Saturday 21 April 2018

Why the Premier League's chasing pack can still hunt down Chelsea in title race

Antonio Conte's side enjoy a nine-point lead on their Premier League rivals
Antonio Conte's side enjoy a nine-point lead on their Premier League rivals

Miguel Delaney

Right through the Premier League chasing pack, the players are trying to maintain the same mindset, and repeating the same message. It is that, if they just seek to stay concentrated and keep winning, Chelsea can still be caught.

Pablo Zabaleta was the latest, looking to strengthen his side’s resolve by referencing how his Manchester City hauled Manchester United in back in 2011-12.

“We have to believe, keep working and try to improve as a team and see what happens at the end of it.”

You can easily forgive such a thought process, of course, because it is probably essential to stave off the sense of utter futility that comes from the actual difficulty of catching Chelsea right now.

It says much about how things are going for Antonio Conte’s team, after all, that they still extended their lead to nine points on Tuesday night, despite letting a lead slip at Anfield to draw 1-1 and missing a 77th-minute penalty to win it. What should have been a first slip in a month ended up only strengthening their hold on the top.

The key positive for everyone else to remember, though, is that Chelsea’s lead is not historically insurmountable. In the 24 full seasons of the Premier League era so far, two wider gaps have actually been completely cut, and the situation that Zabaleta spoke of in 2011-12 wasn’t even one of them.

United were actually only eight points clear of City at the height of that run-in, but Sir Alex Ferguson - the grand master of winning English titles - was still responsible for one greater collapse.

That was in 1997-98, when his United were 11 points clear of Arsenal in February, albeit with two games more played.

The other was of course when Ferguson himself set the standard for how such races could still be won, as United famously steamrolled Newcastle United’s 12-point lead in 1995-96.

Those two seasons are something for everyone else to keep in mind, to necessarily strengthen their mentality at a difficult time.

The negative, however, is that the nature of those campaigns doesn’t exactly fit what is happening this season.

Take 1995-96, a campaign that became most famous for Kevin Keegan’s ‘I will love it’ explosion and how that was representative of Newcastle’s meltdown. The real key was that Ferguson had spotted that was likely much earlier.

Even as Newcastle kept winning right into February, the United manager kept repeating one message to his squad.

“Newcastle are the type of team that give you a chance.”

He felt that there was an inherent fragility there even when they were winning, that would be exposed as the number of fixtures remaining kept shortening and every match became more exacting.

It is impossible to say that about this Chelsea, not when they’ve conceded just 16 goals in 23 games and have a scoring record of over two goals a game. In fact, it is a description that better fits most of the chasing pack. Arsenal remain eternally unreliable, as the defeat to Watford proved, while both Liverpool and City have the defensive frailties of that Newcastle side.

It still seems difficult to see any challenger go on the kind of relentless run that United did in 1995-96, or Arsenal did in 1997-98.

Arsene Wenger’s first title was aided on the other side by the amount of severe injuries that Ferguson suffered, too, and that is perhaps the one hope for everyone else.

There are two players in the Chelsea squad that don’t have direct replacements, or even the kind of options they can alternate around. They are David Luiz and Diego Costa.

Will Chelsea rue not signing any players in their positions? So far, nobody has been able to make them rue any other errors.

Independent News Service

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