With no international breaks and the festive season looming, the next five weeks could go a long way to deciding which of Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal have the legs to be Premier League champions
December is upon us, one third of the Premier League season has been completed and a definite hierarchy has been established. You could throw a blanket over the top four of Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal, who are separated by only three points after 13 matches. With the gap from the fourth-placed Arsenal to the best of the rest a more emphatic four points, the smart money suggests that barring an unlikely surge from Tottenham Hotspur or Manchester United, this seasons Premier League title will almost certainly go to one of those four.
With a busy period of festive football looming, now seems as good a time as any to take stock and see which of the four look freshest and perhaps best equipped to pull away from their rivals. Each of them will have to play seven league games by the end of the first week of January, when Premier League teams will contest the third round of the FA Cup.
Unlike Tottenham with Moussa Sissoko, Chelsea certainly got what they paid for in NGolo Kant, who has clocked up 153km in the 1,170 minutes of Premier League football he has played this season almost 20 more than his team-mate Csar Azpilicueta has run in the exact same time. An otherwise fairly straightforward schedule is bookended by tricky away trips to Manchester City and Tottenham and it is now Chelsea could further reap the benefits of not having to worry about Europe.
It seems fairly obvious that keeping their tireless wing-backs, Victor Moses and Marcus Alonso, as fit and fresh as possible may prove key to their title chances. The energetic duo have not played even 700 minutes apiece this season but have become a pivotal part of Antonio Contes plan since his switch to a back three, but they could conceivably run out of steam at such a busy time.
Chelsea have used the fewest players of the four and do not appear to have the strength or quality of their rivals in reserve. Cesc Fbregas is available for selection but despite his obvious class does not appear to have a fan in Conte, while Oscar, Willian and Michy Batshuayi have also found their opportunities limited. News from the treatment room suggests John Terry is due to return from a muscle injury this month, while Mikel John Obi should also be back shortly but seems totally surplus to requirements and may leave in January.
Players on the bench in last league game Begovic, Fbregas, Batshuayi, Chalobah, Ivanovic, Willian, Oscar. League matches in next four weeks Manchester City (a), West Bromwich Albion (h), Sunderland (a), Crystal Palace (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke City (h), Tottenham Hotspur (a).
With their incessant pressing , Liverpool are the other top-four side for whom an absence from European competition can be considered a blessing. With the exception of games against Manchester City and Everton, their other opponents can all be found in the bottom half of the table, a state of affairs which should give Jrgen Klopp and his merry men an excellent chance of pulling clear.
Jordan Henderson has been crucial to the Liverpool cause, running his legs into stumps more than 155km in 1,154 minutes, while Nathaniel Clyne (137.3km), Roberto Firmino (136.5km) and Sadio Man (126.5km) can hardly be accused of idling. Liverpools options from the bench look limited compared with those of Arsenal and Manchester City, although Daniel Sturridge has been a brooding but reassuring presence in reserve and should get plenty of gametime during a period when Philippe Coutinho is sidelined with an ankle injury and not expected to return until mid-January.
There are minor fitness concerns over Sturridge but Jrgen Klopp also has Divock Origi available. The manager has not been particularly lucky with injuries and has lost Danny Ings for the season. Firmino and Adam Lallana are also numbered among Liverpools lame but both are expected to return to full fitness soon.
Players on the bench in last league game Mignolet, Moreno, Klavan, Ejaria, Woodburn, Origi, Lucas. League matches in next four weeks Bournemouth (a), West Ham United (h), Middlesbrough (a), Everton (a), Stoke City (h), Manchester City (h), Sunderland (a).
Manchester City, along with Arsenal, are the sides facing the added distraction of the Champions League and City have an appointment with Celtic to contend with along with their seven league matches. It is a period that could make or break their season, as they will face each of their three main title rivals. Home matches against Chelsea and Arsenal and a visit to Liverpool give them a gilt-edged chance to put a significant distance between themselves and their rivals.
Fernandinho has been Citys unsung hero, galloping 143.1km in the 1,170 minutes he has clocked up, compared with Kevin De Bruyne (111.9km in 862), Sergio Agero (100.1km in 919) and Raheem Sterling (117.6 in 1,001). With the exception of the luckless Vincent Kompany, Pep Guardiola has been fortunate with injuries and the manager will be able to call on the completely fresh midfielder Fabian Delph, sidelined since August, any day now. The presence of De Bruyne, David Silva, Kelechi Iheanacho and Jess Navas on the bench last weekend suggests strength in depth is unlikely to be a concern. Guardiola has also got the wonderfully talented Gabriel Jesus joining in January (albeit after a tiring year in Brazil).
Players on the bench in last league game Caballero, Iheanacho, Silva, Zabaleta, De Bruyne, San, Navas. League matches in next four weeks Chelsea (h), Leicester City (a), Watford (h), Arsenal (h), Hull City (a), Liverpool (a), Burnley (h).
Arsne Wenger has already voiced his concerns over the fact Alexis Snchez is going about his business held together with sticky-backed plastic and paperclips and the manager has every right to be worried about the Chileans workload. The 27-year-old has already made 23 appearances for club and country this season, playing 1,089 minutes of Premier League football along with the 10 matches he has more or less completed in the Champions League and with Chile. Snchez has run 114.5km in the Premier League, two fewer than the equally indispensable Mesut zil, who has almost 1,000 Premier League minutes behind him. Should injury befall either player it could serve as a hammer blow. The thought of losing them simultaneously is probably enough to prompt most Gooners to reach for the gin.
Despite lying second in the Premier League injuries table, Arsenal do have plenty of strength in depth. Olivier Girouds sterling contributions from the bench have been well documented, with the Frenchman having scored three goals in the miserly 123 Premier League minutes afforded to him. Francis Coquelin, Kieran Gibbs, Aaron Ramsey, and Gabriel Paulista were among the talents alongside him on the bench last weekend. Wengers hand will be further strengthened by the return of Hctor Bellern (18 December), while the club captain, Per Mertesacker, and Danny Welbeck are expected to return to full fitness in January. Santi Cazorla has had surgery on the achilles injury he sustainied in the 6-0 Champions League win against Ludogorets and is out for at least three months.
While Arsenals schedule over the next four weeks is not particularly punishing, they face a trip to Manchester City and have the added irritation of a Champions League match at Basel next week that is mustwin if they are to have any chance of overtaking Paris Saint-Germain and finish top of their group.
Players on the bench in last league game Ospina, Iwobi, Coquelin, Gibbs, Gabriel, Ramsey, Giroud. League matches in next four weeks West Ham (a), Stoke City (h), Everton (a), Manchester City (a), West Bromwich Albion (h), Crystal Palace (h), Bournemouth (a).
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