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DANNY MURPHY: Will anyone take a grip on the craziest Premier League title race in years?

Every day seems to bring a new twist to the Premier League title race, whether it’s Liverpool losing their unbeaten home record to Burnley or fresh injuries to Kevin De Bruyne and Jamie Vardy. 

Manchester United were 15th on October 24 — exactly three months later they are top.

With the top seven teams separated by only eight points and a key four weeks of games coming up, Sportsmail’s columnist Danny Murphy assesses the big questions.

Every day seems to bring a new twist to the craziest Premier League title race for years

Every day seems to bring a new twist to the craziest Premier League title race for years

Every day seems to bring a new twist to the craziest Premier League title race for years

Manchester United were 15th on October 24 — exactly three months later they are top

Manchester United were 15th on October 24 — exactly three months later they are top

Manchester United were 15th on October 24 — exactly three months later they are top

Is it no longer a two-horse race?

I fully expected Manchester City and Liverpool to battle it out for obvious reasons — they’ve comfortably been the best teams for the past three years. But nothing would surprise me now, it’s clear 2020-21 is a uniquely unpredictable season.

A number of teams will have reached the halfway stage believing it might be them and why not? It definitely applies to United and Leicester, who will rightly fancy their chances. Even clubs like Tottenham will be thinking about what is possible.

Just when one team builds momentum, something seems to happen to knock it back. City have been the most impressive team in the country and then their main man De Bruyne is ruled out with a hamstring injury.

So I have changed my mind and now think there will be more contenders than usual going into the final few weeks. But if I had to put my head on the block, I still expect City to ultimately get over the line. They have a squad packed with quality, a system that works and the knowhow of having won the league before.

Manchester City and Liverpool have battled it out for Premier League title in recent seasons

Manchester City and Liverpool have battled it out for Premier League title in recent seasons

Manchester City and Liverpool have battled it out for Premier League title in recent seasons

City will get over line because they have a squad packed with quality and system that works

City will get over line because they have a squad packed with quality and system that works

City will get over line because they have a squad packed with quality and system that works

Are Manchester United just getting lucky?

They would see that as a disrespectful take on things and I’d agree. United had their injuries earlier in the season — Paul Pogba, Eric Bailly, Luke Shaw and Mason Greenwood among others — and they had to cope with them as other teams are trying to do now.

They also had to adjust to finishing last season late because of the Europa League finals and that partially explained their poor start because their fitness levels weren’t great. As for winning games from a losing position, that has more to do with character and spirit than being fortunate.

Since Bruno Fernandes arrived a year ago, United have been remarkably consistent but they shouldn’t take anything as a ‘sign’ they are about to win the league.

Some recent performances haven’t been convincing despite the results. Unless that changes, they will be vulnerable to going three or four games without a win at some stage.

Since Bruno Fernandes arrived a year ago, Man United have been remarkably consistent

Since Bruno Fernandes arrived a year ago, Man United have been remarkably consistent

Since Bruno Fernandes arrived a year ago, Man United have been remarkably consistent

So, why can’t Liverpool score?

Unfortunately, their five main attacking threats — the front three and two full-backs — have all had a dip in form at the same time. Usually, if one of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino or Mo Salah is experiencing a lean spell, others will cover, but none of them are flying at the moment.

We’ve seen them score late goals so many times, flicking a switch and pummel teams in the closing stages. You just aren’t getting that feeling at the moment.

It might be a physical issue having played so many big games in recent years but is more likely a dent in confidence. You sense a bit of frustration and anxiety in their play which is uncharacteristic.

Of course, it hasn’t helped that midfield regulars Fabinho and Jordan Henderson have had to play in defence to cover for injuries. It’s taken time for the new midfielders to build relationships with their forwards. But I certainly don’t adhere to the theory Thiago Alcantara has slowed their game down. He’s just had the misfortune to come into a team not firing.

The trip to Spurs is massive. Liverpool can not afford to have a fifth league game without a goal. But don’t forget it is equally important for Spurs. If they have harbour any ambitions, they won’t want a repeat of the game at Anfield where they played well and still lost.

Defending champions Liverpool have not scored a goal in their last four league matches

Defending champions Liverpool have not scored a goal in their last four league matches

Defending champions Liverpool have not scored a goal in their last four league matches

Is Kevin de Bruyne’s injury a killer?

I’m a huge admirer of the Belgian but strange as it may seem, having a break of a few weeks now might turn out for the best for City in the long term.

