Could there yet be life in the title race? Chelsea’s coronation seems only a matter of time, but were it to lose to Manchester United on Saturday, there might, unexpectedly, be a dramatic finish.
Arsene Wenger and Louis van Gaal keep on hinting at it, in that familiar play of media manners that seeks to planet a seed of doubt in Chelsea’s minds without ever creating a sense of expectation, but they surely must know how improbable it is. Chelsea’s lead over Arsenal is seven points with United a point further back. It has seven games to play; its rivals six.
Four wins would be enough to guarantee it the title. It can lose to United, Arsenal (away) and Liverpool (home) and still be champion. So, realistically, Chelsea will win the title. It’s lost only twice all season. No team in Premier League history has ever squandered such a position. If history does offer hope for challengers it’s from United’s collapse at the end of the 2011-12 season when it dropped eight points in its final five games to hand the title to City.
Is something similar likely? Perhaps not, but it is possible and that is what must motivate Chelsea’s challengers. It has, after all, looked weary recently. Oscar has looked exhausted since Christmas. The goals had dried up for Diego Costa even before the hamstring injury that will keep him out of Saturday’s game. Nemanja Matic no longer has the same spark. Even Branislav Ivanovic, that remorseless locomotive on the right, has looked off color. Despite all that, since losing at Tottenham on New Year’s Day, Chelsea has dropped only six points. At Hull it threw away a two-goal lead, but had the resolve to find a winner.
It was struggling to break down Stoke but was given a 2-1 win by a goalkeeping error. At QPR last Sunday, it was second best but won 1-0 thanks to another goalkeeping error and a late goal from Cesc Fabregas. Chelsea could easily have drawn any of those games but instead won all three: the capacity to conjure wins from unpromising situations is a key Jose Mourinho trait. Even if Chelsea did begin slipping up, you wonder how sustainable the challenges of Arsenal and United are. United has won six in a row and Arsenal eight.
With the pressure on, could either really extend that run until the end of the season (they face each other on the penultimate weekend at Old Trafford)? Arsenal has made a habit of upping its game when the pressure is off, specializing in the late comeback that falls just short. Say United does beat Chelsea on Saturday; could Arsenal, when it really matters, slash that lead again by the time Chelsea visits the Emirates the following weekend?
If that did happen then there really would be a race. This, though, feels more like jockeying ahead of next season – and the biggest test yet of Van Gaal’s new United. Since beating Tottenham 3-0 a month ago, United has been excellent, also beating Liverpool and City.
There’s a feeling that the players have grasped Van Gaal’s philosophy. The midfield three of Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini has balance: a smooth, controlling presence dominating space at the back, a buzzing distributor to his right and the great clanking siege engine to the left, barreling forward to punch holes in opposing rearguards. Chelsea, though, is another test again, or at least it would be if it weren’t so jaded.
Carrick went off with three minutes remaining in United’s derby victory last week: if he is out, how will United cope without him? How does Fellaini’s physicality match up against Matic? Can Herrera cope with having to track the runs of Fabregas, or, if Fabregas is used further forward, with the energy of Ramires? Those battles may not be quite so intriguing as they would have been had the Chelsea of November played the United of now but they should still give an indication of what might be expected next season, with the Van Gaal method firmly installed at Old Trafford.
But if Van Gaal does prevail, then the psychological soaring ahead of next season will become just a subplot, and the end of the season at the top end of the table may turn out to be far more interesting than anybody had imagined.