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Chelsea, City have reasons to worry
One was that Manchester City, despite their patchy form so far, have enough squad depth to sustain a serious challenge until the spring. And the other was that Chelsea have the resources to match anyone.
Indeed those who have always felt that Jose Mourinho's return to Stamford Bridge was the key to the title were entitled to a smirk of anticipated vindication after Tuesday night's 2-0 win at Arsenal, achieved without captain John Terry, playmaker-in-chief Oscar and, among others, first-choice fullbacks Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole.
Juan Mata, the fans' favorite controversially warned by Mourinho that he would have to step up his defensive workrate to earn a place in the team, responded by crowning a brilliant display with the spectacular second goal. Right back Cesar Azpilicueta had got the first in plenty of style too, taking a striker's gamble on a weak headed pass back by one of Arsene Wenger's stand-ins, Carl Jenkinson.
In that moment, it seemed, had been revealed the crucial difference between Arsenal's pretensions to the title and Chelsea's. While Mourinho could rotate with confidence, Wenger's replacements for the likes of Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud were found wanting -- especially the front man's stand-in, Nicklas Bendtner, whose lackluster display evoked grumbles from the crowd and glee when the Frenchman eventually took over from him.
The following night, Man City -- victims of that late Fernando Torres winner last weekend -- ousted Newcastle at St. James' Park with Costel Pantillimon in goal admittedly no dlution of their strength in the light of England keeper Joe Hart's continuing tendency to error -- and a galaxy on the bench.
These were sobering thoughts for second-placed Liverpool, out of midweek action after their Capital One removal by Manchester United in a previous round -- and leaders Arsenal as they prepared for their Saturday-evening clash at the Emirates. Not that Liverpool coach Brendan Rodgers was ever going to get intoxicated with his team's early success. Asked by a journalist if they could complete a treble for the Fenway Sports Group after triumphs by the Boston Red Sox and the Liverpool women's team, Rodgers responded with typical British irony: ''Oh, it will be straightforward, won't it?''
Although three-quarters of the season remains and no one at Liverpool needs reminding of the old adage of a Anfield legend -- ''it's a marathon, not a sprint,'' said veteran coach Bob Paisley -- much will be read into Saturday's outcome and, if Liverpool can take three points, Rodgers may have difficulty in keeping expectations as reasonable as his own stated aim of a top-four finish and a return to the Champions League.
A win wouldn't necessarily put Liverpool back on top of the table, for Chelsea, on equal points but just ahead on goal difference, might also prevail at Newcastle in one of the afternoon matches. But it would heighten the excitement on Merseyside, where Everton are also doing well; Roberto Martinez's men take part in another significant match, at home to Andre Villas-Boas's even-higher-flying Tottenham, on Sunday.
With Manchester United eighth but very much candidates to retain their title in Davaid Moyes' first season, it truly is the most refreshingly competitive league chase in recent memory so far. And the presence of Southampton just off the top four only adds to a picture of diversity. From what we have seen of Mauricio Pochettino's position with their sprinkling of English youngsters led by exciting left back Luke Shaw, they may not be in a false position.
But Arsenal? An interesting statistic appeared in the Daily Mail on Friday. It said that while Wenger's team have taken 19 points from eight games to date (excluding one against promoted Crystal Palace), they won all of the corresponding eight last season, casting doubt on their apparent improvement. Liverpool, on the other hand, have five more points then were accrued from the same games last season (again excluding Palace).
So this is a big test for both clubs. Arsenal especially, for they are at home and have to prove that they can beat the better sides. Otherwise, after home defeats by Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League and Chelsea in the Capital One, they will stand exposed as flatterers to deceive.
I'll stick my neck out twice. I have a suspicion that Wenger's men are saving their best for Liverpool and expect a revved-up performance. But I also stick to the view that Liverpool, even if they return north with nothing, are back among the elite to stay and will certainly remain in this season's race because of the lack of European distraction which means that they -- unlike City and Chelsea -- do not need strength in depth.
From one to eleven, they've got the lot, including the most feared attack in the country, pairing Daniel Sturridge with Luis Suarez, whom Wenger tried to lure to the Emirates in the summer. ''It was never going to happen,'' growled Rodgers. ''We were never going to sell to a rival.''
Let that rivalry be judged.
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