Typically, the New Year is welcomed with the promise of hope and change, yet the Premier League title race looks set to run an increasingly familiar course – Manchester City winning at a canter.
One game past the halfway mark, Pep Guardiola’s side command an eight and nine point lead over chasers Chelsea and Liverpool respectively – a not insurmountable climb, but one that looks increasingly daunting with each passing game.
After Liverpool misfired to a 1-0 defeat at Leicester and a late Danny Welbeck equalizer saw Chelsea held at Stamford Bridge, victory at Brentford on Wednesday made it 10 consecutive wins for City.
Preceding this run, City sat in third, five points adrift of Chelsea following a shock 2-0 home defeat to Crystal Palace at the end of October. Since then, the City juggernaut has won 13 more points than Thomas Tuchel’s team, and 11 more than Liverpool.
Granted, Liverpool have a game in hand following the postponement of their fixture against Leeds – yet the fact that their next game comes at Chelsea on Sunday means that, whatever the outcome, City gain ground on at least one of their rivals.
Should City win at Arsenal on New Year’s day, the gap at the summit would be 11 points before a ball is even kicked at Stamford Bridge.
Naturally, things can change very quickly in football and the title race – a certain late Sergio Agüero goal that gave the club its first Premier League title in 2012 ensures City know this better than most – yet even without their rampaging form, it is already hard to see past Guardiola’s team claiming a fourth title in five years.
Chelsea – once seemingly impenetrable – look to be running on fumes already. Having conceded just three times in their first 10 games, Thomas Tuchel’s side have shipped almost triple the amount and won only four games in the period since.
Though no strangers to a crisis of their own making, this campaign has seen injuries and Covid-19 absences derail what had initially looked to be a season full of promise for the reigning Champion League winners.
After naming just four outfield players on the substitutes bench at Wolves a few weeks ago, Tuchel must now prepare to face one of the world’s most frightening wing duo – Sadio Mane and Mo Salah – without either of his first-choice fullbacks.
Ben Chilwell and Reece James both look set for prolonged periods on the sidelines, taking up further space in Chelsea’s increasingly crowded medical room – an injury crisis exacerbated by the fixture congestion of Champions League and Carabao Cup progression, not to mention the Club World Cup in February.
Following Wednesday’s draw with Brighton, Tuchel said it was “stupid” to believe his side were in the title race given their situation.
“We have seven Covid cases. We have five or six players out for six or more weeks. How should we compete in a title race?” the German told reporters.
“We would be stupid to think we can do it out of Covid and injuries. Just play and everybody would be stupid to do it without 23 fit players.”
Sunday’s visitors Liverpool can empathize given the extent of the injury crisis that wrecked their title defence last season, but despite fairing better on that front this season, the Reds have issues of their own.
One point from a possible six in the last two matches is not strictly a disaster, but it is in the context of the relentless pace that City are setting.
As Salah – leading the league in both goals and assists – continues to dazzle, Liverpool’s firepower represents their best chance of reeling in City, but the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations in January looks set to dismantle their best weapon.
Salah and Mane have both been named in the Egyptian and Senegalese squads respectively, whilst midfielder Naby Keita is set to feature for Guinea in the delayed tournament, which kicks off in Cameroon on January 9.
Chelsea – by contrast, founded upon defensive solidity – will lose goalkeeper Edouard Mendy to Senegal.
City’s Riyad Mahrez has been called up to represent Algeria, but one need only look at the calibre of players who can deputize in his absence – Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Gabriel Jesus – to appreciate that City’s net loss will not be as damaging as their rivals.
Pep plays it cool
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Guardiola continues to play down any talk of the title being a done deal.
“All of you, thank you for your nice words because we win but I am not going to believe any words you say about it is already done or expected because Chelsea and Liverpool are more than exceptional,” Guardiola told reporters after Wednesday’s victory over Brentford.
“One is champions of Europe and the other has been our big rivals over the years. The distance is not because they drop points but because we win 10 games in a row.”
Yet the Spaniard’s fourth league crown in five years looks increasingly inevitable, the only question being by what margin he will win it by.
A history-making campaign in 2017/18 saw City end the season as centurions with 100 points – 19 clear of second-placed Manchester United – and though run to the wire and then beaten to the title in subsequent seasons, City again won at a trot by 12 points last season.
Should they wrap up the title early again, City’s focus will inevitably shift to their European ambitions, though given their recent history, Champions League glory is far less of an inevitability than this year’s title race.