There is a very real chance that the only end-of-season drama at the top of the Premier League table will prove to be too little, too late. That Chelsea’s resurgence won’t be enough to undo its mid-season faults. That Sunday’s result, in the season’s last Big Six clash, will prove to be meaningless.
But on a sunny afternoon at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea looked like Chelsea again. It looked like the team that won the Premier League last season, not the one that has slumped to fifth place this time around. Finally.
In a pivotal clash that could have ended this year’s top-four race once and for all, Chelsea kept it very much alive with 1-0 victory over Liverpool. Olivier Giroud’s first-half header was the difference. N’Golo Kante and a dogged defense ensured it would remain the difference.
And now the difference between the Reds and Blues is just three points. Chelsea has a game in hand. With a home win over Huddersfield Town on Wednesday, they will be level.
Liverpool still has a crucial leg up. It has a plus-42 goal differential, far superior to Chelsea’s plus-27. It therefore simply needs to equal the Blues’ result next Sunday to secure a place in the top four, and the automatic 2018-19 Champions League qualification that comes with it. A win over Brighton at Anfield will be sufficient. It also shouldn’t be difficult, with the Seagulls already safe.
But Sunday injected doubt. Doubt that Liverpool is in the clear. And doubt that the Reds will be up to the task next weekend.
Amid its high-flying European success, Liverpool has faltered domestically. It has won just won since March. One victory, three draws and one loss in five games have narrowed a top-four race that a month ago appeared to have been won.
Chelsea, meanwhile, has done what it has done best under Antonio Conte. It has won five consecutive games in all competitions. Ever since Giroud led a comeback at Southampton, the Blues have conceded just one goal in 360 minutes, FA Cup semifinal victory included. They have won by scores of 2-1, 2-0, 1-0 and 1-0.
They have not been impressive overall. But their defense has been. And they’ve crept up on the top four. They are also just two points behind Tottenham, but without a game in hand. Spurs can clinch a Champions League place with four combined points from home games against Newcastle and Leicester. They, like Liverpool, should be able to achieve that.
But Chelsea has questioned foregone conclusions. It has ensured there will be no late-season cruises at Anfield or Wembley. Liverpool and Tottenham still have work to do to hold off a team that finally looks like Conte’s once more.
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