Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City and Arsenal: Making Their Case for the Title

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Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City and Arsenal: Making Their Case for the Title
Jon Super/Associated Press
Liverpool strengthened their title chances with victory at Man Utd.

This time of year goes by a variety of names. Some call it the "home straight," while others refer to it as the "business end." Alex Ferguson labelled it as "squeaky bum time." That probably best describes the tension and twitchy performances that characterise this stage of the season. Except for once Manchester United are absent from this year's bum squeaking.

The Premier League has had its fair share of photo finishes in the past, the most famous of which ended with one swish of Sergio Aguero's right foot two years ago. But never before has the title race been quite so open at this point of the campaign. English football's top prize could feasibly be lifted in May by any one of four teams. But who is in the best position to do so?

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Jose Mourinho still insists his table-topping side are outsiders for this season's Premier League title, describing them as the "little horse" in the race, as per Phil McNulty of BBC Sport. Don't believe him. Chelsea might not be the bookmakers' favourites for the league, but they are in the best position, despite the three games in hand Manchester City hold over them. Points on the board count for a lot at this time of the season.

Having said that, the Blues' stride was abruptly broken by defeat at Aston Villa on Saturday, consigning Mourinho's team to their first league defeat in 15 games. Yet that is only likely to focus his players ahead of pivotal fixtures against Arsenal and Liverpool.

Arsenal's candidacy for a first league title in a decade will depend on several factors, the most crucial of which being whether they can keep their best players fit as the home straight comes into sight.

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Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey have been lost until April at the earliest through injury, with Theo Walcott sidelined for the rest of the season. Arsene Wenger's refusal to sign reinforcements in January (besides the on-loan Kim Kallstrom) looks a foolish one now.

The Gunners' title prospects will be defined by the end of the month, with games against Chelsea and Man City watershed moments in their season. Emerge with a minimum of four points and they will stand a genuine chance of winning the title, with Arsenal afforded a somewhat forgiving run-in (their final five league opponents are West Ham, Hull, Newcastle, West Brom and Norwich).

Manchester City are favourites for many and it's easy to see why. At times, Manuel Pellegrini's side have been unplayable this season, and although Chelsea may have conquered Fortress Etihad, City still boast the best home record in the league and probably the best squad.

Paul Thomas/Getty Images

But what was a three-horse race has now become a four-way gallop to the finish (to keep Mourinho's analogy going).

Now that Liverpool's top-four place is all but assured, expectations have been revised at Anfield. Steven Gerrard reiterated his belief at the weekend that the Reds are genuine title contenders, with just four points between them and pace-setters Chelsea. On recent form, it's hard to argue with him.

And it is Liverpool's story that is most compelling. There's a romance about the sleeping giant finally waking up, but there is also an allure in the way Brendan Rodgers has moulded the league's most attractive and entertaining side from offcuts and ugly ducklings.

The signing of Daniel Sturridge from Chelsea for £12 million last season will go down as one of the shrewdest captures of the Premier League era should Liverpool finish top of the pile. For comparison, think how Andy Cole, a £7 million signing from Newcastle, fired Man Utd to the league title in 1996.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Then look at players like Philippe Coutinho and Simon Mignolet, signed for a combined £18 million, who have plugged problem areas for the Reds, with Coutinho in particular proving an astute acquisition.

And even the most ardent anti-Kopite would feel a twinge of empathy should Gerrard, one of the finest players of his generation, finally collect a Premier League's winners medal after all these years.

Liverpool have passed tricky tests against Everton, Arsenal and United, and furthermore they've done it with the aplomb and swagger of Premier League champions-elect. Now their title rivals, Manchester City and Chelsea, have to visit Anfield before the end of the season. In many ways, it's in their own hands.

Jon Super/Associated Press

Rarely have Liverpool been in this strong a position at this stage of a Premier League season. Gerrard senses it and is driving his team forward. But that could be both their biggest strength and their biggest weakness.

That hunger could give Liverpool an extra competitive edge or it could crush them. The Reds have a handful of players who have played for title-winning teams in their past, but they don't have winning experience in abundance like City and Chelsea. 

Whatever happens, it seems likely this season will go down in Premier League folklore. Who knows? We might even get a moment to rival the drama of Aguero's stoppage time goal two years ago.

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