Title race set for dramatic finish

Arsenal have now moved into second in the Prem table, but the FC panel are skeptical if anyone can threaten Chelsea.

But for an Alexis Sanchez penalty, eight minutes into stoppage time, to give Arsenal a 2-1 win against Burnley at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, Chelsea may well have started planning for their Premier League title parade in SW6.

Until Sanchez denied Burnley a dramatic late point with his contentious spot-kick, it had been the perfect weekend for the Stamford Bridge side.

Before Antonio Conte’s players had even kicked a ball, Liverpool had suffered their first home defeat in 12 months, 3-2 against bottom club Swansea City; Manchester United were forced to rely on a stoppage time — and record-breaking — free kick from Wayne Rooney to salvage a 1-1 draw at Stoke; and Manchester City and Spurs emerged with a point that suited neither club’s ambitions in a 2-2 draw at the Etihad.

Had Sanchez not claimed three points for Arsenal, which moved them up to second behind Conte’s team who defeated Hull City 2-0 later in the day, it would have been tempting to suggest that the title race was over and that the focus would now shift to the five-way fight for the remaining three Champions League berths.

But despite Chelsea’s commanding eight-point lead, it is too early for their challengers to start waving the white flag. There is still plenty of this race to be run and it begins to get serious next week when the Blues travel to Anfield and then face Arsenal at home in the space of five days.

Those are the fixtures which have become the focus of those watching the title race, with Liverpool also due to face Spurs and Arsenal in the coming weeks. But while Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal prepare for some seismic encounters, City and United have the opportunity to reignite their challenge from fifth and sixth position.

Much depends, of course, on Chelsea’s performances at Anfield and against Arsenal. If they emerge from those two games with six points, it will be difficult to envisage any of the chasing pack being able to reel them in.

But any slip in two hugely demanding games will open the door for the rest to close in and, with 16 games to play and 48 points to play for, all of the top six remain capable of winning the title. Pep Guardiola claimed after the 4-0 defeat at Everton that City were out of the title race, but the Spaniard subsequently back-tracked at the weekend by insisting he will “never give up” on winning the league this season.

City clearly need to find some consistency after a dismal recent run but if, as expected United reach the EFL Cup final and force the postponement of next month’s Manchester derby, Guardiola’s players face a run of games over the next seven weeks which gives them the chance to make huge strides in the league.

Paul Mariner and Ross Dyer make their predictions for which teams will grab the top four spots in the Premier League.

Ahead of their clash with Liverpool at home on March 18, City take on West Ham, Swansea, Bournemouth, Sunderland and Stoke. For a team of City’s quality, that should generate 15 points — enough to put them back on Antonio Conte’s coat-tails before a daunting triple header against Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea.

And across Manchester, the schedule in front of Jose Mourinho and his players is perhaps even more favourable than that of their local rivals. Now 17 games unbeaten in all competitions after their draw at Stoke, United’s next encounter with a side in the current top six does not arrive until Chelsea visit Old Trafford on April 15.

United have become resolute and difficult to beat, so if they can discover the finishing touch that has eluded them in several games this season, they could yet go into that Chelsea game with renewed hope of a remarkable title triumph.

Tottenham, meanwhile, have travelled to all of their top six rivals with the exception of Liverpool, who they face at Anfield on Feb. 11, so their destiny will be played out with fixtures on home turf against the likes of United and Arsenal in the final month of the campaign. Mauricio Pochettino’s team have played Chelsea and City twice and, like United, now face a run of games which could generate the points to take them closer to the summit.

Arsenal must travel to Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs before hosting United at the Emirates in early May, but as they have shown many times this season, Arsene Wenger’s players have developed a resilience and ability to win or draw games with crucial late goals — Sanchez’s winner against Burnley the most recent example.

And Liverpool, despite their current slump in form, will be firmly back in the race if they can defeat Chelsea at Anfield next Tuesday. If Jurgen Klopp’s team can get themselves going again, the absence of European commitments in the coming weeks will play in their favour and enable them to match Chelsea, who also only have domestic concerns, in terms of fitness and freshness.

So while Chelsea may look as though they are beginning to disappear over the horizon, the weeks ahead suggest it would be foolish to write off the rest just yet.

Indeed, rather than find that the title race is as good as over, we may just be about to witness the most dramatic and congested run-in in Premier League history.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_

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