Friday 24 November 2017

Can anyone catch United? Chelsea haven't given up chase

The revival of Ancelotti’s team is latest twist in a Premier League campaign that has been full of thrills but short on quality

Sam Wallace

It is only 69 days since Carlo Ancelotti declared that the Premier League title race was over for Chelsea, and if he called it a little early then he was not the only one.

When Chelsea failed to beat Fulham at Craven Cottage on February 14, the 12 points separating them from Manchester United looked unbridgeable. United had just beaten Manchester City two days earlier with that overhead-kick from Wayne Rooney. Chelsea, on the other hand, had lost to Liverpool at home eight days previously and their 0-0 draw with Fulham suggested their winter slump was by no means over.

After the game against Fulham, Ancelotti pronounced that the 12-point gap to United was "too much". "The most important thing now," he said, "is to finish in the top four."

Spring

Nine weeks on, the winter has given way to a warm spring and Chelsea have halved that 12-point gap to United. They have made up eight points on Arsenal in the space of just seven games to take second place on goal difference. They may have been beaten in both legs of their Champions League quarter-final by United, but the gloom of those results has been offset by the small possibility that when they go to Old Trafford on May 8, that game may not be a formality.

This season has been written off in many quarters as one of the Premier League's fallow years with no outstanding player and no outstanding team. But it does not feel like that with five games left to play. It feels volatile, unpredictable and exciting. United should win the title, but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that they are capable of mistakes, and then who knows what might happen?

That was why there was a sense of hope detectable at Stamford Bridge after the 3-1 win over Birmingham City on Wednesday night in a season that has not been notable for it. "You can see how quickly things change," said Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech. "Two weeks ago the situation looked one way. Now it looks another way.

"A few days on and everything looks different. We are back in second spot and we are only six points behind United. We have two games at home (against West Ham and Tottenham). We have to keep winning to keep up the pressure on everyone else."

When Ancelotti wrote off his team's chances in mid-February he was making the assumption everyone else would be better.

"If next month he was to equal Jose Mourinho's two titles with Chelsea, having overseen the lowest points-yielding season in the club's recent history, then you cannot imagine Mourinho will be impressed.

Mourinho's teams never finished with less than 83 points in his three full seasons at the club. The maximum Chelsea can finish with this season is 79.

A note of caution: while Chelsea might have halved the gap to United, the leaders are still one point further clear of the pack than they were seven games earlier when Arsenal trailed them by five points. United's position as favourites for the title -- and the bookmakers had them at around 1/8 yesterday -- remains solid but it is their run-in that gives the others grounds for hope.

The two games that will decide the title race are United's trip to the Emirates a week on Sunday and then the visit of Chelsea to Old Trafford seven days later. United have not been beaten at home in the league all season, which makes the task all that more daunting. They can afford to lose one of those games providing they get wins elsewhere, but not both of them.

"It's still United's title to lose," Cech said. "They are top of the table, they have a six-point advantage over us. They play us at home. It's their title to lose. But we are going to do everything to keep our chances alive."

contenders

The return of Chelsea from fifth-place basket cases to second-place contenders has epitomised the opposition to United this season -- there has not been the consistency to mount a serious challenge.

Now in their last seven games, Chelsea have taken 19 from a possible 21 points which has been impressive but also shows how costly that 1-1 draw at Stoke City on April 2 looks.

Over the same period, Arsenal have managed just 11 points from a possible 21. Any other season and they would be well out of contention, but United have only earned 13 points in the same period. Manchester City's falling away has been even worse. They have played five games in the same time and taken just seven points from a possible 15.

"There is a lot of pressure all round," said Cech about Ancelotti. "But nobody panicked. The manager stayed calm even though he was under a lot of pressure. The club gave him their backing by keeping him in and the season is still on. It's not completely lost yet."

Perhaps the season's most intriguing subplot is how Chelsea's late push will affect Ancelotti's future. Winning his second title in two seasons would be a remarkable achievement, given even Arsene Wenger has never won consecutive titles. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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