So here we are – the final straight. With just six points separating the top four, the Premier League title charge has rarely been anywhere near as competitive with so little of the race left to run. This hasn’t often been more than a two-horse town.
In the Premier League era, there are but two near-comparisons. After Matchday 30 of the 2001/02 season, eight points separated the top four – Manchester United (64 points), Arsenal (63), Liverpool (62) and Newcastle (56). However, the six-point gap that lay between Bobby Robson's Magpies and the rest meant they were generally no longer considered genuine contenders, as Arsenal eventually ran away with it.
The men from St James' Park were certainly in the frame at this stage of the 1995/96 season, when, like the current campaign, the top four were split by six points. Kevin Keegan's Premier League leaders, top with 61 points, had two games in hand which could (and maybe should) have enabled them to stretch their lead over the chasing pack: Manchester United (60), Liverpool (56) and Aston Villa (55).
As you'll remember if you've ever seen any football documentary or clipshow, Newcastle collapsed, famously losing an Anfield thriller, hot on the heels of losses to West Ham, Manchester United and Arsenal while Alex Ferguson's side calmly marched to their third title in four years.
Make no mistake, this is the first time in more than a generation that there have been four genuine title contenders left standing with less than a quarter of the season to play.
Figuring out how it will all unfold is a brain-melting task, given the number of plot twists up until this stage, so FFT has enlisted the help of former stars of each of the four clubs in contention. Nigel Winterburn (Arsenal 1987-2000), Pat Nevin (Chelsea 1983-88), Ray Houghton (Liverpool 1987-92) and Niall Quinn (Man City 1990-96) have all given us their views on the remaining fixtures to help us gauge who’ll be chugging champagne in an uncouth fashion come May 11th.
So much depends on if a team really goes for it"
- Nigel Winterburn (Arsenal 1987-2000)
The key match this coming weekend is the Saturday lunchtime meeting of London rivals Chelsea and Arsenal. While the two managers may not have held back when discussing one another over the course of the season, their tactical approach to this fixture will likely be far more reserved.
“Arsenal are missing their better players like Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott but they do have a bit more steel at the back”, Nevin tells FFT, with Winterburn adding that the Gunners “won’t make things easy for Chelsea but so much depends on if a team really goes for it”. Both predict the match will finish all square, much like December’s tense match at the Emirates.
With the two London clubs dropping points, can the two challengers from the North West take advantage? In short, yes. “Cardiff haven’t inspired me and look like they will concede goals - I expect Liverpool to win”, says Houghton of the Reds’ trip to South Wales, with Quinn saying similar of City’s home tie with Fulham. This all cuts Chelsea's lead over Liverpool to two points, with City and Arsenal two further back.
Chelsea then watch their rivals play a midweek game in hand, and while Liverpool vs Sunderland and Arsenal vs Swansea are routine home wins, City face an altogether tougher task against a wounded Manchester United side: “It's United's chance to prove that they've still got some fight left - I'll go for a draw”, says Quinn. All that would leave Manuel Pellegrini’s side four points off the summit in fourth, albeit with two games in hand. Expect giddiness on Merseyside, with Liverpool back top for the first time in almost three months.
City spike Gunners
When you get this belief and energy in the dressing room you can go on and do well"
- Niall Quinn (Man City 1990-96)
The following Saturday presents Chelsea with a chance to go back top with a win at Crystal Palace (Nevin: "Palace look good and organised under Tony Pulis but Chelsea will go there and have too much for them"), before Arsenal host Man City in the early-evening kick-off.
“It will be tighter than the Etihad but this will be so hard for Arsenal,” says Winterburn, with Quinn describing the match as “the most important one of the two tough games City have got in a row here – but I think they'll win”. The away win means City leapfrog Arsenal, although the following day Liverpool beat Tottenham at Anfield (Houghton: "With the goalscoring ability Brendan Rodgers has at his disposal, you expect a nervy-looking Spurs defence to buckle") to reclaim top spot. Arsenal are now five points behind with six to play.
Home wins for City over Southampton on Saturday lunchtime and Chelsea over Stoke on Saturday afternoon heap pressure on a relatively inexperienced Liverpool, who buckle at West Ham on the Sunday, dropping two points. As Houghton says, "Like a newly pro boxer fighting his first 12-round bout, we just don’t know how Liverpool will react to this sort of pressure. This one looks tricky to me."
Arsenal also face a troublesome trip to Everton, which Winterburn fears may result in more dropped points for the Gunners: “Everton have played very well against Arsenal this season in the league and the cup and whatever stage of the season, you know it’s going to be a very hard game at Goodison. Draw.”
