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Four-horse race? A closer look at the Premier League run-in

Some teams are big horses, some are little horses, and some are chihuahuas. We’re here to make sense of the madness.

Source: Martin Rickett

WITH 12 GAMES to play (13 if you’re Man City) and just four points separating the top four in the Premier League, we take a closer look at each team’s prospects.

CHELSEA

How’s their gaffer done… Jose’s second coming at Stamford Bridge has clicked into gear as Chelsea stand at the top of the table. There have been blips in form like the pre-Christmas defeat to Stoke City and some recent draws. But the tactical masterclass that Mourinho produced at the Etihad Stadium has enabled them to move out in front with a third of the season to go.

Tell us about their recent form… Taking 27 points from their last 11 games demonstrates that Chelsea have been flying of late. Their performances in pressure occasions have been impressive in taking care of Manchester United at Stamford Bridge before they triumphed against Man City and held Manuel Pellegrini’s hitherto flamboyant side scoreless. Dropping points against the likes of West Ham and West Brom – teams they should be dispatching – must prompt some anxiety though.

Their key figure in the run-in is… Mourinho recently classed Eden Hazard as the ‘best young player in the world’. The 23 year-old Belgian has elevated his performances this season and showed his class in pulling the strings for Chelsea. Has struck 13 goals in all competitions and the recent hat-trick against Newcastle underlined his importance.

Source: Tony Marshall

The upcoming schedule looks like… Chelsea have some testing home games in March against Spurs and Arsenal with their biggest away trip being to Anfield on 26 April. But generally their schedule is favourable as they still have to face six of the bottom seven teams with four of those pencilled in for their last six games.

Verdict… Getting stronger as a crucial phase of the season approaches, Chelsea also possess a manager with the know-how for these situations. The Cahill-Terry partnership in defence is resolute and there is a fine collection of midfield talents, supplemented by the recent arrival of Nemanja Matic. The glaring fault is in their striking options though. FOT

ARSENAL

How’s their gaffer done… The recent capitulation to Liverpool and the failure to land a striker in January has resulted criticism being slung in Arsene Wenger’s direction. But with a third of the season to go, Arsenal are still in the title race and that’s a scenario fans would have been relished at the start of the campaign.

Tell us about their recent form… They have taken four points from their last four games, as the stunning charge that saw them win their previous five ties ground to a halt. Being crushed at Anfield and failing to defeat Manchester United – a feat achieved by six other teams in the top 10 this season – has created cause for concern.

Source: Kirsty Wigglesworth

Their key figure in the run-in is… In a squad populated with midfield maestros, it is the man at the head of their attack who will be crucial. Olivier Giroud is Arsenal’s main recognised striker and his ability to be a source of goals will influence the outcome of their campaign.

The upcoming schedule looks like… Arsenal’s pivotal phase looks to be in late March when they travel to face Spurs and Chelsea before then entertaining Manchester City. Their last five games see them face four teams who are currently in the bottom half of the table.

Verdict… The gloss has been taken off their season in recent weeks with some damaging results and the loss of the zip that characterised their early season play. Welsh midfielder Aaron Ramsey has been sorely missed. Still very much in the hunt though and that late March series of tests will be revealing. FOT

MANCHESTER CITY

How’s their gaffer done… After taking the bait of Mourinho’s ‘lies’ a few weeks ago, Manuel Pellegrini let his frustration boil over again after defeat against Barcelona. There are signs that the pressure might be getting to the statesmanlike Chilean but even if they now face an impossible task in Europe they are still in the hunt for a quadruple, a remarkable achievement in his first season.

Source: Martin Rickett

Tell us about their recent form… Before they were found out against Chelsea, City had won eight in a row in the league, a run that stretched all the way back to mid-December. They dropped more points in a scoreless draw at Norwich before getting revenge against Chelsea in the cup. Until Demichelis’s red card, they were very much in contention against Barca.

Their key figure in the run-in is… Sergio Aguero. The Argentinian has missed two large chunks through injury but still managed 26 goals in 25 games. City have plenty of other attacking threats but if he can maintain that form on his return, it will be a major boost.

The upcoming schedule looks like… It all hinges on a two-and-a-half week run at the end of March and the beginning of April. If City are to win the league, they cannot afford too many slip ups away to Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool.

Verdict… City remain by far the strongest squad in the league and are rightly the bookmakers’ favourites. The last few weeks have been little more than a wobble and, provided they can handle the heat, they remain the team to beat. NK

LIVERPOOL

How’s their gaffer done… Brendan Rodgers has learned his lesson. After they pulled three important points out of the fire against Fulham, he refused to get sucked into title talk and described Liverpool as ”the chihuahua that runs in between the horses’ legs.” There are still some question marks about his tactical versatility, particularly when it comes to breaking down the so-called ‘weaker’ teams.

Tell us about their recent form… Their 5-1 dismantling of Arsenal was as big a statement as any side has laid down this season. They are unbeaten since Christmas but may well come to rue the four points dropped against Aston Villa and West Brom.

Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Their key figure in the run-in is… Time and again, Liverpool’s attack has propped up a defence that is perilously rickety. While Suarez hogs the headlines, a player like Martin Skrtel could emerge as the unsung hero if he can lead by example at the back.

The upcoming schedule looks like… City and Chelsea both have to come to Anfield in April but unless they can take care of mid-table teams Swansea and Southampton in their next two games, their race will already be over by that point.

Verdict… A Champions League spot, not the title, was the realistic ambition this season but now, four points adrift with 12 games to play, they are very much in contention. With every win more and more fans will dare to dream – can Liverpool carry the weight of that expectation through to the finish line? NK

– Fintan O’Toole & Niall Kelly

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TheScore Team

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