Tuesday 20 August 2019

John Aldridge: 'Title challengers under huge pressure today - but there's one man who could decide the race'

Chelsea have peak Eden Hazard at the moment
Chelsea have peak Eden Hazard at the moment

John Aldridge

Eden Hazard could hold the destiny of this season’s Premier League title in his hands today and that prospect should send a shiver down the spine of all Liverpool fans.

I saw Jamie Carragher on Sky Sports suggesting Hazard is the best player currently playing in English football the other day and while Mohamed Salah and a few others may have a say in that debate, it’s hard to dispute that Chelsea’s talisman is the outstanding talent in the Premier League.

I go back to a game between Liverpool and Chelsea a couple of years back that finished 2-2 and Hazard turned in a performance that was one of the best I have ever seen at Anfield. He was untouchable in a display that left a lasting impression on all who witnessed it.

Then we saw what he can do as he produced a sensational winning goal in the League Cup game against Liverpool at Anfield earlier this season, with his class shining through in a tie that was evenly balanced heading into the closing stages.

There are strong suggestions that he is off to Real Madrid this summer and if that is the case, Chelsea should be asking for a fee well in excess of £100m because this brilliant Belgian would be a sensation if he has five strong years in Spain.

He is ready to rise to the challenge of playing for a truly big club and with Cristiano Ronaldo’s exit leaving a big hole at Real Madrid, they need a new talisman to get them back in track after a pretty disastrous season.

Hazard could well be that man and if he does leave Chelsea, they will have a huge problem trying to replace him because the evidence of this season suggests they have effectively become a one-man team.

His two goals against West Ham last Monday highlighted once again his abolition to crack open a game that is tightly contested and that is the fear factor he strikes into the opposition.

As a Liverpool man, I’d be very confident of Jurgen Klopp’s men getting a vital win against Chelsea today, but the Hazard factor is the one element that could change all that.

Every game is a mini-Cup Final for Liverpool and Manchester City in what has developed into a thrilling race for the Premier League title and today’s action has the potential to be pivotal in where this story ends.

Manchester City are not used to losing football matches, so we will have to see how they react to their 1-0 Champions League defeat at Tottenham last Tuesday night as they prepare for a tricky away game at Crystal Palace.

If City get the win in the early kick-off, Liverpool will then be under pressure to respond, but the momentum appears to be with Klopp and his players at this moment.

City’s goals have dried up in recent weeks and they are no longer beating teams by seven and nine goals, which was becoming the norm for them not so long ago.

Every team going for four trophies in the same season have slipped up at some stage of their journey and while City have a big chance of turning their tie against a Tottenham side deprived of the services of Harry Kane, they don’t look as assured as they did a few weeks back.

Their FA Cup wins against Swansea and Brighton were unconvincing, they struggled in their home match against Cardiff last week and Liverpool can take encouragement from City’s slowdown as injuries and their hectic fixture schedule catches up with them.

Playing another away match after games at Wembley and Tottenham in recent days will test City again and if Guardiola takes a few chances and rest star players at Palace today, they could come unstuck.

City’s desperation to win the Champions League means they cannot go out against Tottenham on home soil on Wednesday night, so it wouldn’t surprise me if Guardiola holds a few of his ace cards back at Selhurst Park today with that game in mind.

As Palace proved when they beat City at the Etihad Stadium in December, they can shock the top teams in a one-off game, with Wilfried Zaha’s ability to win penalties proving to be an effective tactic for Roy Hodgson’s side.

Palace missed a late penalty to beat City last season in this fixture and if they can score first today, Guardiola’s side will be under big pressure to respond.

Despite my suggestion that City are looking vulnerable, I’d still expect them to find a way to win today and then all eyes will switch to Anfield for a game that could be billed as Liverpool v Hazard.

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