On Tuesday, Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti made a somewhat bold pronouncement. "I like statistics and in think that, in the past, with 86 points every team won the title," he said at a press conference. "I think we need to get to 86 points to win the Premier League."
Something, evidently, was lost in translation. Eight-six points have NOT been enough to win the Premier League title in recent history. In fact, the last time that total was sufficient was back in 2002-03, when Manchester United's 83 pipped Arsenal's 78.
But Ancelotti is probably correct that 86 points will suffice this season, a year that has seen the better clubs take a step backward and the traditional "big four" turn into a "big three plus larger-than-average five."
Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal may rank first, second and third in the Premier League, respectively, but the first two look somewhat weaker than last season, whether it be down to departures (Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlitos Tevez for United) or injuries (Ashley Cole, Jose Bosingwa, Petr Cech and Michael Essien for Chelsea). On the other hand, the Gunners have been overachieving without looking devastating.
Yet behind that trio, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa and Everton are all staking a case for fourth place, as is Liverpool, which has slipped badly compared to last year but remains in the mix.
"There has been a general leveling upwards, the likes of Spurs, City, Villa and Everton are much better than last season," said Ancelotti.
"And they've all taken points from the top teams. That means there is more depth than before."
Of course, if there has been a levelling upward, there probably has been a levelling downward at the foot of the table. Hull is third from bottom and is on pace to get 30 points this year. That would mean you would stay up with 31 points, which would be the lowest points total to attain safety since the English top flight moved to a 20-team format in 1995.
Back to Chelsea and the Premier League title race. Simply put, the only way I can see the Blues winning the title AND Ancelotti's 86-point prediction holding true is if they win the head-to-head against United on April 3. United has 17 points to go to reach 86. If United loses at Old Trafford to Chelsea (big "if," I know), they need to drop points in one of the following six games: Stoke or Tottenham at home, or Manchester City, Sunderland, Blackburn or Bolton away. If you were a betting man, you'd probably say that City away is the most likely venue for that to happen.
Arsenal's chances are somewhat easier to break down. It needs 19 points to hit 86 and, with seven games left, this implies six wins and a draw. The main threat here is the North London derby against Tottenham at White Hart Lane on April 10. If you budget for a draw, then you need to run the table. Which, I guess, is doable, although Blackburn and Birmingham City away are relatively tricky.
As for Chelsea, 86 points may be the target, but the run-in is very tough. While its home games are winnable, Chelsea's three remaining trips are at Old Trafford, White Hart Lane and Anfield. The margin for error is tiny.
The upshot of all this is that while it looks like a legitimate three-way race in the Premier League, the title will probably be decided by United vs. Chelsea on April 3 and by Tottenham, the only top-10 club to face all three contenders. Logic puts United in the driver's seat.
The flip side is that, at this point, Ancelotti is virtually guaranteed a top-three finish, which, given the circumstances, means meeting the minimum target set by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. Especially if he also wins the FA Cup (Chelsea faces Aston Villa in the semifinals), though that's far from a foregone conclusion.
Either way, as Ancelotti himself conceded when I spoke to him, this squad needs some freshening up over the summer. Nicolas Anelka can't be counted on to be a consistent week in, week out striker at the age of 31. Chelsea will add another forward, most likely one who brings something different to the table. A quality winger would also come in handy, giving some balance opposite Florent Malouda and allowing Chelsea to occasionally use a straightforward 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 formation rather than the "diamonds" and "Christmas Trees" Ancelotti has relied on this year.
With Deco turning 33 in the summer and Michael Ballack and Joe Cole facing free agency, another central midfielder might not be a bad shout either. It's a position where Chelsea, long stacked with options, could find itself short virtually overnight.
The biggest risk is that Ancelotti fails to apply the lessons learned in Milan (either because he hasn't learned anything or because the club decides to work on the cheap) and attempts to coax another season out of his aging stars. That may have worked with the Rossoneri (although, actually, it didn't really work in Serie A, it only served a purpose in the Champions' League), but it would likely be a disaster in the Premier League, which is more physically demanding over the course of a season.