LONDON – According to Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, the Premier League title will be decided by how the top six teams fare against each other.
There will, of course, be the occasional banana skin for English football’s heavyweights, but there is growing evidence of an elite mini-league involving Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham, City, Arsenal and Manchester United.
The so-called super six have won 257 points between them so far,which is 35 more than at this stage last season and is better than the top six equivalents over the three previous seasons by 25, 11 and 26 points, respectively.
The best are getting better and if the Guardiola theory proves to be correct then as things stand Liverpool, which plays United at Old Trafford on Sunday, has the advantage. Liverpool is the only top six side unbeaten against its rivals, having defeated Chelsea, Arsenal and City.
In the mini-league Liverpool has 11 points from its games against its rivals, Chelsea has nine, Spurs have eight, City has six, Arsenal and United five. Ten points separate leader Chelsea and sixth-place United, who would move to within two points of Liverpool with a victory on Sunday.
It has taken Jose Mourinho longer than expected, but United finally has momentum and consistency and goes into the showdown against Liverpool on the back of nine successive wins, its best run in eight years.
The return of Phil Jones from injury after a 10-month absence has given the United defense a more solid look. Jones was in danger of becoming the forgotten man of Old Trafford, his string of injuries plus doubts about his best position keeping him on the periphery. Now fit and forming an unlikely though successful center-back partnership with Marcos Rojo, Jones is looking like the player he promised to be when he joined United in 2011 from Blackburn.
Antonio Valencia is excelling at right-back and Matteo Darmian, despite being right-footed, has done a good job at left-back. Mourinho has settled on a three-man midfield with 35-year-old Michael Carrick at the base, Ander Herrera on the right and Paul Pogba on the left.
Herrera has arguably been United’s most influential player so far this season. He does not have the flair of Pogba or the passing ability of Carrick, but the Spain international gives the team energy, pace and a tactical awareness few players can equal.
Looking at the way Henrikh Mkhitaryan is playing it is puzzling why Mourinho left the summer arrival from Borussia Dortmund out of the side for the first three months. Mkhitaryan is the ideal foil for Zlatan Ibrahimovic in attack, the Armenian’s dribbling skills and goal-scoring instinct quickly making him a crowd favorite.
Mourinho is likely to choose Anthony Martial to complete the United attack on Sunday, though Wayne Rooney seems certain to come on at some time and there could be no sweeter stage for him to score his 250th goal for United and break Sir Bobby Charlton’s club record.
While Liverpool is second, it has gone three consecutive matches without a win and has not scored in the last two. Liverpool was awful against Southampton on Wednesday in the League Cup semifinal first leg and was fortunate to lose only 1-0.
However, it was only Liverpool’s third defeat in 26 games in all competitions and Jurgen Klopp tried to put a positive spin on his team’s abject display by saying: “It was the third-best result we could have had. You can win, draw or lose 1-0.”
Philippe Coutinho returned against Southampton after being sidelined for seven weeks with an ankle injury. The Brazilian playmaker is likely to start against United alongside captain Jordan Henderson, who hasn’t played since hobbling off on New Year’s Eve during the 1-0 win against Manchester City.
There is so little room for error in the most open and competitive — so far — top division title race most can remember that even an away draw is something of a disappointment. United has been playing catch-up most of the season and needs to keep its current run going otherwise it could be cast adrift. Should United lose and its rivals all win, it would be five points behind fifth-place Arsenal.
United has not lost for 15 matches in all competitions and has won 15 of the 24 Premier League games against Liverpool at Old Trafford. Mourinho has given United its mojo back and it would be typical of the self-styled Special One to bring on Rooney and he scores the winning goal.
Return to sender: As Slaven Bilic was telling the press that Dimitri Payet did not want to play for West Ham any more and had probably been “tapped up,” the France international left the training ground in his £200,000 Ferrari. A player who is paid —earning seems inappropriate — £125,000 a week is going on strike. Payet is upset that West Ham rejected a £19 million bid from his former club, Marseille.
Bilic is adamant West Ham will not sell the midfielder and said: “He is refusing to play for us. I have a team to manage. He’s probably been tapped up. Until he changes his attitude and shows the commitment the club have shown him, he is out of the team.”
One thing Payet did not refuse to do was to sign the new five-year contract West Ham gave him last February, but the current situation is intriguingly similar to the one just before the player signed for the Premier League club in the summer of 2015.
In an official statement, Marseille said at the time: “Marseille makes it clear that it absolutely does not have the intention of selling its player Dimitri Payet. At the beginning of the month of June, an agreement had been found with Dimitri and his agent. The two parties endorsed at this time that the attacking midfielder would honor the final two years of his contract.
“On the 22nd of June, Dimitri’s agent asked for another meeting with President Vincent Labrune. During this meeting, he announced that he and his player had opened negotiations with West Ham, explaining that the English club was offering a six-year contract worth €30 million over this period for the player.
“Due to this, the agent asked for a colossal and immediate contract extension so that Payet could stay at Marseille. Unable to agree to this demand, Marseille, through the voice of its president, first expressed his surprise that negotiations with another club had been opened without Marseille’s agreement.”
Marseille eventually and reluctantly decided to sell Payet to West Ham for £10.75 million.
What goes around . . .
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5