Beauty and the Beasts: Chelsea’s flaws help reignite title race


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Would you rather have a six point advantage or three extra games – a trip to Old Trafford before hosting Sunderland and Aston Villa – to make up the ground?

That's the situation Premier League pacesetters Chelsea and Manchester City find themselves in. But before you boldly declare that City’s points deficit is the favourable option, consider the teams that block their path to the title in their games in hand…

Manchester United. City’s closest rivals have welcomed back lethal strike partnership Rooney and RVP, and can ill afford another derby defeat.

Sunderland. A side that boasts victories at St James’ Park and Goodison Park this season, the Black Cats also toppled City at the Stadium of Light in the Premier League and ran them close in the League Cup final.

Aston Villa. The Midlands outfit beat City 3-2 earlier in the campaign and are just starting to hit form with Christian Benteke belatedly warming to his second season in English football.

So are City guaranteed at least six points from nine? Absolutely not.

Chelsea’s 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa was damaging but hardly fatal in their quest for the title. What is hard to comprehend, though, is why Chelsea failed to address their striker shortage in January.

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Before Chris Foy bizarrely issued Willian with a second yellow card, the Blues were dictating play and you sensed a typical Jose Mourinho performance – tidy, if uninspiring – would culminate in a moment of magic from one of their floating midfield trio. But, unlike previous occasions this season, Oscar, Eden Hazard and Willian failed to produce that flash of brilliance.

It’s in those moments when a striker will often pop up with a crucial goal. But Chelsea do not possess such a player. Or at least not one with confidence.

Fernando Torres was woefully ineffective – so poor, in fact, that is getting increasingly difficult to accept he is the same bloke that fired in the goals for Atletico, Liverpool and Spain – as Chelsea carried their £50 million striker for 67 minutes before he was finally replaced.

The standard of player available in January is normally poorer than in the summer, but surely there was an abundance of players who would have jumped at the opportunity to switch on loan for six months? Chelsea’s reluctance to explore that option was confusing – especially when a title could now hinge on it.

But perhaps most alarming for Chelsea fans was their side’s inability to grind out a point following Willian’s dismissal. Unlike Manchester City in Saturday's early kick-off, who grew as a force after the sending off of Vincent Kompany to beat Hull 2-0, Chelsea looked vulnerable.

When Fabian Delph improvised to score, there was no suggestion that Chelsea would muster an equaliser. Instead, they began hoofing the ball towards Demba Ba – hardly the composure of champions elect.

Their frustration boiled over as the full-time whistle approached, and Ramires' horror challenge on Karim El Ahmadi resulted in a messy ending in which the Brazilian saw red and Jose Mourinho was ordered to the stands. It's likely Chelsea will now be without Ramires for at least three matches.

In this season of shocks and twists, there are bound to be more surprises – City and Chelsea will both drop more points at some stage – but the Blues can’t keep hoping that Hazard and his midfield colleagues will pop up with a moment of magic to win the points.

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Not that it’s a two-horse race. There’s still Liverpool and Arsenal in the equation. Victories against United and Tottenham respectively would leave the pair just four points adrift of the leaders and in a prime position for a late assault with a game in hand.

While Arsenal’s season has stuttered of late, Liverpool are unbeaten since the dawn of 2014 in the Premier League and boast four league wins on the trot. With no cup distractions, Brendan Rodgers’ side can focus on springing a monumental upset.

Both Chelsea and City must head to Anfield before the season concludes. Should Liverpool triumph in both clashes – a big ask, admittedly – then they would only need City to drop one more point for the title to be in their hands.

They might have a defence unfit for even the Europa League, but their attack is frighteningly potent with Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez being assisted by the invigorated Raheem Sterling and skipper Steven Gerrard.

The Premier League is bubbling towards the most exciting finish in its history. Despite defeat to Villa, Chelsea are still in a decent position to lift the trophy they last claimed in 2009/10. They’ll just have to hope that their refusal to bolster their attack won't come back to haunt them.

Ben Snowball - On Twitter: @BenSnowball

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