It couldn’t be tighter at the top of the Premier League.
Champions Manchester City, Maurizio Sarri’s revitalised Chelsea and big-spending Liverpool all sit on 20 points from eight games played.
The promise of a tense and absorbing three-way fight for the title between this unbeaten trio is a welcome response to the Sky Blues’ record-breaking procession last term.
Here, we take a look at the pros and cons for each challenger in the months to come and try to ascertain who will finish top in May.
Goals for: 21, Goals against: 3, Goal difference: +18
Pros: Where to begin?
Continuity has been key for Pep Guardiola’s troops. Their only major summer addition was the club-record deal to bring in Leicester City winger Riyad Mahrez.
A brace at Cardiff showed promise, prior to his woeful penalty in Sunday’s 0-0 draw at Liverpool.
The Sky Blues also happen to have the best attack and joint-best defence.
France left-back Benjamin Mendy – when not banished by Guardiola – is back from torn knee ligaments and boasts a joint-high four Premier League assists. Compatriot Aymeric Laporte has turned into a rock at centre-back.
It’s ominous that they lead the way and Belgium’s playmaker par excellence Kevin De Bruyne has played just 31 minutes because of a knee injury.
3 - With Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City all yet to suffer a league defeat this term, this is just the second time in Premier League history that as many as three teams have gone unbeaten in their opening eight games of a single season (also 2011-12). Race.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 7, 2018
Cons: Guardiola came into summer wanting to make two major signings.
Chelsea’s last-minute hijacking of negotiations to bring in Italy centre midfielder Jorginho from Napoli has exposed a weakness. Fernandinho had a torrid World Cup for Brazil and at 33-years old, his best days are behind him.
Argentina striker Sergio Aguero has five goals in eight matches, but three of these came in the rout of Huddersfield. His shots per game of 4.8 is the league’s highest, pointing towards a lack of efficiency.
For all Mendy’s attacking prowess, his defensive ability can leave plenty to be desired.
Also, recent history could be against them. Manchester United in 2008/09 were the last team to retain the title.
Goals for: 18, Goals against: 5, Goal difference: +13
Pros: Belgium forward Eden Hazard’s blistering start to the campaign has made light of any worries about World Cup 2018 burnout.
The 27-year-old’s return of seven goals in eight appearance is two more than any other player in the top flight. His three assists also makes him joint second in the standings.
Not even the revolutionary Guardiola was able to match the instant impact on his side enjoyed by Sarri. The high-pressing, possession-heavy football – exemplified by Jorginho – that lit up Serie A with Napoli has travelled with him to West London.
It’s also a welcome antidote to the tempestuous final months of Antonio Conte.
This contrasting approach has brought out the best in maverick Brazil centre-back David Luiz, whose raking balls from deep are key.
Cons: The brilliance of Hazard is not matched by the Blues’ stuttering centre forwards.
World Cup winner Olivier Giroud is yet to get off the mark in the 2018/19 top flight. Spain international Alvaro Morata still seems bereft of confidence, despite notching twice.
This situation means Hazard has contributed to 39 per cent of the team’s goals. January overtures from Real Madrid must be firmly rebuffed.
Jorginho is setting new records for successful passes at the base of midfield.
N’Golo Kante’s move to a box-to-box role, however, to accommodate him has created defensive gaps. Chelsea have conceded 9.4 attempts per game – more than Liverpool (8.1) and City (6.3).
Goals for: 15, Goals against: 3, Goal difference: +12
Pros: For all the talk about Liverpool’s ‘Fab Three’ up front, defence is now the pillar of their success.
July’s world-record addition – soon beaten by Chelsea for Kepa Arrizabalaga – of Brazil goalkeeper Alisson has solved a problem position. In front of him, they’ll now have a full season with peerless Netherlands centre-back Virgil van Dijk and England youngster Joe Gomez’s return from serious injury is welcomed.
These players have combined for the league’s joint-meanest defence.
Liverpool’s summer outlay of £170.8 million (Dh824.4m) was unmatched in England. Guinea midfielder Naby Keita, Brazil utility man Fabinho and Switzerland winger Xherdan Shaqiri provide enviable depth, plus the sustained fitness of forgotten man Daniel Sturridge.
Cons: Last season’s big positive, Mohamed Salah, is now a worry.
The last of three goals from the ‘Egyptian King’ came against Southampton on September 22. In the four games since played by the Reds in all competitions, they’ve failed to win.
In the top flight, Senegal attacker Sadio Mane hasn’t netted since September 1 and Brazil striker Roberto Firmino since September 15.
This situation isn’t helped by the glaring lack of a midfield creator – most evident against City. A decision not to push through a move for Lyon creator Nabil Fekir could be damaging.
Manager Jurgen Klopp is still yet to turn Liverpool’s engaging football into trophies since his October 2015 arrival. Allied with a mood-shifting summer spend, the pressure to succeed is enormous.
Less than a month ago, Liverpool’s ability to emerge victorious without truly convincing was hailed as a positive.
Now, their response after going winless during a punishing quartet of fixtures should define the season ahead.
Chelsea’s rapid evolution under Sarri has defied expectation. Their next steps, however, are to solve a Hazard dependence and plug the gap between midfield and defence.
These factors combine to, still, make City the team to beat.
Statistically, there is no better attack or defence in the Premier League. Scarily, it feels like they’ve done this without hitting top gear.
Manchester United midfielder Nemanja Matic may miss out on a return to Chelsea next month after withdrawing from Serbia duty because of an unspecified injury.
United confirmed Matic had returned to the club “to complete his rehabilitation”, ruling him out of the Nations League fixtures in Montenegro and Romania this week.
He could also be sidelined for United’s crunch Stamford Bridge clash when they return to action after the international break.
Matic made more than 150 appearances for Chelsea across two spells before linking up once again with former Blues boss Jose Mourinho last year.
Serbia, meanwhile, must do without two of their most experienced players, with captain Aleksandar Kolarov also ruled out because of injury.
Goalkeeper Marko Dmitrovic said on the Football Association of Serbia’s website: “Sure we’ll miss them. They are our two captains and the best players, but in this team we have a lot of quality players who are ready to replace them in their absence.
“And whoever runs on the field in Podgorica, I am sure that on the individual and collective plan, we will do our best to achieve good results.”
The news of Matic arriving back at United early comes a day after full-back Luke Shaw pulled out of the England squad for their double header against Croatia and Spain.
Lucas Moura’s fine start to the season has gained reward with a late recall to the Brazil squad.
Moura, 26, was chosen by head coach Tite to replace injured Gremio forward Everton.
The ex-Sao Paulo and Paris Saint-Germain forward will now be looking to make his first appearance since Copa America 2016. Friendlies against Saudi Arabia and Argentina are scheduled for this month.
Watch his reaction to re-joining the Canarinho below: