When is a title decider not a title decider? This weekend's game between Chelsea and Manchester City would ostensibly seem to be a title decider, but with five points separating the two sides prior to kick-off, is it really going to be that decisive come the end of the season?
That is not to say it is not a vital game for Manchester City—of course it is. Five points adrift and having to travel to Stamford Bridge for the game, it's pretty obvious to all that Manuel Pellegrini's side cannot afford to lose if they want to retain any realistic hopes of retaining the Premier League title (and in all honesty, they probably need to go on and win).
Pellegrini himself has admitted as much, noting after the recent loss to Arsenal at home that City had left themselves with no margin for error as far as the defence of their title went.
For Chelsea, however, it is harder to justify a real ratcheting up of the stakes. Lose at Stamford Bridge and they will still be two points clear. That's not a significant advantage (indeed, one that can be erased in one weekend), but it's an advantage nonetheless. It speaks to a greater strength—the very reason they are out in front after 22 games is because they have been more consistent and clinical than City over the entirety of the campaign.
That is the point of a league as opposed to cup competitions—overall form is more indicative of quality than any one-off match. Therefore, even if they lose on Saturday evening, Jose Mourinho will surely feel confident his squad has the greater qualities required to finish the job off over a run-in during which they will not meet City face-to-face again.
Then again, Mourinho's buildup to this match would suggest that is not the approach he is adopting. Instead, it indicates that this is a hugely important game for which the Portuguese is determined to get his side fully motivated.
The "happy one," as Mourinho jokingly described himself upon his return to the club last summer, seems to have been replaced by the angry one; Mourinho cancelled his pre-match press conference ahead of the City game due to what he might say about what he perceives to be unfair treatment of striker Diego Costa.
"People, pundits, commentators, coaches from other teams, they react with Chelsea in a way they don’t react to other teams," as Mourinho said recently, per the Express, to the bemusement of most.
It seems a fairly transparent attempt to forge a siege mentality among his squad, to create a sense of the world being out to get them when the truth is nothing of the sort.
Defeat might not be the end of the world for Chelsea, but the gains made by winning this game are significant—with an eight-point lead, they can perhaps rotate the squad a bit more, rest players with the Champions League in mind to give themselves the best opportunity on all fronts.
Being at home is a major advantage in that pursuit—it would perhaps be foolish not to do everything in his power to motivate his players (who were flat against Bradford City in the recent FA Cup debacle) to the fullest extent.
Chelsea might need that boost too, especially as Costa will miss the game due to a three-match ban for his conduct in the Capital One Cup against Liverpool. Cesc Fabregas limped off midway through that game, leaving him racing to be fit (as is Branislav Ivanovic), meaning the Blues could suddenly be without the two players who have done the most to elevate this Blues side to another level over the full campaign.
"When you play with this guy, you have to give everything," Eden Hazard said of Costa in midweek (via The Guardian). "You can see that in every action and for every ball, he gives his life. Even though he didn't score against Liverpool, he gave his life. For us, for the players, when you play with him, it's very good."
Manchester City go into the game similarly low in confidence, having been outclassed by Arsenal (and when does that ever happen?) and following that up with a similarly stunted display in the FA Cup defeat to Championship high-flyers Middlesbrough. Like Chelsea, they will also be without key players, with Yaya Toure and Wilfried Bony (who figures to be a key player for the squad as soon as he makes his debut) unavailable due to the Africa Cup of Nations.
This is perhaps the most disappointing element of Saturday's game: If it truly is a title decider, then how unfortunate is it that some of the key players for each team will not be available? How disappointing will it be for the general spectator if, when all is said and done, the game most say decided the title was not one contested by some of the two teams' most important players?
Such concerns are for the purists, however, or at least the romantics. Mourinho is neither of those things, instead proving himself time and time again to be the ultimate pragmatist (and a pretty good strategist to boot).
This game is not as important for Chelsea as it is for Manchester City, but they will be entering it with the fire burning beneath them. Pellegrini, who has not enjoyed the best record against Mourinho in the past, better have a good response prepared.
Week 23 Fixtures
All games 3 p.m. GMT (10 a.m. ET) unless otherwise stated.
Hull City vs. Newcastle United (12:45 p.m.)
Crystal Palace vs. Everton
Liverpool vs. West Ham United
Manchester United vs. Leicester City
Stoke City vs. Queens Park Rangers
Sunderland vs. Burnley
West Bromwich Albion vs. Tottenham Hotspur
Chelsea vs. Manchester City (5:30 p.m.)
Arsenal vs. Aston Villa (1:30 p.m.)
Southampton vs. Swansea City (4 p.m.)
1. What to Watch out for This Week
Newcastle Making a Real Gamble with Carver Call
John Carver starts his new job of semi-permanent caretaker manager of Newcastle with a hugely important game against Hull City, which will kick off the latest Premier League weekend.
Some saw Newcastle's decision to give Carver, who has hardly set the world alight with results since Alan Pardew's departure, the manager's job until at least the end of the season as a classic example of the Newcastle board trying to save a bit of money, albeit at the potential risk of their short-term future.
The club may be eight points clear of the relegation zone as things stand, but they could easily be drawn back into the battle if they start losing at home to teams such as Hull.
"I'm not thinking about 11th, 12th—no," Carver said this week, per the Newcastle Chronicle. "Tenth, ninth, eight—at least—in my mind.
"We've got 16 games left, why can't we go on a run? Why can't we win games? I've seen enough in the last three or four games, taking the FA Cup game out of it, for us to go on a run."
He added: "Come the end of the season if it doesn't come off, I gave it my best shot. I had a go but that's the downside.
