CHELSEA and Liverpool fought out a thrilling 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge, highlighted by a stirring comeback from the home side who had gone two goals behind in the first 25 minutes. While the Blues deserved the plaudits for their recovery, the only real long-term winner of this captivating drama was Manchester City. They got the result they probably desired and their position at the top was undoubtedly strengthened. City are now 10 points clear of their nearest rivals and look strong favourites to retain the trophy they won last season.
Just a few weeks ago, everyone was talking about one of the most interesting title races in years – three teams were in the mix and playing well. But it has all changed since the end of November. City have won nine in a row, securing a maximum of 27 points. Chelsea have won just three of nine and earned 14 points, and Liverpool haven’t won since mid-December, drawing twice and losing at Leicester, and have 17 points from eight due to a postponement. City have scored 28 goals in nine games, conceding seven and they have generally terrorised opposition defences.
City, one might justifiably argue, have the resources to become champions again, but there seems to have been some fresh impetus at the Etihad. City 2021-22 are not the City of 2018-19 and they have been playing superbly without a striker in their line-up. They are clearly shaping up to add to their squad, however, as evidenced by the sale of Ferran Torres to Barcelona.
City have lost twice, so they are not invincible, but there is something menacingly ruthless about them in recent weeks, scoring seven against Leeds, six against Leicester and also absorbing the very best Arsenal could offer and cruelly beating them in added time in their first game of 2022. Furthermore, their advantage at the top could grow in the coming weeks as Liverpool are set to lose three key players – Mo Salah, Sadio Mané and Naby Keïta – to the African Cup of Nations. City and Chelsea will lose just one apiece, Riyad Mahrez and Édouard Mendy respectively.
When City won the Premier League title in 2021, they lost six games, coming after a campaign in which they relinquished their crown to Liverpool and were beaten nine times. Some suggested they had lost some of the momentum established by Pep Guardiola, but they appear to have rediscovered their ability to build sequences of victories. Undoubtedly, the rise of Liverpool has acted as a spur to push City to even greater heights and given their squad has more depth, they have moved clear of Jürgen Klopp’s men once more.
City also look to have absorbed a lesson from their badly managed Champions League final in 2020-21 and they will again be in contention for the top prize. They face Sporting Lisbon in the round of 16.
Chelsea, who beat City in Porto, appeared like revitalised Premier League contenders in the autumn, but they have lost some of their mojo. Their summer signing, Romelu Lukaku, has not worked out as planned and the powerful Belgian’s comments in the media, hinting that he would like to return to Italy, may serve to create problems for the club in the next month. Chelsea’s record with big name forwards has been very patchy in the Abramovich era. Lukaku could yet be added to a list that includes Fernando Torres, Andriy Shevchenko, Adrian Mutu, Michy Batshuayi and Álvaro Morata. If you then factor in the premature sales of Mo Salah, Kevin De Bruyne and Lukaku in his first stint, Chelsea have clearly experienced mixed fortunes in the market for strikers. For every Drogba and Costa there has been a major signing that has under-performed. If the club decides to let Lukaku go, it will leave them very exposed, but who will fill the striker’s role?
Liverpool have been brilliant on occasion in 2021-22 and very potent in front of goal, with Salah already netting 15 league goals. They have allowed wins to go astray in matches with Brentford, Manchester City, Brighton, Tottenham and Chelsea. But they’ve only lost twice, they’re unbeaten at home and they’ve put together some impressive away wins at Manchester United (5-0), Watford (5-0) and Everton (4-1). Liverpool’s defence, at times, has been clumsy but they have still only conceded 18 goals in 20 league games. The problem is, with a team as powerful as City setting the pace, even the odd defeat can prove fatal. Both Liverpool and Chelsea have experienced the problem of too many draws while Pep Guardiola’s team have pushed on relentlessly and they win when they’re not at they’re absolute best.
As always, when a team embarks on a long run of wins, the dialogue starts to compare the team to past champions. We have seen, though, that “best ever” sides are quickly knocked off their pedestal, as we did when City won the domestic treble in 2019. What’s really frightening is that City are not the finished item at the moment, so how good will they be when they have all their component parts in place? There’s still time for things to change in 2021-22, but can anyone beat Manchester City? It’s looking less likely by the week.