It was all going to script for a thrilling three-way fight to the finish for the Premier League title this season.
Everything was pointing to a slug-fest between Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea after Pep Guardiola’s men cantered to the trophy in record fashion last time out.
All three remained unbeaten in the league as Manchester United went about breaking unwanted records under the tenuous leadership of Jose Mourinho and currently languish mid-table. Arsenal, under the tutelage of unfancied Unai Emery, lost their first two games and Tottenham Hotspur stuttered in September to set us up for our triple-header tussle.
However, since those early defeats against Chelsea and Manchester City — a pretty harsh opening fixture schedule for anyone — the Gunners have beaten all challengers in all competitions and a 1-0 win over Sporting in Lisbon on Uefa Champions League duty midweek means Emery’s boys are on an 11-game winning streak.
Mauricio Pochettino, meanwhile, has ground out wins for Spurs in the league over Huddersfield Town, Brighton & Hove Albion, Cardiff City and West Ham United. Throw in a couple of draws here and there for the ‘title hopefuls’ and it all means only two points separated the top five after they had all played nine games.
That was not in the script...
Defending champions City head to Wembley on Monday night and manager Guardiola — never one to shy away from a challenge or a direct question — admitted, almost relished, that it was a five-horse race.
“I don’t have any doubt about that,” he said. “There are only two points difference between five or six teams. It’s strong. Tottenham are always there. Last season we did really well in both games, but they are a top team.”
Emery’s achievements since taking over at Arsenal from Arsene Wenger have been remarkable, and they now have one eye on their all-time record of 14 wins on the bounce that was set during the 1987-88 season under George Graham. They should take a step closer to that landmark against struggling Crystal Palace on Sunday — Roy Hodgson’s side have taken just one point from four games.
Chelsea should also have little problems seeing of Burnley at Turf Moor.
United, meanwhile, simply must beat Everton at Old Trafford if they are to entertain any ideas of clawing their way back into contention. They are already seven points off the last Champions League place of fourth in the league, and yet another defeat midweek — albeit to Italian giants Juventus and Cristiano Ronaldo in Europe — has led for more calls for Mourinho to depart the manager’s office sooner rather than later as dressing room discontent lingers and barbs continue to fly from the Portuguese aimed at the boardroom and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.