This leaves Arsenal six points off the summit, with the following weekend’s FA Cup semi-final now taking on even more significance. With five games to play (seven, in City's case), Chelsea lead with 73 points, Liverpool are second with 72, with City on 70 and Arsenal on 67.
The day after Arsenal's semi-final, all three other contenders are in action. First, Liverpool and Manchester City meet at Anfield. Although cautious about City, Houghton thinks "Liverpool were very unlucky at the Etihad" and Quinn expects a home win ("When you get this belief and energy in the dressing room you can go on and do well"). That victory puts Liverpool top but only until Chelsea follow up with victory at Swansea (Nevin: "This might have looked tricky a few weeks ago but not now").
Two days later, Arsenal win their re-scheduled home game against West Ham to just about stay in the hunt, then the following evening, City finally win their weather-delayed home tie with Sunderland. After 34 matches Chelsea are top on 76, Liverpool second on 75, City are third on 73 (still with a game in hand) and Arsenal fourth on 70.
It’s joy and happiness all over the following weekend, as all four contenders pick up three points one after the other – Arsenal at Hull on Saturday teatime (Winterburn: "This one doesn’t worry me"), Liverpool at Norwich for Sunday lunch (Houghton: "It’s another hard one but they should have enough"), Chelsea at home to Sunderland on Sunday afternoon and Manchester City on the Monday evening at home to West Brom. The whole ‘as you were’ schtick doesn’t really help the Gunners: still six points back with three games left (four for City) they need a comical collapse from their rivals to have any chance of winning the title.
Anfield summit 2
The one game I wouldn’t have Chelsea as favourites. They'll find it tough at Anfield"
- Pat Nevin (Chelsea 1983-88)
And so, with Sky positively throbbing with excitement, to the biggest game of the season as second-placed Liverpool host leaders Chelsea. A win for Jose Mourinho’s side would put them four clear of Liverpool with two to play (and effectively knock Arsenal out of contention), while three points for the Reds could put them back top if City drop points at Palace later the same afternoon.
“This is the one game I wouldn’t have Chelsea as favourites,” says Pat Nevin. “This tie is squeezed in between a possible two-legged Champions League semi-final, but even if Chelsea aren’t involved I think they will find it tough at Anfield where Liverpool have been incredible this season.”
However, Ray Houghton counters Pat’s pessimism with some of his own... “To me, Chelsea are a team of men. Liverpool will struggle to overrun them like they have Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester United. Tactically, Liverpool have been brilliant and very adaptable but they will have to find something different to beat Jose Mourinho - he has set teams up not to lose away from home at the big clubs.”
A nerve-racking draw at Anfield allows City to seize the initiative – a win at Selhurst Park moves Pellegrini’s side ominously onto Chelsea's shoulder. With a game in hand and goal difference also in their favour, the title is theirs to lose. Arsenal's Monday night home win over Newcastle means that as the race enters its final nine days there's just four points between the top four.
City blink first
At this point you’re probably thinking “City will find a way of making this difficult” and you’d be right. While there are wins for Arsenal (vs West Brom), Chelsea (vs Norwich, ending Arsenal's title hopes) and Liverpool (at Crystal Palace), City drop points at perennial party-poopers – and determined fifth-place chasers – Everton. “Everton have a tendency to lose games they should win and lose ones that you think are more difficult,” says Quinn, predicting a draw.
Three points behind leaders Chelsea (and two behind Liverpool), City gladly return to the Etihad for their final two fixtures, including that midweek game in hand against Villa. They need to win it, and do so, going back top – for the first time since Feb 1st – on goal difference from Chelsea.
Three-way title race
You won't get a ticket for love nor money. Talk about an atmosphere"
- Ray Houghton (Liverpool 1987-92)
With Sky declaring a national holiday, the last day dawns with a three-way title race. Liverpool fans camp outside Anfield for the game against Newcastle (Houghton: "You won't get a ticket for love nor money but wow, what a day that would be. Talk about an atmosphere"), while blue is once again the colour at Cardiff as Chelsea fans swarm to the already-relegated club (Nevin: "Cardiff will be gone by then and so this should be straightforward"). However, their fate is in the hands of others.
Just like in 2012, City go into the last day knowing a home win against unfancied London opposition will see them crowned champions. This time it’s West Ham not QPR, and this time it's less dramatic – how could it not be? – as City ounce again ease to victory over a team they've already beaten three times this season.
Reminding everyone that he said it was better to have games in hand, Mourinho laments the draws against Arsenal and Liverpool while Rodgers applauds his players and prepares to break out the Champions League chequebook, while the Gunners – fourth again, after all that – are swept up in a very different final-day battle, dropping points at Carrow Road: as Winterburn notes, "Norwich will be fighting for their lives and I expect this to be very, very tight". But that's another story…