MANCHESTER: A four point lead with six games to go. Is the Premier League title race now back on, after so many had assumed Chelsea had the championship in the bag?
The fixture list suggests that Chelsea should still be able to finish above challengers Tottenham Hotspur. But strange things can happen when the pressure reaches it’s greatest intensity and there was certainly something strange about Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Manager Antonio Conte certainly struck an unusual tone when addressing the media after Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Manchester United, the club’s second defeat in four games.
“They showed more desire, more ambition, more motivation. It is very simple but in this case the fault is of the coach. It means the coach was not able to transfer the right concentration, desire, ambition to win this game,” he said.
Perhaps that was a rare example of a manager taking responsibility for a loss but it could also have been a clever way of admonishing his team for their lack of desire in a game where they failed to produce a single shot on goal.
Why would his players need to be motivated by him at this crucial stage in the season?
Then there were Conte’s comments about Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final which pits the two London title rivals against each other.
“It won’t be easy because I think Tottenham now is the best team and they are in good form and they have a lot of enthusiasm. They are feeling the possibility to write the history and it is important to know this,” he said.
So, according to Conte, we have a Chelsea side lacking motivation and a Tottenham team that are the best in the country and with a chance of glory.
Add in Conte’s reminder of how this season should be seen in the context of Chelsea’s poor campaign last year and the impression is left of a manager trying to lower expectations just when they are at their highest.
Certainly Chelsea don’t look like ending the season in peak form and Tottenham are indeed playing some exhilarating and highly effective football.
But a glance at the fixtures list should ease, if not totally dispel, any nerves afflicting the Stamford Bridge faithful.
Four of Chelsea’s six remaining games are at home, where they have lost just two of 15 games this season.
Two of those games are against relegation candidates in Middlesbrough and Sunderland while the others are against beatable mid-table teams in Southampton and Watford.
However, the two away games will be more testing — Everton have won eight straight games at home and are brimming with confidence. West Bromwich Albion are eighth and certainly no pushovers at the Hawthornes.
Tottenham have just two home games remaining and they are against a United team that are unbeaten in 22 matches and a North London derby against Arsenal, who may be struggling but would love nothing more than to kill their rivals’ title hopes.
But Tottenham have a momentum that Chelsea have lost having won their last 12 home games and their manager Mauricio Pochettino certainly isn’t worrying about a lack of motivation and desire.
A Spurs surge to the title certainly isn’t out of the question but as United manager Jose Mourinho put it, when asked about his former club, Chelsea remain favourites.
“I think they are in the position where everybody wants to be,” he said.
“It is better to be in Chelsea position than Tottenham position. That is for sure.”