LONDON, United Kingdom, Oct 23 – Five games into a Premier League season full of goals and drama, each of the traditional ‘big six’ have dropped at least five points, and the title race is wide open.
Unbeaten Everton and Aston Villa are the surprise pace-setters and with a gruelling schedule of European games under way, the odds of a shock title winner have tumbled.
AFP Sport looks at the runners and riders.
Three weeks ago the title looked like Liverpool’s to lose after an impressive start to their title defence.
However, a 7-2 thrashing at Villa knocked the champions off course and the loss of Virgil van Dijk, likely for the rest of the season, is a devastating blow.
Liverpool, who lack options in central defence, still have the firepower to mount a title challenge but they have already dropped the same number of points as they did in their first 28 league games last season as they cruised to a first league title in 30 years.
City and Liverpool have been dominant over the past three seasons but there are big questions over Pep Guardiola’s defence despite a £100 million ($131 million) outlay on defenders in the transfer window.
Leicester won 5-2 at the Etihad last month, while goalkeeper Ederson made a string of important saves to salvage a 1-1 draw at Leeds and ensure a 1-0 victory over Arsenal.
A short pre-season, coronavirus infections and injuries have also hampered City but they are now the bookmakers’ favourites, with a deep squad and title-winning know-how.
The Blues’ £220 million splurge in the transfer market has so far only reaped two wins from their opening five league matches.
Defensive problems remain an issue for Frank Lampard, who has seen his team throw away four points in 3-3 draws against Southampton and lowly West Brom.
But the solidity shown in a 0-0 draw against Sevilla in the Champions League in midweek showed better times could be ahead once new goalkeeper Benjamin Mendy, experienced centre-back Thiago Silva and England left-back Ben Chilwell bed in.
Lampard also has an enviable array of new attacking talent. If they click Chelsea remain title contenders despite the slow start.
What a difference four days may have made for United’s season and the future of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
From the despair of a 6-1 home humiliation by Tottenham, the Red Devils bounced back to win 4-1 at Newcastle and then ran out impressive 2-1 winners away to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.
Another famous night in Paris for Solskjaer’s men showcased the talent they have when given the space for Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Bruno Fernandes to counter-attack, but United desperately need to find consistency.
At half-time of last week’s clash against West Ham, social media was abuzz with talk of Jose Mourinho’s free-scoring Spurs mounting a title challenge, before their lead disappeared in a crazy finale.
However, Tottenham are just five points off the top and the form of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, who already have 18 goals between them this season, together with the returning Gareth Bale, give Spurs fans reasons to dream.
The Gunners would be happy just to return to the Champions League for the first time in five seasons but they could perhaps set their sights higher, looking the most solid of the big six under Mikel Arteta.
Despite facing Liverpool and City away in their opening five games, only Villa have conceded fewer goals.
New signing Thomas Partey will offer more of a goalscoring threat from midfield, while a soft Europa League draw should allow Arteta to prioritise the Premier League until the New Year.
Can Everton maintain their impressive start to the season under Carlo Ancelotti?
With James Rodriguez pulling the strings and Dominic Calvert-Lewin banging in the goals, the Goodison Park faithful will dream of a first top-flight title since 1987.
Aston Villa, who escaped relegation on the final day of last season, have started with four straight wins while 2016 champions Leicester are also sitting pretty.
Aston Villa v Leeds (10pm)
West Ham v Manchester City (2:30pm), Fulham v Crystal Palace (5pm), Manchester United v Chelsea (7:30pm), Liverpool v Sheffield United (10pm)
Southampton v Everton (5pm), Wolves v Newcastle (7:30pm), Arsenal v Leicester (10:15pm)
Brighton v West Brom (8:30pm), Burnley v Tottenham (11pm)