Top four head for the final straight in Premier League title race.

The Premier League returns today, after a short break due to FA Cup action. With most teams having only a dozen games left to play, it’s set up for a thrilling finale to what has so far been one of the most fascinating campaigns to date.

Chelsea currently lead, but after a potentially tricky home fixture against Everton this weekend, they face a challenging schedule during March which involves a derby visit to local rivals Fulham, and fixtures against Arsenal and Tottenham.

Should Mourinho’s men remain top at the start of April, they’ll feel confident of seeing off their rivals, thanks to a run-in which looks slightly more favourable than those of their fellow title contenders. There is also a wealth experience throughout a squad which includes a number of players who have won titles with the club, and know exactly what it takes to handle the pressure.

Arsenal occupy second place, only a point behind Chelsea, but will be wary of a brutal run in the second half of March and early April that includes having to face Tottenham, Chelsea, Man City and Everton in successive games. Apart from Man City, all of those matches are away from home and follow immediately after returning from Germany and the second leg of the round of 16 Champions League tie against Bayern Munich.

FA Cup action will also disrupt Arsenal’s Premier League schedule and the Gunners will need to be at their very best in order to maintain their involvement in the title race. Heavy defeats to Man City and, more recently, Liverpool will be a worry with so many big games ahead, and the ability of the squad to cope with competing on multiple fronts will stretch Arsene Wenger’s men to their limits.

However, Arsenal deservedly led the table for much of the first half of the season, and their ability to produce a consistent run of form ensures that despite a difficult fixture list, they remain a threat.

Man City are the other of the four title contenders whose involvement in domestic cup competition could lead to fixture congestion later in the season. Aside from FA Cup, Man City still have to play Sunderland in the final of the League cup, and are already behind schedule after a recent postponement due to bad weather.

Under Manuel Pellegrini, the club has appeared much more stable than in past years, but even the club’s recent history offers evidence of how Man City can still self-destruct more spectacularly than most.

When considering that most of City’s league problems have come away from home, their remaining games look to include a number of potential slip-ups, not least in the fixtures away to Merseyside clubs, Arsenal, and a journey across the city to face Man United in what is certain to be a hotly contested Manchester derby.

With all of the top sides having visited the Etihad, it’s clear that the fixture list so far has been kind to Man City, and perhaps should have seen them in a more commanding position in relation to their rivals.

There’s still a lot to be proved by the league’s strongest squad, and despite looking invincible for periods of the season, much hard work is to be done if the Premier League title is to return.

For Liverpool and their 26 games so far, it’s fair to say that the reverse is true: with the exception of Man United and Southampton, Liverpool had already travelled away to every other club in the top ten before New Year.

Defeat to Arsenal in the FA Cup last weekend leaves Liverpool with only the league to focus on and that could give the Reds a slight advantage, though much will depend on their ability to maintain their impressive home form, particularly when the likes of Chelsea, Man City and Tottenham are welcomed to Anfield.

Though whilst a lack of domestic and European cup competitions could be a positive in terms of helping to keep the players fresh, it’s also true that a good cup run can also be beneficial in generating momentum that can benefit league form, something which the likes of Chelsea or Man City could use to their advantage.

Just below Liverpool are Spurs, and with the gap between the sides only three points, there’s been some calls made by certain TV pundits to include them as title contenders

But with Man City able to join Chelsea on 57 points should they win their game in hand, that would leave Spurs with seven points to make up on both of those teams. And with a massively inferior goal difference, Spurs couldn’t hope to draw level on points and then use goal difference as a deciding factor in their favour.

It’s therefore almost impossible to imagine that Spurs have the time left in the season to leapfrog all four sides currently occupying the top four positions – although they may yet break into the top four.

And so to the predictions on who will come out on top.

Having lost their lead at the top at such a crucial stage, and with a tough schedule to come, I have doubts over whether Arsenal can recover sufficiently to hold off the challenge of all three teams around them. That, for me, leaves the title race as being between Chelsea, Man City and Liverpool.

Of those three, Liverpool will be considered most people’s outsiders, if for no reason other than the fact that they have a squad with little experience of being in such a position, challenging right up to the wire. Although the same can be said of new recruits at Chelsea or Man City, both teams have a core of players who have been instrumental in helping to achieve prior Premier League successes.

That’s not to rule out Liverpool entirely, with the Reds having demonstrated an ability to compete with the top clubs once again, which represents huge progress. The title is still within reach, but the first priority must still be to hold on to a qualifying place for next season’s Champions League.

So having narrowed down the overall champion to either Man City or Chelsea, I’d have to stick to my pre-season prediction that Manuel Pellegrini’s arrival would bring enough stability to see the trophy heading back to the blue half of Manchester – though perhaps without more twists in what has been a gripping title race.

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