Wednesday 13 December 2017

Crunch time

'Big five' enter crucial spell but which side will be top come the New Year?

Sam Wallace

For one of the nominal new big five of English football it will have to be a winter of discontent. Not all of them can survive unscathed the six games in 25 days that will deliver us into the New Year with a better idea of how the most intriguing title race in years will unfold.

For Chelsea and Arsenal, three of their next five games are against fellow top-four sides. For Manchester United, it is two. Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur only have one game against one of the other top-four teams. For Chelsea in particular, this is a crucial period in their season.

Can they reach January 6 still in the title race? Will Carlo Ancelotti still have a job by then? Chelsea's next three games are against Tottenham, United and Arsenal and if the Italian loses two of those his position will be fragile, given what we know about the speed with which Roman Abramovich dispensed with Ray Wilkins. Lose all three and it is hard to see how Ancelotti could survive.

The Chelsea manager has lost three and drawn two of his last six league games and if his team do not rally against Spurs on Sunday and then against United on December 19, the game against Arsenal six days later becomes make-or-break. Chelsea have not lost to Arsenal in the league since November 2008 when the wheels started to come off the Luiz Felipe Scolari regime.


Of the four league games since then, Chelsea have won every one, scoring 11 goals and conceding just one. When Ancelotti's team beat Arsenal 2-0 at Stamford Bridge in October that result had come to be an expectation. But this is a different Chelsea team now, who desperately need to start winning as they go into their most difficult run of games yet.

Frank Lampard is expected to be back in the Chelsea team on Sunday after an absence that stretches back to August. But how soon can he reasonably be expected to hit his stride? Chelsea need Lampard at his best right now. By the New Year they could be adrift if their results continue on a downward curve.

So who stands to benefit? Certainly City, who have a much more comfortable run of games starting with the Premier League's bottom club West Ham tomorrow. Win there and they could build a nice platform for themselves over Christmas towards what will be a critical test of their credentials at the Emirates on January 5.

Of all the current top five, City are the only side to have played all four of the other teams, picking up five points along the way. United and Chelsea have played just twice against fellow top-five teams. So City should be the side with the most to gain from the Christmas run-in, especially with home games against Everton, Aston Villa and Blackpool who are all in the bottom eight.

But my hunch is that Arsenal will have the happiest Christmas of all. Yes, they have wobbled recently: not too clever against Fulham and a bit complacent against Partizan Belgrade on Wednesday, but there is good news on the horizon. Robin van Persie has played his first 90 minutes of the season. Captain Cesc Fabregas and Abou Diaby are close to full fitness, too.

If Arsenal can negotiate Monday's game at Old Trafford -- a draw would be a good result, especially if, as expected, Fabregas does not play -- then I can see them winning their next five. Beating Chelsea at the Emirates on December 27 would be a huge psychological step forward. Arsenal have not had Van Persie consistently on form since his ankle injury in November last year and now he finally looks ready.

After Arsenal, United and Spurs have reasonable Christmas fixtures. My money would be on United getting draws at least from their games against Arsenal and Chelsea and to be reasonably solid after that. The occasional rogue defeat for Spurs cannot be ruled out -- remember Wigan and West Ham -- but there is no doubt they are capable of beating Chelsea at home, as they did last season.

When the games come thick and fast over Christmas, momentum is everything. If Chelsea lose at Spurs then the gloom could be difficult to turn around as the intensity of the games increase. They will just hope to still be in the race come January. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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