The lack of an engaging finish is becoming a bit of a bum note for “the most exciting league in the world.” In the Premier League’s silver anniversary, the super coaches are here in abundance, but the tension is missing for the third year in a row.
When Steven Gerrard declared that the rest of the Premier League wanted Liverpool to beat Chelsea last Tuesday he may have opened himself up to a few sniggers, but the point made was relatively sound.
The Reds legend told BT Sport: “The whole league needs a win for Liverpool. It’s almost a last chance saloon to keep the title race alive. The players, the manager and the staff aren’t daft, they know that if the gap goes to 13 points then it’s game over.”
It’s game over then, Steven. After a creditable 1-1 draw with Chelsea, no doubt leaving everything on the pitch against the champions elect, Liverpool reverted to type and left nothing on the pitch against Hull on Saturday.
Post match, the Jurgen Klopp sorted out his emotions and noted that Chelsea were cooler and calmer than his team. It was an admittance of sorts that there lies a nervousness within the challenger that simply does not exist with the table toppers.
This is the problem with the so-called title race of 2017, as it was in 2016 and 2015. When everybody else is hitting fences, Chelsea (twice) and Leicester were flying over hurdles with barely a scrape or a scrap. If one team shows real mental strength to stay in front, it almost seems like game over as the rest cannot sustain anything like a challenge at the business end.
The Premier League is not supposed to be a one horse race. This isn’t Fergie time anymore.
Nobody can knock Chelsea off their f****** pedestal, as Sir Alex might put it.
Sixteen wins and one draw from the last 18 is just too good for the quality of the competition behind. It is deadly efficient and it’s killing the rest. Neutrals may be slumping further back in their chairs as it becomes clear that the vulnerability of others is only adding to the authority of the King’s Road royals.
Back in the summer, there were column inches abound on the year of the super coach and the levels of intrigue and competition this would bring. A line-up of Conte, Klopp, Mourinho and Guardiola was exceptionally strong on paper. Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United were all in a state of flux. Only Tottenham had really given Leicester a run for their money the previous season.
Five months later it looks almost certain that there’s only going to be only one Grand National winner. Liverpool have hit The Chair and it’s not even April at Aintree yet. Arsenal have unseated their rider to the stands. Manchester City have been staggering around like a filly that flew out of the starting blocks and then lost its blinkers. Manchester United are still looking for the map of how to get to the racecourse. Tottenham threaten and are the closest challengers, but their engine has begun to splutter against Sunderland and Middlesbrough. They visit an ailing but angry Anfield next.
For a truly thrilling duel, there has to be a true spark off the pitch as well as on it. It is all far too comfortable for Conte. He has been buying drinks for journalists at the local in Cobham over Christmas and even stealing cake off them. This really is a man who can have his cake and eat it. Charm school and ruthlessness is a good recipe. The Italian has never been under the pump in a press conference since the two reverses against Liverpool and Arsenal earlier in the season. Even the Diego Costa crisis was handed with the minimum of fuss and caused no significant collateral damage.
Contrast this with Mourinho banging on about different rules in different schools and Guardiola getting prickly even after victories. Klopp’s face has run the full gamut of rage and restlessness after jittery January while Wenger has resorted to his worst playground-bully-shoving surliness. Conte may be a jack-in-the-box on the sidelines but he has been bulletproof. The man exudes an aura of control to the wider world. It doesn’t look or feel like he’s worried in the slightest. That doesn’t make for good TV drama.
This is the third season in a row that the title race just hasn’t really taken off. Leicester’s triumph was pure gold dust but they never hit a bad patch, never stumbled, and were never properly challenged coming down the home straight. Claudio Ranieri was calmness personified. Do they hide something in the pasta in Italy? Chelsea are doing the same. Demoralisation soon follows for the chasing pack and the cracks in other camps are beginning to look like chasms.
After the Blues beat the Gunners on Saturday, there’s a danger that February, March and April will become a procession, albeit more convivial and entertaining than the one presided over by Mourinho when Chelsea won the title by eight points in 2015.
Sometimes, it is easy to yearn for the glory days of Arsenal and Manchester United’s Premier League prime when Wenger was a dab hand at gaining the moral high ground with wise words rather than aggressive irritation as is his want these days. After the Gunners had the gall to claim the 2002 title by beating United 1-0 in their own backyard, Ferguson bellowed: “They are scrappers who rely on belligerence – we are the better team.” The Frenchman responded by saying: “Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home.”
That significant bit of needle has been missing and the Premier League top table needs a bit more. The only way to create that tension is to keep up with the runaway train or derail it. Nobody is coming close.
It has been a while since the Premier League gave us a grandstand finish. Sergio Aguero’s goal against QPR in 2012 was probably the last time a pulse rate went up at the pinnacle. The worrying thing for Chelsea’s challengers is that Conte went undefeated in his first season at Juve and then improved the total with each of his three consecutive Scudetto titles, breaking the 100-point barrier in 2013/14.
When one team is that perfect, the rest just get left behind. Getting excited about Champions League places is almost like comfort feeding. We need a fight to the death next season to get the cojones going again.
But who’s going to stand up in the red corner?