With just a few weeks of football left in the English Premier League this season, the race for the title between Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea has intensified further. Also, with only a few points separating the three teams on the standings table, it promises to be one of the best title races in recent history.
For the fourth consecutive season since 2009-10, Liverpool began their Premier League campaign with a burning desire to reclaim their long-lost Champions League berth. Despite a few initial hiccups and uncertainty, their ability to tie down their Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez has fueled that desire to a great extent. Most fans of the club would have gladly accepted the fourth spot even as the club went in for the Christmas break at the top of the table. Then, to slip to down to fifth place at the start of 2014 and claw their way back with just five weeks to go has been an incredible story.
A leaky defence that has seen them concede 40 goals this term, on par with fourth-placed Arsenal, has been overshadowed by their free-scoring spirit. Suarez (29 goals) and striking partner Daniel Sturridge (20 goals) have been two of the best in the season so far, taking Liverpool's tally to 90 goals this season, six more than Manchester City at the moment.
The Merseyside club started the season with three straightforward 1-0 wins and then slowly shifted gears to turn into a side that could easily outscore its opponents. Their only loss at Anfield to Southampton (0-1) came way back in September 2013, after which they've been menacing at home. Scoring four against Everton in the Merseyside derby, five against Arsenal at home, taking the tally to nine goals against Tottenham Hotspur across two fixtures and outclassing Manchester United at Old Trafford with a 3-0 win, Liverpool have proved they are ready for what it takes to go all the way. On the road, they have been a bit nervy, conceding cheap goals but their ability to outscore the opposition has kept them going in the title race. This, coupled with an upsurge in the form of attacking mid-fielders like Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling leaves the fans with hope for glory.
Position: 1st, 74 points from 33 games, Goal Difference: +50
Remaining fixtures: Manchester City (Home), Norwich (Away), Chelsea (Home), Crystal Palace (Away), Newcastle United (Home)
With a beefed-up squad and a new manager in Manuel Pellegrini, Manchester City began their season with the hope to win their second league title in three years. Argentine striker Sergio Aguero (15 goals), whose stoppage time goal against Queens Park Rangers helped them nick the title from rivals Manchester United's grip in 2011-12, started the season in good form but has missed a few crucial games due to multiple injuries. Yet, City's rich squad has filled in well. Alvaro Negredo, their latest recruit from Sevilla, managed nine goals in 20 league appearances while Edin Dzeko has taken his tally to 11. However, their most prolific performer has been central mid-fielder Yaya Toure, with 18 goals, clearly suggesting there is no dearth of goal-scorers among their ranks. Aguero's timely return to full fitness ahead of their Anfield trip makes them the overwhelming favourites to clinch the title.
Position: 3rd, 70 points from 31 games, Goal Difference: +55
Remaining fixtures: Liverpool (Away), Sunderland (Home), West Brom (Home), Crystal Palace (Away), Everton (Away), Aston Villa (Home), West Ham (Home)
Jose Mourinho's little horses, as he prefers calling them, took a giant leap on Tuesday with a spirited 2-0 win over Paris-Saint Germain in the second leg of Champions League quarterfinal to storm into the semis.
However, that puts the Portuguese tactician and his side in a fix. To pick between going all-out for their second Champions League crown in three years or their first Premier League title since 2009-10 is not going to be easy. A lack of balance is likely to see them miss out on both counts.
Mourinho's 'second home coming' to Chelsea since he first left in 2007 has been characterized by the resurgence of the title-chasing spirit that was seen during his first reign when they won back-to-back seasons in 2004-05 and 2005-06. Despite a few bold calls, including selling their most valuable player in the last two seasons, Juan Mata and letting the 20-year-old striker Romelu Lukaku go out on loan, Chelsea have made good progress all along and showed they meant business when they completed a double over Manchester City, bringing an end to the latter's unbeaten home run.
Mourinho's problems, however, have been his indifferent strike-force. Torres has endured yet another tough season, failing to make the runs and convert half chances that even a half-fit Torres would have converted during his Liverpool and Atletico Madrid days. Samuel Eto'o has managed to score a handful but hasn't opened his account away from Stamford Bridge and Demba Ba has been on the fringes and only used as a substitute so far this season.
Their recent 0-1 loss to Crystal Palace might have put chances of dictating terms in the league title race in jeopardy, but they are still in with an outside chance to nick the title come May.
Position: 2nd, 72 points from 33 games, Goal difference: +41
Remaining fixtures: Swansea (Away), Sunderland (Home), Liverpool (Away), Norwich (Home), Cardiff (Away).
The title hinges on three crucial fixtures: Liverpool vs Manchester City, Liverpool vs Chelsea and Everton vs Manchester City.
The algorithm is pretty straightforward for Liverpool. Five wins in five will not just help them return to top-flight European football but also give them their first title in the Premier League-era. That Chelsea will play Champions League semi-finals on either side of their game at Anfield gives them more reasons to believe that they can pull off what, at the start of the season, would've been the most outlandish thought.
As for Manchester City, the coming weekend's trip to Anfield could be crucial to their fate. If they beat Liverpool, they will be in the driver's seat to claim the title. Even as Pellegrini has said his team will look to attack and hunt for three points at Anfield, a draw will hurt Liverpool's chances more than City's. A loss however, would mean City will depend on Chelsea to take away points at Anfield to help them regain footing.
Among the three contenders, Chelsea have the least chances of getting their hands on the title. They will need to win all their fixtures and then expect Manchester City to drop four points (possibly in their matches against Liverpool at Anfield and Everton at Goodison Park).
It will be interesting to see how Liverpool and Manchester City approach their remaining fixtures as they will also need to keep a close eye on their neck-to-neck goal difference.
In a season that could separate the top three teams by a margin of a point or two at best, it could also witness Everton being in a situation they would much rather not be. In a twisted sub-plot, a positive result against Manchester City could propel their local rivals Liverpool to title glory.
The final lap for the title race beckons and has all the makings of a nail-biting finish!