London (AFP) – Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea looked set for a titanic three-way battle for the Premier League title just over two weeks ago, but now it’s starting to feel like a race on a horse.
The three clubs were only two points apart before the matches kick off on December 14. Fast forward to the end of the month and City are now eight points ahead of second-placed Chelsea.
Pep Guardiola’s men were not at their best at Brentford on Wednesday but did enough to win 1-0 on a night when injured Chelsea conceded a home equalizer against Brighton.
Liverpool lost ground the day before, beaten by a spirited and committed Leicester team after Mohamed Salah failed to convert a penalty in the first half.
AFP Sport takes a look at some of the key factors in the title race as the New Year dawns.
Champions City could score an 11-point lead if they beat fourth-placed Arsenal on Saturday as Chelsea and Liverpool meet at Stamford Bridge the next day.
They are already overwhelming favorites to win a fourth Premier League crown in five years and a double-digit lead even in early January could prove too much for their rivals.
Guardiola, predictably, refuses to accept the end of the title race, praising the quality of City’s challengers.
“There are a lot of games to play,” he said. “We are eight points ahead, but there are 54 points to play and many tough games to play.
“I won’t believe anyone who says it’s already done. The teams we have with Chelsea and Liverpool are more than exceptional.”
A disappointed Klopp admitted after his side’s 1-0 loss to Leicester that Liverpool, another point behind Chelsea, might forget to catch City unless they improve their game.
Sunday’s game at Stamford Bridge is certainly a game to be won now if either side is to have any chance of catching City.
Injuries and Covid
Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel is struggling to cope with his team’s toll due to injuries and the coronavirus and admits he will use “trial and error” to pick his side to face Liverpool.
Winger Reece James limped against Brighton with hamstring strain a day after the club confirmed Ben Chilwell needed knee surgery, which has now taken place.
The European champions will sweat on Thiago Silva’s thigh problem and Andreas Christensen’s back problem – but also on players still suffering from the effects of Covid-19, including Timo Werner.
One bright spot for Tuchel is the return to form of Romelu Lukaku, who made his first league start against Brighton since mid-October after ankle problems and Covid isolation, scoring for the second game in a row.
But Tuchel admitted he must continue to monitor the Belgian striker’s continued recovery.
Klopp has also been forced to juggle in recent weeks, the coronavirus depriving him of a handful of players including Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho and Thiago Alcantara, although until the defeat at Leicester they were on a 10-game streak without defeat in all competitions.
Pep Guardiola, on the other hand, has relatively minor concerns. Kyle Walker, Rodri and John Stones were all absent from the Brentford squad, but he was able to name a bench filled with quality nonetheless.
African Cup of Nations
Klopp faces a looming headache with Premier League top scorer Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita all heading to the Africa Cup of Nations, which begins early next month.
Most of the goal burden will fall on Diogo Jota – the league’s second-highest scorer with 10 – but other attackers will need to step up and the defense will need to tighten up after just one clean sheet in four league games.
Chelsea will be without first-choice goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, but midfielder Hakim Ziyech has been excluded from Morocco’s preliminary squad for the Africa Cup of Nations.
Guardiola will only lose Algerian Riyad Mahrez, with Raheem Sterling’s return to scoring form more than making up for his absence.