Manchester City could never have known at the time that by knocking Chelsea out of the FA Cup they were handing the London Blues a significant advantage in the Premiership title race, at their own expense!
Chelsea did the league double on City, and City’s thirst for revenge in the FA Cup only a few days after the second of those league defeats further played into Chelsea’s hands as it turns out.
The advantage Man City handed Chelsea was of a bigger intrinsic value than the numerical, after all City would still go ahead on goal difference if they won their games in hand. It has instead manifested itself in the fixture schedule.
Having already played two more games, Chelsea can stretch their lead ahead of their most realistic title rivals to nine points should they beat Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge today, as City instead pile up a third game in hand because of commitments in that FA Cup from which they ejected the league leaders.
The fixture congestion is bound to impact on City’s bid at some point or other, as they will have to face Sunderland at an even more desperate time for the relegation-threatened team that has already beaten then once and stretched them in a Cup final. It is most likely too that they will have to go to Old Trafford to face a Manchester United in better mood and form than they were on the original date of the derby, when United had just come off a morale-killing reverse in Greece; they will also take on Aston Villa at a time when, with their Premiership place secure, Villa will have nothing to lose. Banana-skin-in-waiting.
The timing of the games aside, City’s mental resolve is going to be tested even more than the physical. The pressure of contesting for a title with a Jose Mourinho team can prove too much to bear.
On the flip side, Manuel Pellegrini’s side has two pluses to look to. One is the superior manpower and firepower that has lofted them thus far, although that will require a bit of luck on the injury front in the hectic fixture period considering how they suffered recently in the absence of Sergio Aguero, Fernandinho and Samir Nasri.
The other is the momentum and feel-good breeze blown in by Cup success, with the Capital One trophy in the bag, an FA final looming and the domestic treble a real possibility.
All that Mourinho can do is demand that his team win the next game and throw the ball back in City’s court, where he can then add to the pressure with the wise quips that have already irked Pellegrini.
That first next game is also one of the most difficult left, being a London derby against a team that has form and quality. Tottenham’s thus becomes Mourinho’s FA Cup clash of the weekend. Yet this is the time to take full advantage of the fixture jam because later Chelsea will be faced with Champions League quarterfinals after City have long been shown the door.
Who would have thought? Four points behind Chelsea with 10 games to go, a better goal difference, unbelievable impetus and the advantage of having to play their title rivals at Anfield, Liverpool have emerged as bigger contenders now than when they topped the table at Christmas. All that Brendan Rodgers and his men have to do to turn the previously unthinkable into the miracle of this century is to get tighter and meaner at the back.
The pendulum-like swings of recent games against Swansea (which they won 4-3) and Southampton (a 3-0 win that could easily have been a 4-4 draw) are dangerous.
It is of utmost essence that they believe that they can have their cake and eat it too, by getting better defensively without losing their attacking edge. In this race of tight margins, it is the only way they can finish ahead.
Wenger is famed for his stubbornness. But while it has been in the direction of the transfer market as well as with his football philosophy and reaped dividends of a monetary kind, that stubbornness will now be most needed in the dressing room to bring the much sought after reward of that elusive title.
The professor and his students should be insulted that Liverpool are considered a title threat and Arsenal a write-off, with the two locked on the same points, and they should use the siege mentality there from accrued to go on the kind of run they usually end the season with when chasing after fourth.
A similar one would end with them as champions for sure.
@markssali on twitter