THE expression “squeaky-bum time” may not be familiar to Carlo Ancelotti, but the Chelsea manager would be advised to get used to the sensation. Sir Alex Ferguson famously coined the phrase in reference to the nervous, edge-of-the-seat fidgeting provoked by a tense title run-in. And this season’s Premier League climax is shaping up to be one of the closest in years, meaning Ancelotti, Ferguson and Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger are bound for an uneasy ride.
Ancelotti’s men are currently in pole position for what is widely being seen as a three-horse race, but all that could change this weekend. Chelsea’s FA Cup commitments mean United and Arsenal have the chance to steal a march on their rivals, and both could overtake them tomorrow. Yet in a season notable for its unpredictability, there are a number of factors that could influence whether United become the first club to win the trophy for a fourth consecutive season.
United appear to have repeated their knack of finding form as the season enters its decisive phase, and statistics, based on the last eight league games, indicate that they are out-performing their rivals. However, they are far from invincible and in the last three outings have been held by Aston Villa and beaten by Everton. Moreover, Chelsea and Arsenal are not far behind in the form stakes.
United’s burst has been driven by the goals of Wayne Rooney, who is in the form of his life. The striker has netted more than three times as much as any team-mate. However, that raises the question: who would score the goals were he to get injured? Arsenal are similarly reliant on the midfield creativity of Cesc Fabregas, but Chelsea look more resilient; they coped admirably while Didier Drogba was away on Africa Cup of Nations duty. Where Ancelotti may have worries is in defence, with goalkeeper Petr Cech injured and John Terry suffering a dip in form.
The key may lie in the final 10 fixtures. Arsenal have by far the easies run-in on paper, and have dealt well with the lesser sides this season. Perhaps crucially, their downfall has been wilting when it has really mattered. If there is one date that looks sure to get bottoms squeaking across the country it is 3 April, however, when, in between the first and second legs of their Champions League quarter-finals, Chelsea visit United.