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.
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.
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.
LONDON — Manchester City have shown themselves to be in a league of their own, so the Premier League should be thankful that Chelsea and Liverpool are still able to keep us all entertained. Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge helped neither team and only consolidated City’s vice-like grip on the top spot, but football is about jeopardy, risk and overcoming flaws, and when it all comes together, you get an unforgettable game like this one.
Even before City moved 11 points clear at the top of table with a 2-1 win at Arsenal on Saturday, this second-versus-third clash was always a case of both sides needing to win to maintain faint hopes of catching Pep Guardiola’s winning machine. City’s win at the Emirates was their 11th successive Premier League victory and they have all been won with such monotonous ease, scoring 33 goals and conceding just seven, that every three points is now met with little more than a shrug of inevitability.
Barring an unlikely collapse in the second half of the season, City will win a fourth league title in five years and you will struggle to count on the fingers of one hand the times they have had to dig deep into their reserves to overcome adversity during that period. Guardiola has built one of the all-time great teams in English football history during his six years at the Etihad, but they may simply be too good to contribute to games like this one.
Chelsea and Liverpool gave us such a pulsating encounter because they both have weaknesses that can be exploited by their opponents. And as a result, they both had to take risks in an attempt to secure a crucial victory.
And they also had to go into the game with unwanted distractions hovering over both clubs.
City, in contrast, have enjoyed a remarkably serene run of successes since losing to Crystal Palace in October, which is why they are free-rolling to another title. But the Premier League is regarded as the most exciting in world football because of games like this, and teams like Chelsea and Liverpool and the drama they create.
Christian Pulisic, playing centrally in the absence of Lukaku, wasted a golden chance to open the scoring on seven minutes when, with only stand-in keeper Caoimhin Kelleher to beat, he was indecisive and allowed the youngster to smother the ball. It proved a costly miss when, two minutes later, Mane took advantage of his lucky escape from a sending off by pouncing on a mistake by Trevoh Chalobah to score.
Chelsea were in disarray and Liverpool looked like the team that won the title in 2019. When Mohamed Salah made it 2-0 on 26 minutes with a stunning near-post finish after gliding past Marcos Alonso, it seemed as though Liverpool were about to give Chelsea the kind of hammering they inflicted on Manchester United during a 5-0 rout at Old Trafford earlier this season.
Liverpool were unable to score a third, though, and two Chelsea goals in the space of three minutes at the end of the first half turned the game on its head.
When Kelleher punched Alonso’s in-swinging free kick clear on 42 minutes, the keeper looked to have done well to deny the Chelsea defender. But the ball dropped the Mateo Kovacic on the edge of the penalty area and, as he was backpedaling, the midfielder somehow guided a volley beyond Kelleher and into the net. It was a spectacular display of technique by the former Real Madrid player and it gave Chelsea a foothold back into the game.
And it took them just three minutes to score the equaliser when Pulisic atoned for his earlier miss by latching onto N’Golo Kante‘s pass before beating Kelleher with a precise left-foot shot past the Republic of Ireland international. As the chaos continued on the pitch, Mason Mount almost put Chelsea 3-2 up in first-half stoppage time with a scuffed volley that bounced just wide of the post.
When a game is so eventful in the first half, it rarely delivers a second half of the same quality because of coaches plugging the holes that had led to the earlier excitement. But while the goals stopped flowing, the entertainment didn’t.
Salah forced a crucial save from Edouard Mendy with a 25-yard lob on 57 minutes and Mane was also denied by the Chelsea keeper. Kelleher, not to be outdone, then produced a stunning save to prevent Pulisic from scoring his second of the game.
In total, there were 25 chances over the 90 minutes, with both sides registering six on target. Neither could find a winner, though.
“For the outside world it was quite a good game to watch, but we came here for three points and didn’t get them,” Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk said.
Even if one team had done enough to claim all three points, it’s difficult to imagine they would have been able to close the gap on City, who are destined for another title. And the challenge facing both chasing clubs only grows more daunting in the next month, with Salah (Egypt), Mendy and Mane (both Senegal) now heading off to the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon.
But the Premier League still knows how to excite, even if the title is already a foregone conclusion.
Doncaster’s Lightning Novices’ Chase could be next on the agenda for Do Your Job following his creditable effort in defeat at Kempton over the festive period.
Runner-up to My Drogo and Belfast Banter in Grade Two and Grade One novice hurdles in the spring, Michael Scudamore’s stable star made a successful start to his chasing career at Warwick in November.
The eight-year-old fell at the eighth fence when stepped up in class for the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown, but bounced back to finish second to Edwardstone in the Wayward Lad last week.
With Scudamore keen to avoid a rematch with the winner, who is seemingly bound for the Kingmaker at Warwick, Do Your Job could instead bid for Grade Two honours at Doncaster on January 29.
Reflecting on his Kempton performance, the trainer said: “I was very pleased. He jumped well and travelled well and did everything right, he was just beaten by a better horse on the day.
“The main objective was a clear round really and maybe if we hadn’t fallen at Sandown we might have pressed on a bit more and made it more of a staying race.
“The most important thing was to get a clear round under his belt and get some more experience over fences for him.
“I think we’ll stick to novice races while we can and we might look to the race at Doncaster. That is what we have pencilled in at the moment, anyway.
“It would certainly be Plan A to try and avoid Edwardstone and I was very pleased to read he was going to go for the Kingmaker. Hopefully they stick to that plan!”
While Do Your Job looks set to remain in novice company on his next start, Scudamore admitted is considering a step into the handicap arena for the Grand Annual at Cheltenham – a race he won with Next Sensation in 2015.
He added: “I’m sure he’ll have an entry in that. He also ran very well at Aintree last year, so there’s that to consider as well.
“He looks like a horse that could have the right sort of profile for a Grand Annual and we’ll see nearer the time.
“In some ways it might make more sense to go for a handicap now, but as we saw at Kempton some of these novice events don’t have a lot of runners in them and there’s some decent prize-money on offer, so it seems silly to pass them over when you’ve only got one chance to run in them really.”
Lito Adiwang was booted out of ONE Championship strawweight rankings after coming up short against Jarred Brooks. ‘The Thunder Kid’ is already itching to step back inside the cage and hopes to fight a ranked fighter next.
Of the fighters in the ONE Championship strawweight division rankings, the 28-year-old Filipino seeks to score a date with No.2-ranked Yosuke Saruta.
“I want a big comeback. I still want a big name. I want to challenge Yosuke Saruta. Maybe if ONE allows it, and he wants it, then I’ll take it. Saruta is someone who I really want to test myself against,” said Adiwang in an interview with ONE Championship.
The 28-year-old admits it is a dangerous fight and a huge risk to take. The high-risk, high-reward scenario is something that Adiwang would like to take as he seeks to put his name back in the rankings again by beating a former champion.
“It’s a big risk for me because I’m coming off a loss, but I want a great comeback and a big name in my return so I don’t fall far off from the rankings.”
Lito Adiwang seeking for a better year in 2022 at ONE Championship
Adiwang now holds a professional record of 13-4 and has been competing in ONE Championship since October 2018. He won his first five fights before receiving his first loss against Koha Minowa via a split decision two years later.
The Benguet-based fighter had three fights in 2021. However, he also suffered his second loss in ONE Championship against Jarred Brooks.
Still in his prime, Adiwang goes back to the drawing board and seeks to polish his MMA skills in 2022.
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“I have to check my mistakes inside the Circle, but I also have to check my mistakes outside the Circle. It has to be a balance. Sometimes, I forget other personal obligations and those are the things that I have to work on. I have to balance things out based on last year. I have to correct this in 2022.”