The scramble for the top spot begins

Published : Mar 25, 2010 00:00 IST

As the English Premier League enters the homestretch, the battle for the pennant is clearly between Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. Karthik Krishnaswamy takes stock of the big three’s chances.

Has this been the least predictable English Premier League season yet? Just over a month ago, Arsenal was nowhere — nine points behind Chelsea, six behind Manchester United, and despondent following back-to-back defeats to the top two. Only five games later, the North London club is not just back in the title race, but looks the best placed of the top three to win it.

“Defeat is forbidden,” midfielder Samir Nasri had proclaimed ahead of Arsenal’s eventually doomed trip to Stamford Bridge. “That would mean the end of our title chances.”

It would have, in most other campaigns. At this point in the season, the top three, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, have lost a total of 17 games. In the whole of last season, the top three — Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea — lost only 11, as did the three best teams of 2007-08.

This is in part due to the frailties all three possess, exacerbated not only by the injuries they have suffered this season, but because of the stiffening of spines that a number of ambitious top-four aspirants have undergone. Of the 17 defeats that the top three have suffered, seven have come against Everton, Aston Villa and Manchester City, who have also figured in four of their 11 draws. While the Premier League nouveau riche haven’t quite attained the levels of consistency required to mount a title challenge, they have certainly become snakes in the hitherto ladder-strewn board game contested by the big clubs.

And thus, recent weeks have seen Everton beating both Chelsea and Manchester United, putting three startlingly polished goals past the latter, and Manchester City completing a ‘double’ against Chelsea with an assured display of counter-attacking football. While all that happened, Arsenal went on a five-game winning streak, and is now only two points behind league leader Manchester United, and tied on 64 points with Chelsea, which has a game in hand.

The question of who wins the title in the face of late-season fixture-congestion, both in the league and in Europe, could be decided by squad depth. United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is a master at rotating his players to keep them fresh through the season. Only three of his players — Patrice Evra, Antonio Valencia and Wayne Rooney — have clocked over 2000 minutes in the Premier League season so far.

Arsenal, on the other hand, has seen six players on the field for more than 2000 minutes and Chelsea five. Squad size isn’t the problem — all three have deployed a similar number of players over the season, with 27 players appearing in league games for Chelsea and United so far, and 26 turning out for Arsenal. United perhaps has a greater number of hard-nosed team players with big match know-how such as Park Ji Sung and Wes Brown or veterans like Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, who don’t play every game, but know exactly what to do when pressed into action.

It follows that the two London teams are much closer to possessing a ‘first eleven’ than United is, and are, therefore, more susceptible to dips in form following injuries to key players and are likelier to contain weary legs late in the campaign.

But squad depth can only take you so far. Certain players are irreplaceable. United (and England) will not want to imagine the consequences of Wayne Rooney suddenly twisting an ankle or tearing a ligament in the coming weeks. Chelsea without Didier Drogba or Frank Lampard would be similarly bereft of fangs.

Leaving aside that sort of conjecture, the injury situation, as it is, sees Chelsea missing full-backs Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa, midfielder Michael Essien and its first- and second-choice goalkeepers Petr Cech and Henrique Hilario.

Arsenal has played without its foremost striker Robin van Persie through most of 2009-10, and he may recover fully from his ankle injury only in time for next season. Despite Nicklas Bendtner’s recent hat-trick against Porto and injury-time winner at Hull, the Dane is nowhere close to answering the questions asked of his finishing skills following his nightmare against Burnley.

William Gallas has been out since the Gunners’ 1-0 win over Liverpool on February 10, and though Arsenal has won all its matches since then, Gallas’ replacements in central defence, Sol Campbell and Mikael Silvestre, haven’t been convincing. Campbell’s concession of a clumsy penalty against Hull so nearly cost Arsenal two points.

Arsenal also missed midfielder Cesc Fabregas during the Champions League victory over Porto and in the English Premiership match against Hull (on March 13) because of a hamstring problem. The Spaniard, a creative genius, is all set to return for the game against West Ham on March 20 and this is a major boost to the Gunners’ title hopes.

United will, for the rest of the season, have to do without Michael Owen and Anderson and probably defenders Wes Brown and John O’Shea as well. Ryan Giggs, meanwhile, should soon be back from a month-long hiatus forced by an arm injury.

Experience could also play a role in the title battle. Of the three teams, United and Chelsea have in their ranks a number of players who have been through the drill of winning the league before, while Arsenal’s squad contains just three with Premier League medals — Sol Campbell, Gael Clichy and William Gallas. Of those three, Clichy was a bit-part player in the 2003-04 Invincibles season, while Gallas won his medal in his time at Chelsea.

It can be argued, of course, that this Arsenal squad’s lack of trophies should make it hungrier for the confetti shower and the parade through London on an open-top bus. Its cause is furthered by the relative straightforwardness of its remaining fixtures.

Of the three teams, Arsenal has, on paper, the least challenging title run-in, with a trip to White Hart Lane to contest the North London derby and a home fixture against Manchester City — to whom it has already lost once this season — probably the toughest of its eight remaining assignments. Birmingham and Fulham, the other two teams it faces from the top half of the table, aren’t in the race for fourth place and should have little left to play for by the time they meet Arsenal. Of the relegation-threatened sides, which are usually expected to present stiffer opposition than those hovering mid-table, Arsenal meets West Ham and Wolves, but both, significantly, at home.

United and Chelsea, on the other hand, face a greater variety of daunting opponents. Chelsea has Aston Villa to worry about and United a trip to Eastlands for the Manchester derby, while both teams have one remaining fixture each against Liverpool and Tottenham. The most mouth-watering tie of the season, though, is on April 3 which sees Chelsea travelling to Old Trafford for the proverbial six-pointer that could decide the colour of the ribbons on the Premier League Trophy.

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