CHELSEA are swarming – literally – over the Premier League title race. And I think my tips, Manchester City, need their injured stars back if they are to overcome last week’s defeat by Jose Mourinho’s hornets and go on to claim the championship crown. Top strikers Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo – he’s playing again but doesn’t seem quite right yet – are being sorely missed, but the one player whose absence was highlighted the most by the home defeat to Chelsea is midfield anchorman Fernandinho.
The £30million Brazilian is key to City’s progress, for his strength, discipline and energy gives Yaya Toure the licence to do what he does at his destructive best, and that is surge forwards to strike fear into the opposition defence. I’ve mentioned before in these columns that success in the modern game is based increasingly on midfield domination, on hustling and scrapping for possession when you have lost the ball. Chelsea under Mourinho have made this their byword. I studied them against Newcastle on Saturday when, just as they did against City, they swarmed all over their opponents like angry wasps. Not even the opposition goalkeeper was given a moment’s peace when trying to clear his lines. Mourinho has got very one of his players, even someone like Brazilian play-maker Oscar, harassing the opposition when Chelsea lose possession. Liverpool, who destroyed Arsenal on Saturday, did something similar and they are the nearest to Chelsea at putting this strategy into practice. Actually, a similar tactic was employed 45 years ago at Everton by Harry Catterick, who deployed Alan Ball, Howard Kendall and Colin Harvey in similar fashion. What a team we were!
City, who have slaughtered so many teams this season with their attacking fluency, play it differently. When not in possession they tend to relax, letting their opponents come on before hitting them on the break – and devastatingly – when they regain possession. To go on doing this, they need Fernandinho, for he works hard when he hasn’t got the ball, whereas Toure only looks happy when he’s running towards the opposition. That being the case, I increasingly question City’s wisdom in letting Gareth Barry go on loan to Everton, where he has been a mainstay of Roberto Martinez’s team. That decision put a lot of pressure on Fernandinho, not only to be a success but also to stay fit for nine months.
Meanwhile, Liverpool’s stunning display against Arsenal, has transformed the scenario at the top. Whereas a week ago I was talking about a three-way title fight between Arsenal, City and Chelsea, now I can’t discount Liverpool who are just six points off the top. At the other end, Cardiff look to be in serious trouble, well beaten as they were by Swansea in the South Wales derby and, alarmingly, reliant on a 34-year-old, Craig Bellamy, to provide a spark. Fulham, who have been in free-fall for many weeks, produced a spirited performance at Old Trafford where their late equaliser might be the inspiration they need to claw themselves out of the drop zone.