The Premier League champions elect take on last year’s winners when Manchester City host Chelsea at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday (11am ET).
It was Chelsea’s 3-1 win away to Man City last season that marked the point at which the paths of the two sides diverged: Chelsea’s towards the league title; City’s towards the fight for a top-four finish. Now the roles are reversed. City are storming to the title, while Chelsea have a real battle on their hands to finish in the top four.
It was Man City who were the victors when the two sides met at Stamford Bridge earlier this season, with ex-Chelsea player Kevin de Bruyne scoring the decisive goal. That win came in the midst of a record-breaking run of 18 consecutive league victories that saw them pull clear of the pack and establish a commanding lead at the top of the table.
With 10 matches left to play, City are a full 16 points clear of local rivals Manchester United in second. It would now take an absolute disaster to prevent them from winning the title. That their goal difference is nearly double that of any of the league’s other sides provides indication of just how dominant they have been. They have also won six of their seven encounters with other top-six sides.
The latest came in a 3-0 win away to Arsenal on Thursday. Wonderfully executed first-half goals from Bernardo Silva, David Silva and Leroy Sane saw them establish an advantage that they rarely looked like relinquishing thereafter. Even when Arsenal were awarded an early second-half penalty, Ederson saved. It was another comfortable victory over a side they had defeated by the same scoreline in the Carabao Cup final just four days earlier.
Chelsea lost out to Arsenal in the semi-final of that competition. After beginning the calendar year in a solid position in all four of the competitions in which they were entered, it is now quite possible they will miss out on both trophies and Champions League qualification this season. They slipped out of the top four last weekend, with their defeat away to Manchester United allowing Tottenham Hotspur to leapfrog them into fourth.
Antonio Conte’s side took the lead through the in-form Willian at Old Trafford, but their hosts quickly equalised and then pushed on in the second half to get the winning goal. While the final tally of quality chances was fairly even, United certainly finished the match as the stronger side and it was difficult to argue that the outcome was particularly unjust.
It was a third consecutive away defeat for Chelsea in all competitions and a result that means they have now won just two of their last 10 road matches. They actually have the joint third-best away record in the Premier League over the full course of the season but less impressive recent results during a tougher stretch of the schedule have highlighted their deficiencies.
Chelsea are far from a bad side, but they lack that same efficiency at both ends of the pitch that saw them take last season’s league title. They are more easy to get at through midfield, while they have also missed the impetus provided by Diego Costa’s work-rate and aggression up front. His replacement, Alvaro Morata, is a different kind of player and is struggling for goals.
Conte’s future is also uncertain. He has consistently taken swipes at the Chelsea board over a perceived lack of backing in the transfer market. That is somewhat ridiculously given they have spent $320 million this season. It has now emerged that he is a preferred option to take over the Italian national team position that he held between 2014 and 2016. A failure to finish in the top four would probably end his relationship with Chelsea.
It is a battle that is likely to be fought from a weaker position following Sunday’s match. Man City have been impressive throughout the campaign and even in the midst of a tight schedule, have enough quality in their squad to put together a winning team this weekend. It will probably be relatively tight, but City can be expected to come away with the three points.