons heads for what is certain to be a thrilling finish.

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