The race for the title – where are the contenders most vulnerable?

As the dramatic finale of one of the most memorable Premier League seasons begins to reach crescendo, much is to be admired of the way all top three title challengers have positioned themselves heading into the final straight.

However, for all the strengths of Chelsea, Liverpool and Man City, each of them has their own weaknesses. Let’s focus on the biggest flaw of each team, which could ultimately become their undoing at the critical time.

Liverpool – Complacent defence

After a run of ten straight victories, and scoring an astonishing 35 goals in those games, Liverpool finally topped the table after clinching victory against Man City in what was arguably the biggest test of their title credentials. But as much as Liverpool were good value for all three points, the game epitomised the biggest weakness Brendan Rodgers’ side have had to continuously overcome this season – a lack of focus at the back.

They were cruising at halftime, but a mix of complacency and an increase in potency from City let the away side back into the game with two fairly preventable goals. Obviously Coutinho’s strike made this irrelevant, but we have watched Liverpool make life difficult for themselves with costly mistakes at the back. Mignolet has had an encouraging second half to the season, although his early season form was shaky, perhaps a natural result of a settling in period.

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Kolo Toure has also been up for criticism during the campaign, as was Rodgers perseverance with the Ivorian free transfer, whose ability to self-destruct was no more evident than against West Brom when Victor Anichebe coolly finished after being gifted the ball on the edge of the box. On-loan left back Aly Cissokho has struggled to adapt to the league, perhaps a case of getting ‘found out’ after moving from Valencia and it is now unlikely he will make a permanent move to Anfield.

This complacency has tainted the remarkable efforts of their attacking teammates and it is as if Liverpool’s defenders have simply been stood admiring their colleagues rather than focus on their own duties. Only three times since the inception of the Premier League have the eventual league winners conceded over 40 goals (all three times were Man Utd incidentally). Liverpool head to Carrow Road having conceded 42; only Tottenham have a worse defensive record in the top seven, having shipped 48.

Chelsea – Goal-shy strikers

In stark contrast to Liverpool, Chelsea can boast the meanest defence in the league, despite their recent defeats. The evergreen John Terry has proved many doubters wrong this year and the excellent displays of Spaniard Cesar Azpilcueta have seen the right-footer displace former stalwart Ashley Cole from the left back berth.

But it is their strikers that have come under constant scrutiny this season, occasionally from their own manager. But Mourinho might have a point. Torres, Eto’o and Ba have scored a combined total of 16 goals in the league, with neither of them hitting double figures. This fact alone makes their current second place standing in the league remarkable, and even more remarkable is that they are still the third highest scorers in the Premier League.

But in Chelsea’s previous ten games, a period where Liverpool collected maximum points, they lost two games 1-0, against Aston Villa and Crystal Palace, and could only draw 1-1 at a struggling West Brom side. For a side chasing the title and boasting the talent that Mourinho has at his disposal, this should be viewed as eight critical points dropped. An in-form striker could have transformed those result into vital wins, in much the same fashion as Suarez and Aguero are capable of doing.

It is also poignant that rumours of all three strikers departing the London club this summer won’t die down, especially Demba Ba’s open declaration that he will be actively looking for a new club for the start of next season. Lacking the required killer instinct to bring home a title (despite Ba’s very recent upturn in form) and already looking for new opportunities, the mental state of Mourinho’s forward line must be damaging his team’s chances. Numerous media outlets are reporting that Diego Costa’s proposed move from Atletico Madrid to Chelsea is all but done, and ironically is exactly what they could do with going into the final few fixtures of this season.

Man City – Injury-prone backbone

Looking at Pellegrini’s side, it seems that they are somewhat of a middle ground between Chelsea and Liverpool’s respective strengths and weaknesses. Not only are Man City the second highest scorers in the league but they also have the third best defence in the league, managing an impressive 13 clean sheets this campaign so far, bettered only by Chelsea’s 16. Statistically, a high scoring side that concedes very few should be a shoe-in for the title, but Manuel Pellegrini’s side has been blighted by a series of high profile injuries that have constantly interrupted City’s flow.

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Earlier in the season, the 2011-12 champions looked unstoppable as they swept aside teams with the kind of swagger Liverpool have shown recently. Aguero and Negredo formed a devastating partnership up front, while midfield giant Yaya Toure has weighed in with a spectacular 18 goals and 5 assists with most moves coming through him.

However, at a critical time in the match and in the season, Toure hobbled off with a groin injury after only 18 minutes at Anfield. Suddenly Man City’s gameplan went out the window, with Javi Garcia’s abilities falling woefully short of his Ivorian teammate. Without Toure’s influence and drive from the centre of the park, they struggled even more to get a hold of the game, and whereas they still might have lost with him on the pitch, his presence would’ve almost certainly affected the game. They now face at least two weeks without him, but the blow of his absence will be cushioned by the return from injury of Sergio Aguero.

Again, you wonder quite what impact the diminutive Argentine could’ve had this season had he been fitter, but instead has struggled with knee, hamstring and calf injuries this campaign and has only played 96 minutes of first team football since Christmas going into the Sunderland game. His return in the games he has played in has been exceptional, scoring 15 league goals and creating a further nine. Aguero’s absence from the team also seems to have affected Alvaro Negredo’s potency too, having only scored two goals since Christmas himself.

A further example of how injuries to key players can have profound effects on other players is Vincent Kompany’s early season absences through groin and hamstring trouble. England No. 1 Joe Hart suffered a terrible run of form in October, leading to Pellegrini dropping him during November and parts of December. The goalkeeper’s run of form seemed to coincide with Kompany’s hamstring injury which kept him out the team for around seven weeks, including the entirity of November. Without the assurance of his captain in front of him, Hart’s confidence dipped.

Going into their remaining fixtures, Pellegrini must find a way to play without their man mountain Yaya Toure, and must also be prepared to risk a not yet fully fit Sergio Aguero. If City’s No. 16 can maintain not only his fitness but the sharpness that has made him such a dangerous striker, then Man City might have a chance of the title. It may be too little too late, however, after a season characterised by too many big-name patients in City’s treatment room.

Trackbacks

  1. […] As I had previously alluded to in my piece about the three title challengers’ respective vulne…, Liverpool’s shaky defence let themselves down once more, this time a complacent mis-control and subsequent slip from the usually ultra dependable Steven Gerrard let Ba in just before half time. […]

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