The Home Stretch.. Who will win the Premier League?

By John Howell With the home stretch in sight and cracks appearing at the summit, is there a team that is capable of pulling away from a chasing pack to claim the prize? As we enter into March with 11 games remaining, John Howell takes a look at the contenders for the title and analyses who will be champions come May 11.

Chelsea

The return of the formidable Jose Mourinho in the dugout has changed the fortunes for the blue side of London. Third-placed last year and a Europa League triumph under Rafael Benitez, Mourinho has turned his team into genuine title contenders once again, something that hasn’t been seen since Carlo Ancelotti left the post in 2011.

The departures of Juan Mata and Michael Essien has been addressed in the form of re-signing Nemanja Matić, who has shored up a shaky midfield since his return from Benfica. But Chelsea still lack goals from their front men. Fernando Torres is the highest scoring striker in the Premier League for Chelsea with four goals, which means midfielders Eden Hazard and Oscar have had to pick up the slack.

Mourinho desperately needed to invest in a striker during the January window but opted against it, a move that could come back to haunt him. Inflated prices are part and parcel of the winter transfer window but something the Portuguese manager was not willing to contend with.

Chelsea's impotent strike force could hinder their title challenge

Chelsea’s impotent strike force could hinder their title challenge

If Chelsea are able to keep their key players fit, there is no reason why they can’t easily finish in the top two, and with a vital three points gained away at Manchester City, The Blues have shown they can beat the best.

In terms of opponents, Chelsea have a much more fortunate run of games than their rivals, although they do have to contend with Champions League fixtures against Galatasaray. Home to both Tottenham and Arsenal and away to Liverpool, if Chelsea can overcome these tricky ties they will be odds-on favourites for the championship.

This past weekend a 93rd minute John Terry goal saw the Blues overcome a solid Everton outfit, a result that keeps them at the top of the league. Come the end of the season, it’s results like this which will define champions.

Manchester City

Many fans and pundits favourite pre-season, Manchester City have torn through the Premier League since their 1-0 loss to Sunderland back in early November, losing just one of their last 14 games.

With an abundance of talent and strength in depth, City have scored 68 goals in the League and are rock solid at the back with captain Vincent Kompany leading by example. City have conceded only nine goals at home and if it were not for a resilient Chelsea performance, would still be undefeated at the Etihad Stadium this season.

Such is the depth that City possesses; any injury will not be a make or break for their season. Top scorer Sergio Aguero has been away for the past month and in his absence they have struggled but have coped. Alvaro Negredo has been a fantastic strike partner to the Argentine, a bargain considering he cost less than Spurs flop Roberto Soldado.

Alvaro Negredo has been a revelation since joining from Sevilla

Alvaro Negredo has been a revelation since joining from Sevilla

Joe Hart has finally overcome his blip in form to regain the number one jersey, whilst Yaya Toure has shone in midfield. Jesus Navas has been phenomenal on the wing since his arrival and has added an extra dimension to the side.

Manuel Pellegrini has kept his side in the hunt for the mythical quadruple this year, although a Champions League triumph is looking unlikely following a 2-0 loss this past Tuesday at home to Barcelona. With the League Cup final around the corner, and the FA Cup entering the quarter final stage, City are capable of sweeping all competitions at least on a domestic front.  Whether these added games will distract the Chilean and his team from their league priorities is to be seen.

There are bumps in the road that have yet to be overcome. During the month of March, City will play back-to-back away games against Manchester United and Arsenal, visit Liverpool in April, and Everton away in May; All fixtures in which the Sky Blues are capable of dropping points.

The Sky Blues demonstrated their ability to win ugly in their 1-0 win over Stoke last Saturday. If Pellegrini is competent of keeping his cool and keeping his side on the right track, it’s almost impossible to look past Manchester City as the uncrowned champions of English football.

Arsenal

The north London side gained fourth place last year by the skin of their teeth, pipping rivals Tottenham to the post by one solitary point on the final day of the season. With that in mind, few pundits expected Arsène Wenger’s men to mount a legitimate title challenge, especially after a dismal display on the opening day of the season, losing 3-1 at home to Aston Villa.

The £42.5m signing of Mesut Özil that followed has changed the fortunes of the Gunners. The rock solid partnership of centre backs Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker has been a revelation, whilst midfielder Aaron Ramsey has come of age. Mathieu Flamini returned to the club after a five-year absence and has provided much needed cover sitting in front of the back four.

But Arsenal’s squad is being spread thin. The accumulation of games from Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League football has stretched the team to its limits. Injuries to key players such as Theo Walcott haven’t helped, whilst the drastic dip in form of Özil has led many to believe the German is suffering from burn out.

There has been less to cheer about for the German in recent weeks

There has been less to cheer about for the German in recent weeks

The reliance on Olivier Giroud as the club’s source of goals is a hindrance.  Wenger failed to invest in another striker during the January window and has had to bring injury-prone exile Nicklas Bendtner back into the fold, a move not welcomed by fans. The single January signing made by the club was midfielder Kim Källström from Spartak Moscow, who came to London with an injury the club were aware of and is yet to play.

In the previous round of Premier League fixtures, Arsenal were thumped away to Liverpool 5-1 and drew 0-0 at home to Manchester United, leaving them in second place. Doubts are creeping in over the legitimacy of their challenge.

With a 2-1 victory over Liverpool in the FA Cup and the Champions League tie against Bayern Munich in the balance, Arsenal are also totting up more fixtures. Along with the fact that in March they are due to play Spurs, Chelsea and Manchester City in a row; nobody would be surprised to see Arsenal’s title ambitions fade away.

A 4-1 victory over a relegation-embroiled Sunderland this past weekend has done nothing to change or remove any doubts. If they were to miss out on the Premier League this year, it will have been a decade since they were last crowned champions. With a little over two months to go and with such obstacles in the way, Arsenal fans may have to wait a little while longer to be kings of England again.

Liverpool

Self-proclaimed ‘dark horses’ (or ‘foals’ as Brendan Rodgers declared them), Liverpool shot back into the title race with a 5-1 demolition of Arsenal and last-gasp 3-2 home victory over bottom side Fulham.

A settled and balanced squad, no European fixtures or further cup commitments to contend with, and winnable fixtures forthcoming, a realistic challenge is expected from The Reds.

Will Chelsea and Man City live to regret letting Daniel Sturridge go when May comes?

Will Chelsea and Man City live to regret letting Daniel Sturridge go when May comes?

With important ties against Manchester City, Chelsea and Spurs left to play will have a massive impact. The fact Brendan Rodgers’ side have home advantage in all three ties gives the edge to Liverpool in what will be a make or break period in the race to top spot. Aside from those fixtures and a tricky tie away to Manchester United in March, Liverpool’s remaining seven fixtures are against sides outside of the top seven.

Their fantastic brand of attacking football continued with a thrilling 4-3 victory over Swansea to go six points clear of fifth place last Sunday. With sides around them dropping points, Liverpool now sit just four points off the summit and may very well find themselves top by May.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

Without further ado, here is how I believe the top of the table will shape at the end of this gripping edition of the Premier League.

FINAL PREDICTIONS

Champions –  Manchester City

Runner Up – Chelsea

3rd Place – Liverpool

4th Place – Arsenal

Do you agree with John’s predictions? Do Manchester City have it in their locker still after faltering in February? Will Arsenal self-capitulate? Would Jose be happy with just a runners up medal?

Follow @JHowellWrites

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