Will the Premier League have new title favourites after Chelsea visit Manchester City at fortress Etihad?
Manchester City and Chelsea are the bookies favourites for this year’s league championship, but if the Londoners pass this, their stiffest test of the season, they will rightly be the top pick
English Premier League leaders Chelsea passed one test last weekend with a home win over Tottenham but tonight they face an even tougher examination away to Manchester City as the top two in the title betting go head to head.
City started the season as title favourites and have retained that status despite dropping to third behind Chelsea and Liverpool, who started the campaign respectively fourth and fifth in the betting.
City are 2.65 now, followed by Chelsea at 2.75, Liverpool at 3.85 and Arsenal at 7.50. Tottenham are out to 26 after last week’s defeat, while Manchester United – second favourites at the start of the season – are 35. United surely cannot win the title now, but Tottenham are not so easy to dismiss considering they have the same number of points as they did at the same stage of last season.
It has developed into an extremely tight race, with only three points separating Chelsea from Arsenal in fourth, and whatever happens tonight it is likely to be a long time until a Premier League team becomes the kind of short-priced favourite that already exists in the other major European leagues. Real Madrid are 1.55 in Spain, Paris Saint-Germain are 1.15 in France, Bayern Munich are 1.14 in Germany and Juventus are 1.10 in Italy.
Chelsea are in pole position after extending their winning league run to seven with the 2-1 victory over Tottenham, which was impressive not least because they had to come back from a goal down.
Overall this season, teams scoring first in Premier League matches have a 67 per cent win rate and just a 12 per cent defeat rate, which puts Chelsea’s turnaround against an opponent as strong as Tottenham into perspective.
The same resilience is going to be needed tonight when Chelsea visit the Etihad, where City’s record under Pep Guardiola in all competitions is played 10, won seven, drawn three, lost none.
City have scored in every home game and been shut out only three times in Guardiola’s 22 matches in all competitions (two of them without Sergio Aguero in the starting line-up). With Aguero leading the home attack, Chelsea’s much-vaunted defence is set to face a serious examination.
City’s standout home performance was the 3-1 win over Barcelona in the Champions League, but they quickly followed that with their third consecutive home 1-1 in the Premier League against lowly Middlesbrough.
That leaves a question mark over whether their attack can be blunted too easily by a well-organised team. It is interesting to note that the home draws have all been against teams ranked in the top nine on defence (Southampton, Everton and Middlesbrough) and so was their only defeat (2-0 away to Tottenham). Chelsea, of course, rank top on defence.
There is also no clear-cut answer yet on whether Guardiola has solved one of City’s biggest weaknesses from last season, when they won only one out of 14 against teams in the top eight.
This season City have played only three matches in that category and their record is inconclusive - one win, one draw and one defeat.
Chelsea have had more top-eight head-to-heads than any other side and have won four out of six, with two defeats (both of which came before Antonio Conte reshaped his team with a three-man defence).
To have played so many high-level matches and still be top of the table is another impressive achievement by Chelsea, although they have been helped by playing six fewer matches than City even at this early stage of the season.
Freshness might not be important here, with neither club having played in midweek, but it could become a crucial factor later in the season with Chelsea – and Liverpool – not involved in European competition.
Control of the flanks might decide tonight’s match, as a key part of Chelsea’s game plan is the attacking wingbacks Victor Moses – who scored the winner against Tottenham – and Marcos Alonso. The seven-match winning streak started when that pair were deployed either side of the three central defenders.
City have match-winning wide players of their own but the danger is that they will push too far forward and leave space for Chelsea to exploit, not only with Moses and Alonso but also Eden Hazard.
A score draw would not be a surprise with the two sides quite evenly matched, but Chelsea appeal on value grounds for the win – or at least as the handicap pick.
And if Conte’s side do win, they will almost certainly be new title favourites tomorrow morning.
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