Liverpool’s 3-1 victory over Manchester City at Anfield on Sunday moved Jurgen Klopp’s team nine points clear of the reigning champions and ensured an eight-point advantage over closest challengers Leicester City and Chelsea heading into the international break. So is the Premier League title race already a foregone conclusion?
Unbeaten at Anfield in the league since April 2017 and having lost just one Premier League game since the start of last season, Liverpool are beginning to look unstoppable in their quest to win the club’s first title since 1990. But bigger leads than Liverpool’s current eight-point cushion have been overturned during the Premier League era and there is still more than two-thirds of the season to play.
So with the top four — Liverpool, Leicester, Chelsea and City — pulling clear of the rest, could the recent title-winning experience at the King Power Stadium, Stamford Bridge and the Etihad still keep this year’s race alive?
The big picture
Leicester’s 2015-16 title success was a once-in-a-lifetime fairytale, right? Claudio Ranieri’s team were the most unexpected league champions in Premier League history and the club has not even come close to the top four, never mind the title, since then.
But since replacing Claude Puel as Leicester manager in February, Brendan Rodgers has restored the sense of the impossible at the King Power by blending the club’s highly rated youngsters — Harvey Barnes, James Maddison, Ben Chilwell — with the experienced stars such as Jamie Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel. Leicester know what it takes to upset the odds, their fans know how to drive a team on to glory and they have a manager who won back-to-back titles at Celtic.
Liverpool travel to Leicester for a huge game on Dec. 26 and, if the Foxes win that one, Rodgers might be the man with the best chance of thwarting Klopp — the guy who took his job as Liverpool manager in October 2015.
Jamie Vardy’s goals fired Leicester to the title in 2016 and the former England striker is in sensational form again. With 11 league goals already this season, the 32-year-old is one clear of Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham in the race for the Golden Boot and Rodgers has successfully re-ignited a player who had struggled to impress former coach Puel. Behind Vardy, Leicester also score goals from midfield, with Maddison and Youri Tielemans netting seven between them already this campaign.
But while Vardy’s goals are key, Leicester also possess the best defensive record in the Premier League having conceded just eight goals in 12 games, thanks to Schmeichel’s form in goal and central defensive partnership of Jonny Evans and Caglar Soyuncu.
Squad depth, or the lack of, could yet be Leicester’s Achilles heel. Ranieri’s team were fortunate to avoid injuries to key players back in 2015-16 and the starting XI remained largely unchanged throughout the second half of the season, but can Leicester be quite so lucky again?
Leicester have six ever-presents in the league so far, with two others missing just one game each. That consistency helps explain their form, but injuries and suspensions will inevitably bite at some stage, so how will they cope? If they lose Vardy, Evans or Schmeichel for any length of time, Leicester could be in trouble.
Leicester will last the course and finish in the top four, but forget about another title.
The big picture
Having been hit with a two-window transfer ban by FIFA, the loss of Eden Hazard and manager Maurizio Sarri, this season was supposed to be a year of transition under new boss Frank Lampard. That forecast seemed even more accurate after a 4-0 defeat at Manchester United on the opening weekend.
But Chelsea have bounced back impressively since losing at Old Trafford, with Lampard being rewarded for his decision to back the club’s home-grown youngsters such as Mason Mount, Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Fikayo Tomori.
Christian Pulisic has also started to come to life after a slow start at Stamford Bridge, with the United States forward scoring five goals in his last three league games, so what looked like being a difficult year could now end with a title challenge.
Chelsea know what it takes to win titles. No club deals with change and upheaval better than the Blues, so if they are in the hunt for the title in March and April, it will feel like the norm at Stamford Bridge and that could be a crucial psychological advantage in their favour.
On the pitch, Lampard has turned the club’s transfer ban into a positive by giving the youngsters the chance to shine. So far, they have repaid that faith with some outstanding performances and there is a real sense of momentum and positivity at Chelsea.
Pulisic is now living up to the hype following his summer arrival from Borussia Dortmund, but while the youngsters are shining, it is the experience of N’Golo Kante, Willian, Cesar Azpilicueta and Jorginho that is helping guide the young players along.
Inconsistency is the biggest issue with young players and Lampard has to find a way to guard against his crop of emerging talents being sensational one week and below-par the next. Chelsea have been fortunate so far in that the trajectory has been mainly upwards, but the test will be how they handle the tough winter months when games come thick and fast. And with the club unable to plan for signings in January, the lack of experience within the squad may prove to be Chelsea’s downfall.
Ideally, Lampard would look to add a new centre-half and centre-forward in January, but unless Chelsea overturn their ban on appeal later this month, they will go into the second half of the season hoping their luck holds on the injury front.
Fourth. And if they finish fourth, it will be a great season for Lampard and his team.
The big picture
Last season’s domestic Treble winners and a team that won the Premier League with 100 points the year before, there is no doubting the quality of Pep Guardiola’s squad at the Etihad. But they have suffered because of injuries and poor summer recruitment this season, to the extent that they have already lost three Premier League games and currently sit fourth in the table.
Only Manchester United (twice) have been able to win three successive titles during the Premier League era and City are now discovering just how tough a challenge that is. Perhaps last season’s domestic dominance has led to a shift in focus to the Champions League — the trophy that still eludes the club — and their league performances have suffered as a result.
City possess the best and deepest squad in the Premier League, with multiple title winners in every department. They were 10 points behind Liverpool on Dec. 31 last year, but still finished up as champions after winning 17 of their remaining 18 games, so a nine-point deficit at this stage will not be regarded as insurmountable by Guardiola and his players.
No team possesses the same level of championship-winning pedigree as City and they have the financial muscle to make decisive signings in January. And if they are in the hunt again during the title run-in, Liverpool will know they are being chased by a team that has come from behind to win the title before.
While City’s squad is deep, the one area where they have been exposed is at centre-half, where the failure to replace Vincent Kompany in the summer has proven costly. With Aymeric Laporte likely to miss at least half a season with a knee ligament injury, City have had to deploy midfielders in defence to plug the gap and they have suffered as a result.
There is also a possibility that last season’s surge to the title, and success in both domestic cup competitions, took more out of Guardiola and his players than it appeared at the time. Perhaps a hangover was inevitable and, psychologically, City need to reboot if they are to catch Liverpool again.
City always find another gear in the second half of the season, but it won’t take them higher than second.