Premier League title race hinges on Etihad collision and the force is with Arsenal | Premier League

After 10 games of the Premier League season, Tottenham stood top of the table with Arsenal and Manchester City two points back and Liverpool a further point behind that. But for the VAR snafu that cost Luis Díaz a goal at Spurs, the top three would probably have been the same as it is now, with 10 games remaining.

Which tells us what, exactly? That the top three are pretty evenly matched, that they have been consistent over the season and perhaps that, although the sense of this season has been of constant bubbling intrigue, modern league football doesn’t really allow for huge shifts of fortune.

If this is to become an all-time classic run-in, another 1971-72 when Derby took the title because Leeds and Liverpool failed to win their final games, there needs to be twists and turns. Ideally all three sides would drop points in three or four of their final 10 games: in 2018-19, when City finished a point above Liverpool, there was a weird lack of drama about the final two months as both sides won their last nine games.

That is one of the problems of the financial stratification of the modern Premier League: when title-winning sides need 85 points or more to be champions (and frequently more than 90), there is less space for setbacks and comebacks than the days when high 70s could be enough.

The three sides will have their regrets. City will wonder how they lost at Wolves, how they dropped four points to Chelsea and how they conceded two late goals to draw at home against Crystal Palace. Liverpool will look at the draws at Luton and at home to Manchester United – they had 34 shots and failed to score in the latter match – as points needlessly dropped. Arsenal had that run over Christmas when they lost to Fulham and West Ham.

But blips are good; wins should be hard-earned; relentless victories are good for no one.

The last time there was a three-way title race anywhere near as close as this at this stage of the season was 2010 when, on 27 February, Chelsea lost 4-2 at home to Manchester City. With 10 games to go they led Manchester United by a point with Arsenal two points further back. Arsenal fell away with a draw at Birmingham and defeats at Tottenham and Wigan, while Chelsea won eight of their last nine games – including, crucially, 2-1 at Old Trafford – to clinch the title.

Chelsea began the final day a point ahead of United, although given they were at home to Wigan and United at home to Stoke, it always felt as though the title had been decided on the penultimate weekend when Chelsea won 2-0 at Liverpool. Sure enough, although United beat Stoke 4-0, Chelsea hammered Wigan 8-0.

There is a danger of a similar damp squib this season, with Arsenal, Liverpool and City all at home on the final day against teams who may have nothing to play for: Everton, Wolves and West Ham respectively. That’s why next Sunday’s game between City and Arsenal at the Etihad, even with around a quarter of the season to go, looms with such significance.

Arsenal began the season with a victory over Manchester City in the Community Shield. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Although all three sides have Tottenham and Aston Villa left to play, this is the last of the season’s six meetings between the three challengers. City will be wary of a trip to Spurs but, that aside, this is their only serious remaining hurdle. Get over it with the deficit still at one point and they will be strong favourites. That’s why the feeling at Anfield a fortnight ago was that Liverpool really needed a win to open a little clear water.

Last year, there was a sense that, with mental calendars addled by the mid-season World Cup, the run-in began too soon, every game fraught with necessity. Those Arsenal wins over Aston Villa and Bournemouth were treated as though they were on the home straight when there was still a third of the season to play.

skip past newsletter promotion

As it turned out, by the time we got to the supposed title-decider between City and Arsenal at the Etihad at the end of April, a run of three successive draws had already in effect removed Arsenal from the race.

This season, the game arrives with the title race still very much alive. The only “big-six” side City have beaten are United; change that to “top six” and you’re just replacing two draws against Chelsea with a remarkably comprehensive 1-0 defeat at Aston Villa. City are unbeaten in 22 in all competitions (19 of them won) but a sense of vulnerability lingers and was enhanced by the second half at Anfield. Arsenal, meanwhile, have beaten City twice this season – on penalties in August’s Community Shield and 1-0 in the league in October.

Arsenal, having been eliminated from the FA Cup in January, will go into the game having not played for 19 days. In one sense, after eight successive league wins and progress to the last eight of the Champions League, the break has come at just the wrong time for them and, as was demonstrated by their frenetic second half against Brentford as they had to scrap to win a game they had seemed to have under control, they remain a highly emotional team, for good and for ill; maintaining morale and self-belief is vital.

But it was their last break (albeit one unaffected by international duty) that halted the Christmas slump and initiated their present surge in form. If there has been time to perfect even one new set piece routine, that could be decisive.

With games at Brighton, Wolves, Tottenham and United to come, Arsenal probably have the hardest run-in of the three contenders. Even after their form through February, would you trust them not to slip into the sort of funk that cost them against Fulham and West Ham?

But equally they have an opportunity, one that Liverpool couldn’t quite take, to inflict damage directly on a rival. Win on Sunday, at a ground where they haven’t won for nine years, and the wave of euphoria might be enough to carry them home.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Back To Top