An English Premier League season that just keeps on giving took another twist on Sunday when the second-placed team beat the league leader and thus made the third-placed team the new title favorite.
Got all that? In reality it wasn’t so confusing, just surprising, as Liverpool’s seemingly tightening grip on the championship was broken by a most uncharacteristic mistake from its captain and leader Steven Gerrard.
Gerrard’s untimely slip moments before the halftime break at Anfield allowed Chelsea’s Demba Ba to score the critical opening goal, an advantage the visitors would never relinquish. Chelsea defended with everything (and everyone) they had in the second half before killing off the contest with a late breakaway goal from Willian to ice a 2-0 scoreline.
The result allowed Chelsea to close the gap at the top to two points with two games remaining and break Liverpool’s streak of 11 straight Premier League wins. However, the real beneficiary was Manchester City, even before it went to Crystal Palace and racked up a comprehensive 2-0 victory.
City is still in third, but it has played one game fewer than both its title rivals and is just three points back from Liverpool. Given that City’s superior goal differential would give it the tiebreaker if it was to finish level on points with one or more of its fellow contenders at season’s end, it now has the title within its control once more.
Thus, the big-spending Manchester club is the favorite again, yet quite what that means in this extraordinary season remains unclear. Further shakes in the script aren’t just possible, they should be expected, at least if a campaign’s worth of evidence is anything to go by.
Even on Sunday, Chelsea went into the contest with apparently one eye on its Champions League semifinal second leg, so much so that Jose Mourinho had publicly considered playing a drastically weakened squad to save the legs of his key men for Wednesday.
But instead of hoisting the white flag, his team ruined what Liverpool hoped would become a celebration party and by the end Mourinho was screaming with delight on the sidelines and banging his hand on his coat’s club crest, as Chelsea’s supporters dared to dream once more.
“Forget it,” Mourinho said later, when asked if his team was now firmly back in the mix, maintaining the stance he has taken since the turn of the year.
Don’t be so sure. Chelsea has the easiest run-in of the three at the top, with the schedule pitting it against Norwich City and Cardiff City, two sides that most likely will be doomed to relegation.
Meanwhile, City has a tough visit to Everton coming, while the issue of how shaken Liverpool will be by this weekend’s events could decide everything. Gerrard has been a rock-solid presence all season and his momentary lapse was the biggest eye-opener of this round of matches.
Having felt so close to the title, Liverpool will certainly be rattled, everything will depend on how they respond.
If Liverpool was frustrated and Chelsea resilient, City, whose kickoff at Palace took place just minutes after the final whistle 200 miles to the north, was clinically efficient.
Edin Dzeko eased any tension with a headed goal after just four minutes and Yaya Toure, the influential midfielder returning from injury, added a second before the break with a brilliant solo effort that stretched nearly the length of the field.
It was an ominous signal of intent, but if this season has taught us any lessons it is that anything can happen and form can shift from one week to the next.
That is why the top three spots are still up for grabs, with no overwhelming favorite or underdog. Only Mourinho is prepared to write off his team’s chances, and even he does so with a wink and a smile that suggests he really believes otherwise.