With the halfway mark of the Premier League campaign about to be reached — each team plays its 19th game this weekend — the intertwined races for the title and top-four spots remain the most exciting since the English game reconstituted 21 seasons ago.
A mere eight points now separate the top eight and, for all the aura that surrounds Manchester City, now clear favorites for the title, Manuel Pellgrini’s men have only seven more than Manchester United, who were being written off after their hesitant and vulnerable start to life after Sir Alex Ferguson.
City, 2-1 winners over Liverpool in a classic contest at the Etihad on Boxing Day, could be top after the Saturday games because they are again at home, where they have won every game so far, and should dispose of Crystal Palace despite the London club’s recovery since Tony Pulis replaced Ian Holloway as coach.
But the big games are on Sunday. And even Arsenal’s visit to Newcastle, the most pleasant surprise of a season garlanded with those, pales slightly by comparison with the collision of Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge.
Make no mistake about Liverpool’s loss to City — on a ground where United, Arsenal and Tottenham were hit for a total of 16 goals, Brendan Rodgers’s players put on a brilliant performance. Inspired, as ever, by the devastating Luis Suarez, they saw Raheem Sterling denied a goal by a ridiculous offside decision before taking the lead through Philippe Coutinho.
Although Vincent Kompany soon equalized and Alvaro Negredo put City in front just before halftime, Liverpool were the better side afterwards and City captain Kompany hardly needed to concede afterwards — though he sportingly did – that these had been the toughest visitors to east Manchester yet. And the Reds are still strong candidates for the title.
As I’ve been saying since the start of the season, one advantage Liverpool have — and it also applies to Everton and Newcastle of the top-eight sides — is a lack of the complication that comes with European football. One, you don’t suffer from tiredness to the same degree. Two, you don’t have to change the team as radically. But perhaps even more important is the time Rodgers gets to work with his players on tactics and drilling.
The fruits of all these factors were on view at the Etihad. At times you could be forgiven for counting the Liverpool players. There always seemed to be four or five available to press a City man in possession and yet, if the ball was successfully moved toward their penalty area, it was never undermanned.
It was a masterpiece of organization and better quality soccer, in my opinion, than some of the more lauded epics of entertainment this season in that Liverpool offered a minimum of holes through which the opposition could run. So why did they lose? A bad decision by goalie Simon Mignolet, who flapped at Negredo’s eminently saveable shot and was horrified to see it drift into the net.
That was one reason City preserved their 100 percent home record. Another was the excellent performance of the man between the posts at the other end. Joe Hart’s crisis appears to be behind him and it’s safe to say that the England man, rather than Costel Pantillimon, will face Palace, which is good news for national coach Roy Hodgson as we prepare for the turn of the year and the countdown to the World Cup.
There was plenty for Hodgson to like about Liverpool too, even though national captain Steven Gerrard and striker Daniel Sturridge were still absent with injury. Jordan Henderson made another superb, mobile contribution in midfield, while the speedy young Sterling underlined his promise and could stay in the side for Chelsea.
Sturridge will be especially upset to miss this trip to the club which sold him because he wasn’t deemed good enough to secure a place at center-forward. But Boxing Day underlined that Liverpool still have plenty of penetrative power as the likes of Coutinho, Sterling and Henderson support the dazzling forays of Suarez.
No team can be confident about facing Suarez and company. Not even Chelsea who frustrated Arsenal at the Emirates on Monday and kept another clean sheet against Swansea at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day. No, not even Chelsea, undefeated in 18 home games in the League and never once defeated in that same League under the supervision of Jose Mourinho.
It’s a proud and remarkable record and I think it’s under threat this weekend because Chelsea will have to be more expansive at home than in forcing a goalless outcome at Arsenal. Will Fernando Torres be given a chance to shoot down his former club? That would be some solution to Chelsea’s striker problem. But he’ll have to outshoot Suarez and not many do that. It’s yet another game that will tell us a lot. They keep coming. What a season. Happy New Year.