After a weekend that saw the so-called ‘Big Four’ go head-to-head, there are now just seven games standing between the top three teams and Premier League glory.
Currently top of the pile are Manchester United, whose 3-0 victory over Liverpool at the weekend saw them earn a five point lead and ensure they are favourites to retain the title.
But is it as simple as that? With Chelsea beating Arsenal 2-1 to squeeze into second place, can the Blues now pip United to top spot? Or will early pace-setters Arsenal get back in the groove and do it for their stricken team-mate Eduardo? Time to find out what lies in wait for the title contenders.
Current position 1st (73 points)
For United, their five point lead over nearest rivals Chelsea makes it seem as if the title is theirs to lose. Yet a quick glimpse at their fixture list reveals it might not be quite as simple as that. As well as hosting Arsenal on the 13th April, United also have to go to Stamford Bridge two weeks later. Lose both of those and that five point lead may have vanished.
Whilst those are the stand out games, the rest of United’s fixture list doesn’t get any easier. They face a tricky test at the Riverside where Middlesbrough have already beaten Arsenal and drawn with Liverpool this season and sandwiched between the Arsenal and Chelsea games is a tough looking trip to Ewood Park.
Possibly worst of all for United is the fact that they entertain West Ham at Old Trafford on the penultimate game of the season. West Ham currently boast an excellent record against the Reds having already beaten them 2-1 this season and having done the double over them last season beating them 1-0 home and away. So, like last season and the 1994/95 campaign, this end-of-year fixture between the two teams could prove pivotal.
Verdict: Squeaky bum time for the Red Devils.
United have a tough fixture list and games against Chelsea and Arsenal could well be title-deciders. However don’t be surprised if it’s the games at Middlesbrough, Blackburn and West Ham that are giving Fergie sleepless nights. Keeping Ronaldo fit and firing will be crucial.
Manchester United’s remaining fixtures
29/03/08 v Aston Villa (h)
06/04/08 v Middlesboro (a)
13/04/08 v Arsenal (h)
19/04/08 v Blackburn (a)
26/04/08 v Chelsea (a)
03/05/08 v West Ham (h)
11/05/08 v Wigan (a)
Current position 2nd (68 points)
Coming from behind to beat Arsenal 2-1 at the weekend was an impressive victory for Chelsea and very quietly they have wrested second place from Arsene Wenger’s side. The Blues have had a lot to cope with this season: the departure of coach Jose Mourinho, losing a number of players at a vital stage of the season to the African Cup of Nations and those rumours of squad unrest that just won’t seem to go away. To have overcome all of these troubles and still be in with a chance of taking the title can only be applauded.
Those at Stamford Bridge will also note that their end of season fixture list looks the kindest of the three title-chasers. Aside from hosting Manchester United, the only games that look potentially troublesome are trips to Goodison Park, the City of Manchester Stadium and St James’ Park. However, with a squad as full of riches as Chelsea’s and with players such as Ballack, Joe Cole and Drogba starting to hit form, you would expect them to take maximum points from all three games. Certainly with a five point lead to make up on United they will need to if they are to win the title.
Maximum points will be the name of the game from now on and a victory at home to United on the 26th April will be vital. Of course beat United and suddenly the five point gap is only two points. A lot will rest on Avram Grant’s shoulders but after making the substitutions that won the game for Chelsea against Arsenal he will be feeling a lot more confident, and more importantly, so will his players.
Verdict: The Blues are the ones to watch.
With the kindest fixture list of the three title chasers Chelsea must still beat United at Stamford Bridge if they hope to take the title. Trips to Manchester City and Everton look tricky on paper and Chelsea have little room for error if they are to take the title again.
Chelsea’s remaining fixtures:
30/03/08 v Middlesboro (h)
05/03/08 v Man City (a)
14/04/08 v Wigan (h)
19/04/08 v Everton (a)
26/04/08 v Man Utd (h)
03/05/08 v Newcastle (a)
11/05/08 v Bolton (h)
Current position 3rd (67 points)
Arsenal’s dismal run of form has seen them take just four points from their last five games which in turn has seen them drop from Premier League leaders to third place and six points off the top.
Whilst the Gunners are undoubtedly capable of beating any team on their day, compared to Chelsea and United their squad is small and this has been their undoing as the long season starts to take its toll. The injury to Eduardo has undoubtedly unhinged them as has the hammering they took in the FA Cup against United.
The Champions League draw, which sees them face Liverpool, has also been unkind yet might now prove to be their best chance of silverware this season.
Although the title may be a tough ask for Arsene Wenger’s side they will be desperate for a run of form to finish the season on a high and hopefully claim a place in the Champions League final. On paper their run in doesn’t look too scary but the consequences of playing Liverpool three times in a week will prove punishing to this young side and it will be interesting to see how they cope.
Champions League aside, Arsenal still have to go to Old Trafford and they must also face an Everton side pushing for fourth place at the Emirates. However, their remaining fixtures look winnable, the only trouble being that five out of seven are away from home. Fortunately for Arsenal they are against the current bottom three sides: Bolton Wanderers, Derby County & Sunderland AFC.
Verdict: A season too soon for the Gunners?
The season is already taking its toll on Arsene Wenger’s young and relatively small squad and Champions League log jam against Liverpool will not help their title cause. While it may just be too much for Arsenal to make up ground on Chelsea and United, with a couple of significant signings next season may be a different story altogether.
Arsenal's Remaining Fixtures
29/03/08 v Bolton (a)
05/04/08 v Liverpool (a)
13/04/08 v Man Utd (a)
19/04/08 v Reading (h)
28/04/08 v Derby (a)
03/04/08 v Everton (h)
11/04/08 v Sunderland (a)