I’ve assumed since the Xmas and New Year period when Man United opened up a 12 point gap over Chelsea that the Blues would hunt United down and catch them. I just assumed it would happen, so much so that United being so far ahead just looked unnatural; an aberration. This weekend, as the gap reduced to three points it all seems to be unfolding exactly as I anticipated. This isn’t because I am a visionary, it’s because it almost always happens that way.
Maintaining a big lead is always difficult, and United’s lead was enhanced by Chelsea’s games in hand so it seemed they were further ahead than they really were.
United have played the best football between the two of them but Chelsea have played the most effective football, the most relentless. They are like a giant, grinding machine that slowly and surely crushes everything. In this respect they are very like the Liverpool sides of the late 70s and early 80s who won so many games 1-0 and who often scored late. They based their campaigns on not conceding. Chelsea hasn’t conceded a goal now for 8 games. They’ve let in 19 compared to United’s 23, but crucially 10 of those 19 where in the blip period from mid December to mid January. As the run in kicks in, United are without their best defender in Vidic but Chelsea are almost at full strength with even Cole coming back. It all bodes well for them.
Chelsea also have an almost perfect home record, never having lost under Mourinho at home in the league and only drawing a handful. United’s list of fixtures to come is easier than Chelsea’s but with Chelsea that doesn’t seem to matter. They seem to play every game the same way regardless of who the opposition is. They ground out the win at bottom club Watford with a goal in the last minute. They eased past top six placed Spurs – who barely made any effort to compete – still by a single goal. Once they’re a goal up they are almost impossible to beat and they have patience in scoring goals. On top of that Mourinho is the king of the radical substitutions, sometimes playing 5 or 6 up front to get a needed goal. He has the grande cojones to do that.
Like those Liverpool teams of old, most of the time, they don’t seem bothered about playing free flowing entertaining football; they are completely results orientated. Only the outcome matters to them, and when you build every game on such a solid defensive performance, the odds are always in your favour.
However, it does mean that their goal difference is vastly inferior to United’s at 37 compared to 52. And this is United’s lifeline. This is United’s only hope of stopping the Chelsea juggernaut. They can match Chelsea’s results, and still lose to them at Stamford Bridge in the penultimate game of the season and the title will still be theirs on goal difference.
And if Chelsea doesn’t win the title the ultimate irony is that it will be because they haven’t scored enough goals and been adventurous enough. In some ways it would vindicate Mourinho’s position on Shevchenko, a player he didn’t really want and who hasn’t been that good for him. In other words, if they don’t win the title, it won’t be his fault it’ll be Abramovichs’ for trying to manage the club for him and buying in players. That will be his argument as he walks away from Chelsea in the summer and he will be right.
With away games for United at Manchester City and Everton to get through, and similarly unpredictable away games for Chelsea at the newly resurgent West Ham and also Arsenal, there may still are a few twists in the end of this seasons’ Premiership plot. But even though United still have the advantage, Chelsea already look more like the winners. It’s as much about having the bottle to hold your nerve now and bottle is something Mourinho and his side have never lacked.