We are only seven games into the Premier League season, but there are already early signs that this could be the most hotly-contested title race for some time.
Chelsea have set the pace heading into the international break, leading the top flight with a points total of 16, although Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United are closely following Thomas Tuchel’s side.
Here, Sportsmail’s CHRIS SUTTON takes a look at the four main contenders vying for the league crown, outlining why they can, and can’t, have their hands on the famous trophy come May.
Liverpool and Manchester City’s draw leaves the title race wide open at the October break
Why they can WIN IT…
Chelsea have strength in depth. We’re talking about the team who won the Champions League last season and then spent £97.5 million adding a striker to it. Romelu Lukaku is looking lean, mean and like he’s got a point to prove to those who sanctioned his 2014 sale away from Stamford Bridge.
The fact that Chelsea signed him while Manchester City failed to get Harry Kane was a real shot in the arm for Thomas Tuchel’s side. Behind Lukaku, they’ve got Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic and more. They lost to Manchester City in the Premier League, and then to Juventus in the Champions League. That was a blip, as far as Tuchel was concerned.
Chelsea have huge strength in depth and picked up from where they left off last season
In £97.5m man Romelu Lukaku, Chelsea have an elite goalscorer to lead the line this term
The important thing is Chelsea bounced back against Southampton at the weekend, with some help from their B-listers.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek stood out, and so did sub Ross Barkley. Tuchel cannot say he doesn’t have a team capable of finishing first in the Premier League.
Why they can’t…
If Lukaku picked up an injury, or he went through a dry patch in front of goal, then how would Chelsea cope? Would you trust Timo Werner to fill in?
I love his endeavour, the way he scurries around in attack, and he scored against Southampton.
But there have been enough chances missed in the past to suggest that, when that all-important time to score arrives, Werner isn’t a player you’d put the house on. Still, Chelsea won the Champions League last season without Lukaku, largely because of the solidity of their defence. Their back three was the bedrock of that charge to glory. It was like trying to crack Fort Knox at times. Since taking over from Frank Lampard, Tuchel has stood by the same formation.
An injury to the Belgian could leave Chelsea short, with Timo Werner still yet to get going
It’s always 3-4-2-1 or a subtle variation of that. It means the opposition know exactly what they’re going to be facing each weekend. Chelsea don’t carry that element of surprise.
There is the concern that, sooner or later, opposing coaches will figure out the best way to get the better of that system.
Why they can…
In Mo Salah, Liverpool have the greatest forward in world football right now. Look no further than that solo strike against City for the 2021-22 goal of the season.
I’d love to analyse how he did it, the way he danced through the City defence, but really, only Diego Maradona or Lionel Messi or Salah himself would be qualified to do that. It was a moment of magic, a beautiful display of balance.
So it’s huge that Liverpool have him lining up for them, and to have Sadio Mane looking formidable and Diogo Jota so dynamic after his injury issues. That’s some front three.
Liverpool boast the greatest forward in world football right now with Mohamed Salah
Remember last season when Liverpool lost six successive Premier League games at home?
They had no Virgil van Dijk and no fans at Anfield. Now they’re back. Jurgen Klopp has options in central defence, from Joel Matip to Joe Gomez to Ibrahima Konate. It was a poor 45 minutes against City but then, after a kick up the backside from their boss, Liverpool’s players came out for the second half and showed why they are title contenders.
Why they can’t…
The Africa Cup of Nations runs from January 9 to February 6. In that time Liverpool are scheduled to play Brentford and Crystal Palace, most likely without Salah and Mane.
You may say they’re still winnable games for Klopp’s side. But believe me, Brentford and Palace’s players will get a big lift out of seeing Liverpool lining up without two of their best players.
The upcoming African Cup of Nations would leave the Reds without two of their star players
You have to wonder how much that tournament in Cameroon will take out of Egypt’s Salah and Senegal’s Mane, and Naby Keita of Guinea too. They could pick up injuries. They could get caught up in the ever-changing Covid-19 restrictions and have to quarantine. They could be knackered by the time they fly those thousands of miles back to Liverpool.
Other clubs will lose key personnel too. Chelsea will lose Edouard Mendy and Hakim Ziyech, for example. But it’s Liverpool who will take the biggest hit. Fine margins will see this Premier League title won and lost. Clubs cannot afford to drop sloppy points and the absence of Salah and Mane could prove costly.
