It’s English Premier League crunch time, keep your eye on the ball

Liverpool are leading the race in the Premier League, with 76 points from 31 matches while City are two points behind, having played a game less

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For the first time in five years, the English Premier League will see a ‘real’ title race. Not since the 2013-14 season, when Manchester City pipped Liverpool to the post to clinch the title, the EPL champions were more or less decided before the final run. Interestingly, the protagonists for this season's title race are the same clubs — Manchester City, led by serial winner Pep Guardiola, and Liverpool, managed by a charismatic and hugely popular Jurgen Klopp. Liverpool are currently leading the race, with 76 points from 31 matches while City are two points behind, having played a game less. With seven and eight matches remaining for Liverpool and Manchester City respectively this season, it has become impossible to pick favourites.

 It’s English Premier League crunch time, keep your eye on the ball

By bringing Mohamed Salah back to Premier League, Liverpool manager Klopp created an attacking trio that wreaked havoc. AFP

In the previous edition, the ‘Citizens’ won the title with record points – 100 from 38 matches, losing just twice in the campaign. Last year’s City, under Guardiola, was dubbed one of the best ever teams to grace English football. So, understandably, it was City who started as the favourites this season. But Klopp's Liverpool rose to the occasion and showed their potential by becoming a brute force.

The Liverpool ‘Reds’ finished last season at fourth, but under Klopp, they showed significant improvement, reaching the final of last year's Champions League. By bringing Mohamed Salah back to the Premier League and teaming him up with high-quality forwards like Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, Klopp created an attacking trio that wreaked havoc on defences.

This season, Liverpool’s story was not all about attack. The mighty Virgil van Dijk, who came to the club in January last year in a record transfer, has been outstanding in the campaign and, along with goalkeeper Alisson, played a pivotal role in keeping Liverpool in the race.

City faltered a few times in their campaign, but it’s a testament to their squad quality that they are still in the race. They seemed to have lost the way after crucial defeats in December, but Guardiola’s team discovered lost form with a victory over Liverpool in January and since then they have been flying high. City have been there and done that. Their players know what it takes, especially in the final few gameweeks, to win a Premier League title and that probably gives them a little bit of an edge.

If the battle for the title is a two-horse race, the fight for the remaining two Champions League spots has intensified post the resurgence of Manchester United under manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Initially, Tottenham were in the mix with City and Liverpool for the title, but they lost steam midway and are now third on the table with 61 points from 30 matches. Arsenal, starting a new era under Unai Emery, took some time to find their groove, and they follow Tottenham at the fourth spot with 60 points. United’s brilliant run after Jose Mourinho’s sacking saw them rising to fifth while Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea are in danger of missing the Champions League spot with 57 points and sitting at the sixth spot.

Concentrating on the top six, Chelsea have been having a strange campaign. They started the league on a positive note, remaining unbeaten in Sarri's first 12 matches, but then suffered a humiliating defeat to Tottenham. ‘The Pensioners’ did well to hand City their first defeat in the league, but then endured a terrible 6-0 thrashing against the champions when they met a second time. There's a lot of speculation about Sarri leaving the club after a below-par season and losing players' trust.  There was optimism when the Italian manager came to the Premier League, but as the season is nearing its end, Sarri is in a desperate situation.

Unlike Chelsea, Arsenal had a tough start to the league, suffering defeats against The Pensioners and the Citizens in their opening two matches. But as the season progressed, they produced impressive results. After the initial hiccup, Arsenal had a winning run of 11 matches under Emery and then went on to beat arch-rivals Tottenham in the North London derby. In the midst of this, Arsenal had a 22-game unbeaten run, which came to an end with a defeat to Southampton in December.

Emery is a no-nonsense manager. He even dropped club’s star player Mesut Ozil and put his faith in youngsters like Matteo Guendouzi and Ainsley Maitland-Niles to do the job. A good addition in defence and Arsenal will have a team to look forward to in the next season.

Despite a good first season under Emery, the Champions League spot is not guaranteed as Arsenal are facing tough competition from Man U. Since Solskjaer made his way to his former club, United had a rebirth of sorts. The team's spirit, which was in utter shambles under Mourinho, has been rekindled with key players like Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard back to their best.

Solskjaer set a new Premier League record for the most points won by a manager in his first 10 league matches. He collected 32 points from a possible 36 before Arsenal handed him his first defeat in the league in March. The way Solskjaer turned things around, it is only fair that he gets a full-time job this summer.

Tottenham might be third on the table, but they are just four points ahead of Chelsea. Mauricio Pochettino deserves a lot of credit for the work he did at Tottenham. There were concerns regarding lack of squad depth when the Spurs didn't buy any player in both the transfer windows, but Pochettino's team still managed to be in the top level.

But there’s a problem of inconsistency with his side. They scored a terrific victory over United early in the season, but then went on to lose against Liverpool at home. If a win against Chelsea in November epitomised Tottenham’s zeal, the defeat against Arsenal a week after embodied their fickleness.

Still, Pochettino would know that the job's not done yet. Now that Harry Kane has returned from injury, and also started scoring, Tottenham are favoured ahead of other clubs to seal the third spot.

There’s plenty to look forward to in the last few months of the Premier League. As mentioned earlier, it’s very difficult to pick favourites for the title, but City fans would remember that the last time in the run-up to the Indian general elections, it was their club that overcame a Liverpool challenge to clinch the trophy. So does that signify a good omen for the Citizens? Well, The Reds will have something to say about that.

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