11 February 2014

West Brom held Chelsea. Our top-of-the-table spot awaits.

Proving that one loss does not undo a season's worth of work, West Brom managed to draw with Chelsea at the Hawthorns with Victor Anichebe scoring a late equalizer to lift the Baggies out of the drop-zone, but only on goal-differential, and to keep Chelsea only two points ahead of Arsenal at the top of the table. All of a sudden, our loss to Liverpool doesn't seem so devastating. In fact, it's part and parcel of a Prem season. In order to stake a legitimate claim to the title, there are three basic keys to keep in mind:
  1. keep all points from inferior opponents (those outside of the top five)
  2. keep as many points as possible while hosting top rivals.
  3. look to nick few points while visiting top rivals.
Of course, a team can always try to shoot the moon by simply never losing, going a full season undefeated, but that would be preposterous. Ahem.

Moving on, of course, that three-step formula is awfully simplistic, but it still serves its purpose. Of course, teams are going to drop points here and there. The overarching question is, "to whom will a title-contender drop points?" Whether hosting or visiting teams lower on the table, it's essential to secure almost all of those points. Dropping all three to a relegation-threatened team, regardless of location, is inexcusable. Dropping two on the road to a mid-table team might be acceptable, given how difficult it can be to play in certain stadiums. However, the mark of a serious title-contender is its ability to avoid these dropped points because, in an almost tautological sense, title-contenders are supposed to take them because they are title-contenders and the opponent is not. There are bound to be hiccups, of course, and so the follow-up question is "how often?'

When it comes to items two and three above, things get a bit more muddled. We've seen how explosive Man City can be, especially at home, and how defensive Chelsea can be when playing anywhere against a serious rival (such as against Man U in matchday two, when it still seemed as if Man U might compete for a top-four spot). Unfortunately, we fared poorly in our trip to the Etihad and suffered a draw at home against Chelsea (I'm not yet willing to include Liverpool in the discussion. Chalk that up to petty spite or the four points that separate them from third place). Man City traveled to Stamford Bridge and lost, hosted us rather rudely, then hosted Chelsea and lost. Chelsea has done best in these head-to-head bouts, drawing at the Emirates and beating City in both legs.

Then again, having played one extra match overall, Chelsea is only two points ahead of us and three ahead of Arsenal. Chelsea squandered a chance to open up a temporary but psychologically significant four-point lead against a stubborn but beatable opponent (after all, we drew with West Brom as well). Had they won, we might go into Wednesday's clash feeling a little tetchier knowing that we'd have to win just to keep pace. Their draw tamps things down just a bit. We still "have" to win, after all (see item #1 above).

The head-to-head battles involving us, Chelsea, and Man City only account for twelve points from four matches to each team. In a season that might come down to only a few points, those points are precious—but no more so than the other 102 points available from the other 34 matches each team plays. Therefore, for as symbolic and fraught with tension as the head-to-head matches can be, taking care of business in the lower-profile matches is just as vital, if not more so. Yes, we lost in horrific fashion at Anfield. Three points gone against a squad with a strong grasp of fourth place and ambitions for something higher. We drew at Southampton. Another two points dropped, this time against a squad that hopes to finish in the top ten. However, in the same span of time, Man City lost at home to Chelsea and then drew with Norwich at Carrow Road. Chelsea, either side of that vital win at the Etihad, suffered a draw at Stamford Bridge against West Ham and then drew with West Brom. 

Each of us, then, has dropped a similar number of points, but the manner of the droppage (dropitude?) differs a bit. We dropped all of our points on the road against some serious competition. Without slighting Norwich, West Ham, or West Brom, the points that Chelsea and Man City have dropped were low-hanging fruit that both clubs really were expected to seize without difficulty. The manner of our play against Southampton, coupled with the magnitude of our loss at Anfield, seems to have added a mutiplier-effect to those dropped points so that they seem bigger or more numerous than they really are. 

However, the cold, hard reality is actually quite reassuring. With a game in hand, we're two points behind Chelsea. Despite losing to Man City, we're a point ahead of them. This isn't idle grasping at straws. A win on Wednesday puts all the pressure back on our rivals. Let's do this.