Chelsea. Manchester United. Arsenal. Liverpool. The big four. Seemingly so impregnable in recent years but this season have proved themselves to be, well, very pregnable indeed. Looking at these four teams before the start of the season many anticipated the tightest title race in years. After all, Man Utd, champions the previous three seasons, had their world-class front-line cut to ribbons with the high-profile exits of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. Chelsea could surely only come back stronger after a poor showing last year, and with esteemed coach Carlo Ancelotti taking the helm with one eyebrow curiously cocked, surely they would return to the force of old. Liverpool were many pundits bet for their first league title in 20 years after they pushed United mighty close at the finale of 08-09, whilst Arsenal were generally considered as the outsiders of the four (not by me by the way!), with their team of bristling potential still perpetually seen as a season away from realising said potential.
And it’s been tight alright, tighter than a duck’s butt… well, between three of them at least. But this is mainly because the frailties of each have always provided the teams that are struggling with a lifeline to claw their way back into the race. Apart from Liverpool of course, who are a remarkably whopping 19 points off top spot, despite the inconsistencies of those above. With 5 games to go it seems that it’s not going to be a case of whose brilliance shines through most but who can cope with and overcome their very evident weaknesses that will be crowned champions… or chump-ions if you will. Any other season and none of these teams would win the league. So, whose frailties will be least exposed in the coming weeks? And what exactly are these frailties of which I speak? Here’s a rundown of the inner demons each must slay if they are to gain domestic dominance in this most unpredictable of seasons:
Top at the moment are Chelsea. They have assumed the driving seat after doing over a very lacklustre United at Old Trafford on Saturday. Two points and 4 goals better off, they are once again favourites. But they are far from the Chelsea juggernaut of a few years ago, despite threatening to show that kind of form on various occasions this season. Don’t be fooled by their recent rise in form though, this is a team in dire need of an overhaul. Had they been anywhere near the standards of the Jose Mourinho days they would have won this league already by now. And it is essentially the same team. They have shown brilliant flashes of their best (7 goals drubbings of Villa and Sunderland come to mind) but have struggled for that consistency that was the hallmark of their recent golden era. And the stars of that golden age have suffered for form somewhat. John Terry’s solidity slipped notably during his well-publicised frivolities with Bridge’s bird, whilst Lampard has put in many anonymous performances. I can’t even remember the last time he went and did a Lampard; namely fluking a deflected free-kick. The difference in inventiveness between him and the livelier Wesley Sneijder when Chelsea lost to Inter Milan was stark. When Chelsea needed a lift I didn’t even notice Lampard was on the pitch. The supporting cast seem past their prime too; in particular Ballack, Deco, Joe Cole, Carvalho, even Cech. However, having said that, Malouda has been a revelation in recent months and Drogba has gotten over his gripes to bang away the goals right from the get-go. But this is an aging team in desperate need of youthful imagination and urgency. And with most of their stars heading into the twilight of their careers their transfer market value plummets daily. Mr Abramovich might have to dig those hands deep into his well-lined pockets this summer.
THE BIG QUESTION – Can this team with barely a season left in them hold it together for just 5 more games? It’s in their hands again now, after it looked like they’d blown it a few weeks ago, and they will have the confidence of their win at Old Trafford to buoy them.