"The upside is, I've got an opportunity here that millions of people would love to have."
That is true, but Newcastle fans will not concern themselves with sentiment when the future of their club is at stake. Carver has a strong reputation as a coach, but many great coaches never make it in management. Hull boss Steve Bruce, a man under a fair amount of pressure himself, will certainly be looking to exploit any deficiencies in Carver's approach.
Toffees Find Palace a Sticky Proposition
Since returning to the Premier League last season, Crystal Palace have enjoyed a solid record against Merseyside clubs—and especially Everton, whom they have beaten twice at Goodison Park (both by 3-2 scoreline) and drew 0-0 with in the meeting at Selhurst Park last term.
The two clubs face off again in south London this weekend, and few would've predicted that they would be on the same number of points at this stage of the season.
That is down to Everton's underachievement this season and, at least since Alan Pardew arrived, Palace's rapid revival. Nevertheless, Palace consider themselves still to be in a relegation battle, which means Everton must be as well.
Roberto Martinez is facing a difficult period—the fans are on his back a bit, frustrated with the side's inability to break down opposing sides and some of the substitutions he has been making—and with the Merseyside derby on the horizon, it feels like things could slowly be reaching a decisive moment.
Palace have enjoyed frustrating Everton over the last 18 months. A reversal of that is exactly what the Toffees need right now.
Great Dane's Award Campaign Keeps Rumbling On
We have mentioned it before, but it bears repeating that with every great individual display Christian Eriksen puts in, he surely only heightens his chances of being involved in the end-of-season awards dinners.
With voting set to begin in earnest pretty soon (many of the PFA Awards are voted for between February and March), Eriksen surely has a case, considering his numerous late, winning goals and the delicious vision and composure he has shown throughout many of Spurs' games.
He has occasionally gone missing in matches, a black mark against his candidacy, and he does not provide as many assists as he should do, but beyond Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard and Alexis Sanchez, which other players have made such an obvious positive impact on their respective sides this season?
Of course, Spurs will likely need to finish in the top four for individual players to get recognised—winning games such as the one on Saturday at West Brom will be vital to that. The way Eriksen has been playing, however, no one would be surprised if he decided it with yet another precise late finish.
2. Video of the Week
3. Player to Watch
Let go by Everton (albeit for a reasonable fee) and in and out of the starting lineup since arriving at West Brom, Victor Anichebe seems to be one of the players to have benefitted greatly from Tony Pulis's arrival at the club.
Rather than look at Georgios Samaras or Brown Ideye, the new manager seems to have identified Anichebe as the striker he wants to lead the line—something that could remain the case for the rest of the season if the club does not bring anyone in on deadline day.
So far, Anichebe has responded well to that show of faith, playing unselfishly in the confidence-boosting 0-0 draw with Everton in the Premier League before obliterating Birmingham City's defence in the FA Cup, positively bullying opposition players with his raw power and eye for goal.
Bringing that combination of strengths to the Baggies' survival push would greatly help Pulis. Premier League defences are far superior to Championship ones, but there remains the suspicion that Tottenham centre-backs Federico Fazio and Jan Vertonghen aren't exactly brilliant at dealing with the rough stuff. Full of confidence and in fine form, Anichebe has a great chance to make a real statement this weekend.
4. Game of the Weekend
Liverpool vs. West Ham
The Capital One Cup semi-final loss was an agonising disappointment, but Liverpool's improvement over recent weeks—an improvement seemingly forged entirely on the training ground, working on a new tactical system that gives them a few more options—is one of the more remarkable achievements of the season to date.
Brendan Rodgers faced awkward questions about his future not so long ago, but Liverpool's slowly returning vibrancy under a new approach underlines the fact that he is a very, very good football coach.
Such a renaissance is great, of course, but the club now enter a part of the season when results will define how the entire campaign is ultimately viewed. The club is still competing for FA Cup and Europa League glory, but it is the Premier League where most attention will lie—with getting back into the Champions League the undoubted focus.
Currently eighth, the Reds have a make-or-break run of fixtures that starts with West Ham at home on Saturday. The Merseyside derby follows that (albeit only after the FA Cup replay with Bolton) before games against Tottenham (home), Southampton (away) and Manchester City (home). Four of the next five fixtures are against sides above them in the table at this point—throwing down the gauntlet to Rodgers and his players.
With Daniel Sturridge returning soon, however, confidence is high. Rodgers recently said of the striker and his importance, per The Telegraph:
No question Daniel's injury had a huge impact on our season. You saw the "reference" he was against Tottenham [in August] and the team struggled for a time without him, but we have returned to our football ideas and have been getting better all the time. Daniel will shine a different light on the team. He has looked very good in training.
He was brilliant—very dynamic. To have him back for this second part of the season will make us a better team.
West Ham also harbour European ambitions of their own and face Manchester United, Southampton, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal over the following six games.
Clearly, both teams cannot qualify for the Champions League, but it seems improbable that they could qualify for the Europa League together too. Winning this game is vital for both sides, setting them on the right course as they enter a defining phase of the season.
In addition, there is the return to Anfield of Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing—two players vital to the Hammers' success so far who flopped during their time on Merseyside. Such subplots will add an extra intensity to proceedings.
"I would hope Andy wouldn't try too hard, because it can easily put you off your game," Sam Allardyce said, per the Daily Express. "We'd all want Andy to do that bit more, in particular, I'm sure Andy would like to score.
"If we can all help him do that then fine, but certainly don't overplay it and don't get overanxious or overexcited. I don't think he’s got anything to prove."