Thursday 23 March 2017

Barclays Premier League title race

Frank Malley

It has been far from a vintage Barclays Premier League title race. But with five games to go, and leaders Manchester United still to play second-placed Chelsea and third-placed Arsenal, the crown is still up for grabs.

Here is where it might be won and lost.

Manchester United

Alex Ferguson is the master of juggling resources but he will require all his resourcefulness in the run-in despite currently being six points clear.

United would be favourites to take all the points against Everton at Old Trafford on Saturday and in their last two matches, against Blackburn away and Blackpool at home on the last day of the season.

That leaves the small matter of matches against Arsenal at the Emirates on May 1 and Chelsea at home on May 8, the crucial factor being that both are preceded by Champions League semi-final ties against Schalke.

Can United steer clear of injuries to key players such as Wayne Rooney and Nemanja Vidic? Can they avoid going into their key league games physically jaded and mentally tired by European battle?

Arsenal and Chelsea's entire season rests on their tussles with United, but Ferguson must ensure his players retain their focus. Vidic is crucial here. His defending is the reason United have remained solid during a season when they have never been at their best.

His leadership as captain has also been inspired. He is an organiser and a driver, lifting those around him. It is the reason United hang on to win matches which Arsenal might let slip. It is also why it is difficult to see United losing their unbeaten home league record to Chelsea.

Chelsea

Chelsea have regained some consistency but arguably they have the toughest run-in of the three title contenders and manager Carlo Ancelotti has not solved his conundrum of misfiring £50m striker Fernando Torres.

Their next two matches are against West Ham and Tottenham, both winnable at Stamford Bridge. But derby matches, with extra intensity, are notoriously difficult to predict, especially with West Ham fighting relegation and Tottenham desperate for a Champions League spot.

Then comes the trip to Old Trafford where they must take three points. It is unlikely. That would leave them with a match against Newcastle at home and then an away trip to Everton, a tough ask if David Moyes' side still have a chance of a European place.

Frank Lampard must start to influence as he did in his prime alongside the improving Ramires and Ancelotti needs the best out of Didier Drogba.

Arsenal

Arsenal's title tilt could be over by Sunday if they do not beat Bolton at the Reebok, although too much is made of Bolton being Arsenal's so-called 'bogey' team. In fact, Bolton have not beaten Arsenal in their last 10 matches, Bolton's last win, a 3-1 scoreline coming at the Reebok in November 2007.

Arsenal still have a puncher's chance in the title race simply because they are capable of brilliant one-off performances. They are capable of beating United at the Emirates, they beat Barcelona there, but it is their inability to put away lesser opposition which could haunt them and they face Stoke away, Aston Villa at home and Fulham away in their last three matches. It is difficult to see them winning them all.

Title-winning sides invariably possess organisation, resolve and leadership. Arsenal fall short on all three and will do so until manager Arsene Wenger signs a Vidic-type central defender.

Prediction: Manchester United to draw both matches against Arsenal and Chelsea which will effectively win them the title.

Manchester United: 81 points.

Chelsea: 77.

Arsenal: 75.



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