By Martyn Herman
Stuttering Chelsea retained their Premier League lead by virtue of the alphabet heading into the new year but will need a quick riposte at home to Newcastle United on Saturday to hold Manchester City at bay.
Jose Mourinho’s side gleaned a mere four points from nine during a frenzy of holiday fixtures and a humbling 5-3 loss at Tottenham Hotspur on Jan. 1 meant champions City restored parity at the top having at one stage trailed by eight points.
An easy FA Cup win over second tier Watford offered Chelsea a breather, but they host managerless Newcastle knowing their margin for error between now and May is miniscule.
Buoyant City, who are level on points (46), goal difference (25) and goals scored (44) with Chelsea, are away at struggling Everton on the same day, looking to continue a blistering run which has yielded 26 points from the last 30 on offer.
After Mourinho’s side had threatened to run away with it earlier in the season, the title race now effectively starts from scratch with an 18-match sprint.
Chelsea’s stumbles have happened away from home with losses to Newcastle and Tottenham and a draw at Southampton.
They have been immaculate at home though, winning nine out of nine in the league and striker Loic Remy believes the recent slip-ups are not the start of a longer slide.
“The mood is really positive and we’re focused on all of our targets,” Remy, who scored against Watford, said. “During the season every team will be in trouble at certain times, so for us I hope it’s behind us now with the last two league games.”
John Carver remains in temporary charge of mid-table Newcastle after Alan Pardew left for Crystal Palace and he will be wary of a Chelsea backlash as he tries to stake his claim for the job on a full-time basis.
“I’d be a fool if didn’t want to be head coach of this football club,” Carver, who could have first-choice keeper Tim Krul back, told the Northern Echo.
City will be boosted by the imminent return of Premier league top scorer Sergio Aguero as they travel to face an Everton side who have lost four consecutive league matches.
“I wanted you to know I’ve already started field work. Slowly but surely I’ll be back at the right moment. Thanks for the wishes!” the Argentine, who hurt his knee in the 1-0 home defeat of Everton, said on Twitter.
Edin Dzeko and skipper Vincent Kompany are also expected to be available for Manuel Pellegrini.
Third versus fourth meet at Old Trafford on Sunday as Manchester United host Southampton while in-form Tottenham, up to fifth, are Pardew’s first league test as Palace manager on Saturday. Tottenham would rise to fourth with a win.
Tottenham face six games in 21 days, including a two-legged League Cup semi-final and an FA Cup replay against Burnley.
Sixth-placed Arsenal host Stoke City on Sunday.