First is first and second is nowhere, as the saying goes, so Thomas Tuchel and Jurgen Klopp fill need to find a way to motivate their Chelsea and Liverpool players ahead of Sunday’s Premier League clash at Stamford Bridge. Unless Manchester City suffer an unprecedented collapse in the title race over the second half of the season, runners-up spot is the best either can hope for.
Since the start of the Premier League in 1992-93, no team has gone into the New Year with an eight-point lead like City’s and failed to win the title. Pep Guardiola’s men went eight clear of Chelsea — and nine of Liverpool — by winning at Brentford on Wednesday, so only the most optimistic of fans will believe their team can stop City defending the title.
But as Guardiola insisted after the victory at Brentford, there are still 54 points to play for. Liverpool, who have played one game fewer than City and Chelsea, have 57 points up for grabs, so maybe there is a grain of hope.
Yet if City are to be challenged over the final stretch of the season, this weekend’s head-to-head could well be seen as a playoff to decide which team will be best-placed to take advantage should City falter.
If City win at Arsenal on New Year’s Day, they will open up a double-digit lead at the top, so it really is win or bust for both sides. Neither Chelsea nor Liverpool can realistically afford to lose.
But how has it come to this? At the start of the season, the Premier League looked to be shaping up for its most competitive campaign for years.
City, having won the title with a 12-point margin last season, strengthened their squad by signing £100 million winger Jack Grealish from Aston Villa, but missing out on both Harry Kane and Cristiano Ronaldo left Guardiola without a centre-forward, so the champions appeared to have an obvious weakness.
Liverpool looked strong, adding defender Ibrahima Konate to a squad that still possessed the firepower of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota, while Chelsea issued a real statement of intent by paying a transfer fee of £97.5m to sign Romelu Lukaku from Inter Milan.
Even Manchester United seemed likely to challenge following a spending spree that saw Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and Ronaldo arrive at Old Trafford. But as we approach 2022, United have long since fallen by the wayside — and former boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer paid the price with his job.
Chelsea’s title hopes have also flickered in recent weeks. When they faced United at home on Nov. 28, Tuchel’s team started the day a point clear at the top, but a 1-1 draw started a run of just three wins in eight league games that has seen them overtaken by City — who have now won 10 games in a row to leave their rivals trailing.
Lukaku’s poor return, exacerbated by five-week injury layoff, of just five goals in 13 league games has contributed to Chelsea’s failure to compete more convincingly, but they also lack a Plan B when opponents shut down Jorginho in midfield. Chelsea have also taken just two points from a possible 12 against Liverpool, City, United and surprise top-four contenders West Ham, so they are certainly not delivering when it matters, as the best teams do consistently.
Chelsea must also go into the game against free-scoring Liverpool with major defensive problems. Ben Chilwell already faces being out for the season, while Reece James and Andreas Christensen both limped off against Brighton and Thiago Silva is a doubt too.
Liverpool are arguably the best hope for a team to mount a challenge to City between now and May because they have title-winning pedigree and a manager in Klopp who knows how to beat Guardiola. They responded well to a 3-2 loss at West Ham on Nov. 7 by winning six successive Premier League games and they have scored 50 goals — just one fewer than City — and conceded only 16 in 19 outings.
But Liverpool have dropped five points against Tottenham and Leicester in their last two games and they are facing the prospect of being without Salah and Mane when they depart for Africa Cup of Nations duty with Egypt and Senegal respectively after Sunday’s game, though their predicament is helped by a two-week international break for all Premier League clubs towards the end of the month. The pair may only miss the league games against Brentford (Jan. 16) and Crystal Palace (Jan. 23), before returning for the home match vs. Leicester on Feb. 10, so they may get away with it.
The duo have scored a combined 22 league goals this season, so their loss will be keenly felt. Jota and Firmino, and Divock Origi, are capable of shouldering the goal-scoring burden, but it would be naive to suggest that losing two of their very best players won’t hurt Liverpool.
But if Chelsea or Liverpool can bank three points with a win this weekend, it will generate the double boost of keeping the pressure on City and inflating belief having just beaten a direct rival.
For Chelsea, a win would give them a huge injection of morale ahead of the trip to Man City on Jan. 15, while a Liverpool victory would reinforce the mindset that only they can realistically threaten Guardiola’s formidable team. The two sides drew 1-1 in August, and the same result would play into City’s hands.
But they are both running out of a margin for error. More dropped points on Sunday will leave Chelsea and Liverpool with nothing more than the underwhelming consolation of fighting it out for second, the place neither of them wants to be.