Which Premier League club is best equipped for Christmas?
Next five weeks could go a long way in deciding which team will clinch the league title
Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante, Jordan Henderson of Liverpool, Fernandinho of Manchester City and Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez of Arsenal. Photograph: Getty Images
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 Gunners 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 season’s 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 Hotspur and Moussa Sissoko, Chelsea certainly got what they paid for in N’Golo Kante, who has clocked up 153km in the 1,170 minutes of Premier League football he has played so far this season – almost 20km more than his team-mate Cesar Azpilicueta has run in the exact same time.
An otherwise fairly straightforward schedule is bookended by tricky away trips to Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur and it is now that 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 Conte’s 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 Fabregas is available for selection but despite his obvious class does not appear to have a fan in Antonio 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 Jon 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, Fabregas, Batshuayi, Chalobah, Ivanovic, Willian, Oscar.
League matches in next four weeks: Manchester City (a), West Bromwich (h), Sunderland (a), Crystal Palace (a), Bournemouth (h), Stoke City (h), Tottenham (a).
With their incessant gegen-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 Jurgen 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 over 155km in 1,154 minutes while Nathaniel Clyne (137.3km), Roberto Firmino (136.5km) and Sadio Mane (126.5km) can hardly be accused of idling either.
Liverpool’s options from the bench look limited compared to those of Arsenal and Manchester City, although Daniel Sturridge has been a brooding but reassuring presence in reserve and should get plenty of game-time 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 Klopp also has Divock Origi available. The manager has not been particularly lucky with injuries and has already lost Danny Ings for the season. Firmino and Adam Lallana are also numbered among Liverpool’s lame but both are expected to return to full fitness in the coming days.
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 (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 real distance between themselves and their rivals.
Fernandinho has been City’s unsung hero, galloping 143.1km in the 1,170 minutes he has clocked up, compared to the likes of Kevin De Bruyne (111.9km in 862), Sergio Aguero (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 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 Jesus 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, Sane, Navas.
League matches in next four weeks: Chelsea (h), Leicester City (a), Watford (h), Arsenal (h), Hull City (a), Liverpool (a), Burnley (h).
Arsene Wenger has already voiced his concerns over the fact that Alexis Sanchez is currently going about his business held together with sticky-backed plastic and paperclips and has every right to be worried about the Chilean’s 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. Sanchez has run 114.5km in the Premier League, two fewer than the equally indispensable Mesut Ozil, 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 fans to reach for the gin.
Despite lying second in the Premier League injuries table, Arsenal do have plenty of strength in depth. Olivier Giroud’s 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 were among the talents alongside him on the bench last weekend. Wenger’s hand will be further strengthened by the return of Hector Bellerin ( December 18th), while both Per Mertesacker and Danny Welbeck are expected to return to full fitness in January.
There is no news yet of when Santi Cazorla might come back from the achilles injury he suffered in the 6-0 Champions League win over Ludogorets.
While Arsenal’s 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 must-win 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 (h), Everton (a), Manchester City (a), West Bromwich (h), Crystal Palace (h), Bournemouth (a).
– (Guardian service)