Second placed Manchester United are coming off the back of a quite dreadful week; both in terms of results and performances. Having trailed Chelsea most of the season they finally got their noses in front following their win over Liverpool, and were looking very much like they were gathering momentum, only to then meekly hand title race prominence back over to Chelsea, with a tame performance in the biggest game of the season. The obvious frailty of the United squad is the over-reliance on Wayne Rooney to get the goals. Much of this season it hasn’t been a problem but the inevitable has finally happened and now we will find out just how much of a one-man team one-Man Utd are. They certainly found it hard to penetrate Chelsea without him on Saturday. It’s looking increasingly unlikely that Berbatov will ever find the form or confidence to bag goals regularly, especially in important games, so it’s either Federico Macheda or bust for United right now. Rooney can’t return quick enough. The other, more surprising frailty, is United’s defence. Missing Vidic and Ferdinand most of the season has seen the defence at sixes and sevens this year. I rate both Wes Brown and Jonny Evans but it became evident pretty quickly that they need the presence of Rio or Nemanja beside them to bring the best out of them. But the return of Vidic and Ferdinand as a pairing has hardly improved our backline. They were all over the place against Bayern and completely lost Torres in the recent clash with Liverpool… not for the first time. Rio looks like he’s playing at around 30%, Vidic has been more erratically brutal than normal and this has even rubbed off on the usually reliable Evra. United need to sort this out fast. On the other hand, prior to the last two matches, I thought United had improved markedly since the turn of the year. Valencia has proved himself an able supplier for Rooney, Nani has suddenly emerged as a genuine talent who can turn big games and we breezed past the likes of Arsenal, AC Milan and the improving Manchester City in the league cup semis.
THE BIG QUESTIONS – Can United adapt to the monumental loss of Wayne Rooney? Is there anybody who can fill the goal-scoring breach? And can Ferguson sort out a defence that has let their concentration slip painfully in big games over the last few weeks?
A point further back are Arsenal, another that might be rather harshly labelled as a one-man team. Captain and driving force Cesc Fabregas is out for the season now, having cracked his fibula against Barcelona. He has so often been the saviour for Arsenal this season; in their home game versus Aston Villa he single-handedly turned a losing scoreline into a winning one, coming off the bench, netting twice and then hobbling off injured… job done! With other main man Van Persie out for yonks and Arshavin missing most of the run-in too, Arsenal are heavily relying on bit part players to make more consistent, telling contributions. I’m talking about the likes of Nasri, Walcott, Rosicky, Eduardo, Denilson etc. Without their young Spanish talisman to pull their socks up for them they have to show they’ve got the quality to compete without him. Their other obvious frailty, though this one won’t be a problem for them in this run-in, is their tendency to be pulled apart at will by the better teams. Chelsea and United have revelled in convincing victories over a rather naively organised Arsenal this season but their own inconsistencies have allowed Arsenal back into the race.
THE BIG QUESTIONS: Can they find the inspiration with Fabregas (and to some extent Arshavin) missing the run-in? Have the rest of their players got enough about them to pull it off?
Liverpool meanwhile, lie all the way back in lowly 6th at present. It’s been a nightmare season for a team that were many people’s tips for the title at the start. I still say their frailties should have been there for all to see pre-season; though I could never admit that I expected them to do this badly. As everyone is aware they rely 100% on the form and fitness of two injury-prone players, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. Both have been injured for much of the season and Gerrard has since struggled for form big style. At times he has looked under-motivated and disinterested, probably because he knows the rest of his team-mates are hardly going to help him out when the chips are down. Now, Benitez can moan all he likes about their financial muscle being as strong as the alcohol content of a lager shandy but he has to shoulder all of the blame in my opinion. Having sold a majorly influential player in Xabi Alonso in the summer he decided to replace him with a player, in Aquilani, who has played less than half a season in each of the past two seasons due to injury. And he also goes and spends a further £18 million on a right-back, hardly a position that is going to make or break a title charge.
THE BIG QUESTIONS: Will Benitez still be with them next season? If not, will the next manager be able to strengthen more wisely? Will Torres stick around to find out? And, perhaps most importantly- will they be playing Champions League football next year? My hunch is, erm, no.
It has been a topsy-turvy old year that has kept us perched permanently on the edge of our seats all season, as it has wound its way towards the thrilling finale we are sure to get in the last five games. The top three are still close as ever, the race for 4th spot is hotter than a chilli-stuffed vindaloo and the battle at the bottom continues to prove as excruciatingly enthralling it’s always been.