Why they can…
I’ve highlighted how Liverpool could suffer without Salah and Mane. By comparison, if City lost Jack Grealish for whatever reason, they’ve got Phil Foden. If they lost Raheem Sterling, they’ve got Riyad Mahrez. If they lost Kevin De Bruyne, they’ve got Bernardo Silva. Pep Guardiola’s options in attack are ridiculous.
He can rotate to his heart’s content and still win because they’re all highly talented, technical players. Even at the back, they’ve got Ruben Dias, Aymeric Laporte and Nathan Ake rotating.
Manchester City’s options in attack are ridiculous and they are well covered in case of injuries
Meanwhile, John Stones, who was quite magnificent last season, cannot get a look in. Stones’ only minutes this campaign have come in an England shirt.
That’s how hard it is to get into Guardiola’s team. In the last two weeks, City went to Chelsea and Liverpool and left with a win and a draw respectively. During those games, they made their opponents look bang average at times. That’s what City can do to you, and I only expect them to get better as the season progresses.
Why they can’t…
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work this one out. City haven’t got a striker. There were moments against Liverpool when the ball was being played into areas where even an average centre forward would be expected to have positioned himself to score.
One pass in behind by Foden saw De Bruyne fail to make a run and the young England international’s reaction said it all.
Pep Guardiola is so clearly crying out for a striker, and their lack of a focal point could be costly
If City had a striker on the pitch at Anfield, maybe that contest would’ve been wrapped up by half-time. But they didn’t. If City do not win the Premier League this year, their lack of a striker is what will be held against them. Guardiola never hid his desire to sign Harry Kane.
Imagine if City go back in for the Tottenham striker in January and get him, at the same time that Liverpool are losing Salah and Mane. What a statement that would be.
I don’t expect it to happen, in truth. Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy is bound to ignore any calls that come from Manchester. But I bet City ask the question, at the very least.
Why they can…
It begins with ‘C’ and ends in ‘O’. No. Not Cappuccino, as much as us footballers like our caffeine kick before a game. I’m talking about Cristiano Ronaldo.
He is someone who is capable of scoring a goal a game and, well, goals win you games, don’t they? That is why Manchester United brought him back, in the hope that he would likewise bring back the good times.
The times when the directors at Old Trafford might spend a portion of their board meeting debating whether they needed to order a bigger trophy cabinet from IKEA.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s exceptional goalscoring talent could take United all the way to the title
SUTTON’S TOP FOUR PREDICTION
1 Man City
4 Man Utd
Really, with his attacking options, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer should be confident that United can top the goalscoring charts this season.
From Ronaldo to Edinson Cavani to Bruno Fernandes to Mason Greenwood to Anthony Martial to Marcus Rashford to Jadon Sancho to Paul Pogba to Jesse Lingard. They are all players who will have started this season with personal targets and I’d be surprised if any of them were targeting anything less than double digits. United have to try to score their way into contention.
Why they can’t…
It’s a valid debate, the one about how beneficial Ronaldo is to United versus how detrimental he is to their success.
Juventus had him last season and finished fourth in Serie A, remember. Football is about a team coming together to win.
Ronaldo doesn’t press, which means there is no point in Solskjaer having others do so because the chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
United have to play a different game, therefore, which revolves around saving Ronaldo’s energy for those scoring moments.
Yet there are some doubts as to the impact that the Portuguese superstar will have on United
Everton could, and probably should, have won at Old Trafford at the weekend. If only Tom Davies had gone for goal instead of squaring it to the clearly offside Yerry Mina.
United’s home form is clearly still an issue. Ronaldo stormed off the field at full time. Maybe that was because United had not won. Maybe because he didn’t start. Maybe both. I’ve said since the moment Ronaldo signed that Solskjaer’s big challenge would be handling his superstar’s ego. That’s still an issue.
It’s a three-horse race in my book, between Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool. Had City signed a striker in the summer, they’d probably have walked this Premier League.
Blindfolds and cigarettes may as well have been handed out to their rivals. But the fact that City did not get themselves a Lukaku is where it gets interesting.
Chelsea did and they are completely in this race. As are Liverpool with Salah, Mane and Jota singing from the same hymn sheet. But I don’t consider United to be title contenders this season. They’re guaranteed goals from Ronaldo but concede too many and Solskjaer still hasn’t got his tactics right.