There is never a good time to get injured but it was going to happen, this isn’t the worst period for De Bruyne to miss games. City face West Brom, Sheffield United and Burnley next and you’d think they have enough quality in their squad to win those matches anyway.

There is a big game at Anfield on February 7. If De Bruyne is back for then, great. If not, City are likely to be ahead of their rivals with a game in hand even if they lose and when De Bruyne does return he is going to be fresh and raring to go for the run-in and the Champions League.

He is a miss because he is the most creative and dangerous player in the league but City still have Phil Foden, Ilkay Gundogan, Riyad Mahrez, Ferran Torres, Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva to make chances. Not bad.

Manchester City face West Brom, Sheffield United and Burnley without Kevin de Bruyne

Manchester City face West Brom, Sheffield United and Burnley without Kevin de Bruyne

Manchester City face West Brom, Sheffield United and Burnley without Kevin de Bruyne

Can Leicester and Tottenham do it?

Leicester will think they have a hell of a chance. Losing Jamie Vardy is a blow even though Kelechi Iheanacho is a lively striker. Their game at Everton next week is real acid test of their ambitions.

Jose Mourinho has won enough trophies in his career for Tottenham to be worthy of a mention. There is a confidence in their squad but there is too much of a reliance on Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min for them to be realistic winners.

I’ve seen them fail to see off teams too many times. The Fulham game was a perfect example — Fulham played well but Spurs didn’t have the quality to win.

Tanguy Ndombele is the one midfielder who can see a killer pass but even he has only scored four goals in 24 games this season. Leicester have more creativity in that area, with James Maddison and Youri Tielemans.

Leicester and Tottenham (pictured) will both fancy themselves to have a chance this season

Leicester and Tottenham (pictured) will both fancy themselves to have a chance this season

Leicester and Tottenham (pictured) will both fancy themselves to have a chance this season

And how does Frank Lampard get the best out of his Chelsea squad?

Frank Lampard isn’t tinkering for the sake of it. He’s trying to find the right balance and anyone who knows football understands it can take a large part of the season to integrate so many new players.

Chelsea have a reputation for not giving managers time. I think they should give Frank time and from his point of view he has to follow his beliefs and pick teams that will win him games, regardless of the price tag of players, or pressure from fans or even the boardroom. I’ve known him a long time and know he has that strength of character.

I think it’s important for Chelsea to build an important base, gain some momentum and then maybe introduce more flair players.

Chelsea are really struggling but Frank Lampard deserves more time to get things right

Chelsea are really struggling but Frank Lampard deserves more time to get things right

Chelsea are really struggling but Frank Lampard deserves more time to get things right

For that purpose, I think switching to a back-three which becomes a back-five under pressure is a good starting point.

By having Thiago Silva, Antonio Rudiger and Kurt Zouma in the same line-up, it provides Chelsea with extra defensive insurance and allows the two wing-backs Reece James and Ben Chilwell to get forward at the right times.

That would give Chelsea a real defensive spine particularly with N’golo Kante in midfield as well. You could then have someone more creative like Mason Mount alongside Kante to help build attacks. Mount has been the one stand-out for Chelsea this season and Frank should be applauded for making him the first name on the team sheet.

The other asset of giving James and Chilwell the brief to get forward is it enables Chelsea’s wide forwards to play a bit narrower and closer to the centre-forward. At times I think the No 9 has been too isolated from his wingers.

It would be beneficial for Chelsea to give Timo Werner a run in the central striker's role

It would be beneficial for Chelsea to give Timo Werner a run in the central striker's role

It would be beneficial for Chelsea to give Timo Werner a run in the central striker’s role

There is so much quality in the Chelsea ranks that picking a front three isn’t easy but Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner and Christian Pulisic look to have a nice balance for me. Werner has been used in different ways this season but I’d give him a little run in the central striker’s role. He is quick, he’ll worry defenders by playing off the last shoulder and the goals will come.

It would mean for the moment that Olivier Giroud, Kai Havertz, Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic would have to be patient but Chelsea play enough games in the season for them to get a chance.

For the time being though, Frank has to be pragmatic and ruthless. Chelsea have Wolves, Burnley, Sheffield United and Newcastle in the next month. They won’t win the league but they can take advantage of winnable fixtures to shoot up the league.

My Chelsea XI: Mendy – Zouma, Silva, Rudiger – James, Kante, Mount, Chilwell – Ziyech, Werner, Pulisic.

Source: Daily

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