It has been another weak title defense from Manchester City. The reigning English champion, which also failed to defend the 2012 Premier League title, all but officially withdrew its name from this season’s contest with a 2-1 loss at Crystal Palace on Monday, a result that leaves City fourth in the Premier League, nine points behind league leader Chelsea with a total of 21 points left to play for. Barring a miracle collapse from either Jose Mourinho’s Blues or Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal in the final stretch of games, City’s title challenge is over.
Where did it all go wrong? Since clawing its way to the summit of the Premier League on Boxing Day, when it was level on points with Chelsea, City has taken just 19 points from a possible 39 in 2015, losing to the likes of Burnley and Crystal Palace while failing to take three points at home from the likes of Hull City. The club’s most recent failings have come away from home, with City losing three consecutive away games for the first time since 2011--when the Sky Blues finished third.
Who’s to blame? While most pundits think coach Manuel Pellegrini is certain to be relieved of his duties this summer, British commentator David Pleat points out that the club’s transfer dealings have been particularly poor; you’d think the defending Premier League champ would have more to show from an 80 million pound ($119 million) expenditure than the performances of Eliaquim Mangala and Fernando, in particular, have reflected.
As BBC Radio 5 senior reporter Ian Dennis said after Monday’s game: "We might as well call Chelsea 'champions elect' now."
Probably, but that might be jumping the gun a little bit.
Let’s not forget that both Arsenal and Manchester United are on a terrific run of form right now, with the Gunners winning its last seven games and United winning its last five. And Chelsea, which hasn’t been on a terrific run of form since last year, hosts United on April 18 and then heads to Arsenal the following weekend.
Jose Mourinho knows that if Chelsea can come out of those games with least one win or two draws, then his team will be in pole position to wrap up the title with five games to go. So, don’t be surprised if Mourinho parks the bus in both games, because in both cases, the other side needs to take the initiative to win.
Speaking after Monday’s result, the Chelsea coach, for the second time in two days, spoke of the “moment of truth,” and the “mentality” required to take his team over the line in this final stretch. His team, of course, is “comfortable” with the situation, he says. "I think people are comfortable. I look at them (the players) and see people who are comfortable and relaxed to play these last two months," he said.
And who should not be comfortable with this situation? Why Chelsea’s title opponents, of course. And you better believe the Portuguese was talking directly to Pellegrini & co. when he said, over the weekend, ahead of City’s loss to Palace: “We believe that the most difficult job is the job of the others that come from behind. Because the others, if they draw one game, they are in trouble. They have to win every game so it’s more difficult for them than for us.”
Lo and behold, the master of the mind games is doing exactly what he always does: taking the pressure off his players and putting it on his opponents.
Yet Blues fans would agree that Chelsea has hardly looked comfortable in recent months. While City has been pulling off a Jekyll & Hyde act for much of the season, Chelsea has been quietly doing the bare minimum required to be the Premier League’s top team for a while now. Aside from a 5-0 win at Swansea on Jan 17, Mourinho’s Blues haven’t looked particularly “comfortable” in any of its games since Boxing Day, just like City. And without either Eden Hazard or a large slice of luck, his team would not have walked away from home clashes against Newcastle and Everton, or away at West Ham or Aston Villa, with all three points. Indeed, unlike City, Mourinho’s men have won games where they’ve played badly.
And it is because of Chelsea’s stuttering form -- and perhaps even his own nervousness -- that the Portuguese has been forced to work harder than in previous years to manipulate the media, referees and his opponents en route to winning a third Premier League title. He also knows that despite City falling out of the title race on Monday, it’s still not over, either.
Next up will be Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United, followed by Arsenal a week later. And Mourinho, who has an amazing record against Wenger, has already called the Gunners coach out for being a “specialist in failure” (ahead of thrashing his team 6-0, no less); it will be interesting to see what he comes up with to unnerve Wenger & co this year, now that the stakes are higher.