Answer to title conundrum could come made in Japan

Manchester United's trip to the Far East may prove decisive in race to win Premier League

Here's a question as you ponder the Premier League title race that refuses to obey logic: can you remember a season when the following took place? Arsenal blew their title hopes by losing games to extremely humble opponents, including one defeat to a club now in League Two. One of the key title challengers then, like Chelsea now, failed to take enough points off their biggest rivals. And Manchester United did not play a league match for 26 days. The last clue is the giveaway, it was 1999-2000, when Sir Alex Ferguson's team returned from the ill-conceived and short-lived World Club Championship in Brazil to find the Premier League title still unresolved.

In response they lost just one of their remaining 19 league games (to Newcastle, remember when that could still happen?) and won the title by an imperious 18 points. Everyone said their break in Brazil had given United fresh impetus to push on and win the league. Arsène Wenger went one further, saying darkly, "The league had been set up for United from the start."

This year, United have a break coming up, albeit shorter and earlier in the season than in 2000, and how they respond when they return could prove decisive. With Liverpool on top by a point after 14 games, United will certainly not leave for Japan fearful of being badly adrift when they return.

Chelsea have taken just one point from their other three big rivals (in 1999-2000, Leeds, who finished third, took just three from 24 against the big four).

What follows is an attempt to make sense of the state of play at the big four this season. And that League Two team that Arsenal lost to eight seasons ago? It was Bradford City, currently second in their division. Suddenly Arsenal's recent defeat to Hull does not look so bad.

Manchester United

Without question, the team to beat. Six points behind Liverpool and with a game in hand, the performance against Manchester City looked much more impressive in comparison to defeat at Arsenal and that draw against Aston Villa. A personal theory is that the trip to Japan could yet have a profound effect on them.

They are away for nine days – travelling and playing in total – which is less than the World Club Championship in January 2000 but more than if they were playing the old-style one-off Toyota Cup game.

Ferguson's ideal scenario is that Liverpool and Chelsea lose their games in the round of fixtures played while United are in Japan. It is not beyond the realms of possibility with Liverpool away to Arsenal and Chelsea away to Everton. When they returned from Brazil in 2000, United drew at home to Arsenal leaving them three points behind Leeds with a game in hand. They cruised to the title after that.

Almost nine years on, the basics have not changed that much for Ferguson. He has the best squad in the Premier League because he buys the best players. Michael Carrick has been one of the most influential performers since coming back from injury and Rafael da Silva at right-back is something to be treasured. Of course, it could all be undone by an injury crisis, like the one that almost derailed the 2002-03 title-winning season, but United seem better equipped to roll with the punches.

If they come back exhausted from Japan, however, the story might be different. Two games in four days await them against Stoke (away) and Middlesbrough (home). They need to win those to stay in the pack.

Prediction: Champions, and wondering why it was so easy.

Chelsea

Whatever the merits of Luiz Felipe Scolari's attempt to play better football, his team are not as good – man for man – as the side which won the club's two titles in 2005 and 2006. Scolari is playing with wingers just the same but, for instance, you would take the Damien Duff and Arjen Robben of 2004-05 over Florent Malouda and Joe Cole. One of the great problems at Chelsea is that, in terms of real quality, they have struggled to maintain those early Roman Abramovich-era standards.

John Obi Mikel will be a great player but he is not yet at the level of his predecessor Claude Makelele. The injuries to Ricardo Carvalho have meant that there has been no settled partner alongside John Terry, like William Gallas was in the title-winning years for Chelsea. They have suffered with Carvalho, Michael Essien and Joe Cole out with injury and Didier Drogba injured then suspended. And there are deeper problems.

Watching Eidur Gudjohnsen wander around the pitch at Stamford Bridge long after the fans had gone home on Sunday you were reminded of the time when Chelsea really did have a second option in attack. Gudjohnsen was good at unlocking a deep-lying opposition defence at home and most defences that come to the Bridge are deep-lying. Amr Zaki and Karim Benzema are possible options. Gudjohnsen would be even better.

Prediction: Second, and promising big changes in the summer.

Liverpool

There was a telling moment against West Ham at Anfield on Monday night when David Ngog stripped off his tracksuit and the fourth official fiddled with his dot-matrix board. On the pitch you could see Robbie Keane say to no one in particular, "Bet it's me". He was right. It's a poor state of affairs when the £20m striker is not judged a better bet than the kid who scored no goals for Paris St-Germain last season.

Keane is the latest in a long line of Liverpool strikers who have found themselves at odds with Rafael Benitez. It started with Michael Owen and continued through Djibril Cissé, Peter Crouch and, to a lesser extent, Dirk Kuyt. Benitez does not play them in positions where they are able to do what they do best. Liverpool's problem of late has been failing to score against Fulham and West Ham. Benitez's major blind spot is how he treats his strikers who are not Fernando Torres.

With Torres fit, Liverpool are a decent outside bet for the title; without him they have got no chance. They could sneak through if United and Chelsea disintegrate spectacularly, but what are the chances of them both blowing up? Even top of the table they have done nothing to demonstrate they are better than third.

Prediction: Third, and running out of excuses.

Arsenal

Back in 2000, the issue with Arsène Wenger was the improving of his defence (he bought Sol Campbell the following summer) and the conversion of Thierry Henry from winger to centre-forward (it's fair to say that was an experiment that worked).

This time around the defence is still the problem with the victory over Chelsea concealing the fact that Johan Djourou has conceded a penalty and scored an own goal in his last two games.

There are outstanding performers in this Arsenal team, just not always in the key positions. A personal view is that their best player this season has been Gaël Clichy who – that slip against Spurs aside – offers so much in defence and attack.

The problem is that he is a left-back and not a centre-midfielder or a striker. In 2000, Arsenal were also judged over-reliant on Tony Adams to, as he said then, "rattle a few cages". They have someone like that now, although Gallas' cage-rattling days are probably best left behind him.

Prediction: Fourth, but as ever, facing the future with optimism.

Big Four dossier

Team/Played/Points/Goal Diff.

Liverpool 15/34/+13

Chelsea 15/33/+27

Man Utd 14/28/+16

Arsenal 15/26/+8

How injuries have affected them:

Liverpool

Martin Skrtel (knee) has been out since October, Sami Hyypia missed a fortnight while Fernando Torres (both hamstring) missed a month from early October and will be out until Christmas. Philip Degen has suffered rib and metatarsal injuries while Steve Gerrard (groin) has missed a handful of games.

Chelsea

Michael Essien (knee) has played just two games and will not return before March. Didier Drogba (knee) has missed 14 games this season while Ricardo Carvalho (knee and thigh) has sat out 15. Joe Cole (ankle/foot) should return soon, while Michael Ballack (calf) has missed 12 games.

Manchester United

Owen Hargreaves (tendinitis) is out for the season, Paul Scholes (knee) and Wes Brown (ankle) are out until Boxing Day, having both missed sizeable chunks of the season. Gary Neville (groin and ankle) has played just 11 times this campaign.

Arsenal

Eduardo has been out since February with an ankle injury. Tomas Rosicky (hamstring) has also failed to feature this campaign. Abou Diaby (thigh) missed 12 games, Samir Nasri (knee) sat out a month while Cesc Fabregas (hamstring) missed two weeks. Theo Walcott dislocated a shoulder last month and is not due back until the new year. Amaury Bischoff (groin) has featured just once while Mikael Silvestre (hamstring) missed two months. Emmanuel Eboué has been out for a month with knee trouble.

News
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
people
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drink
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits