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May 7, 2014

How the Premier League title was thrown away

Jose Mourinho's penchant for big games is something quite extraordinary for the way in which he so frequently oversees victories against the tougher teams, but even more so for the contrast with performances his Chelsea side put in against the so-called "lesser teams."

The Portuguese commented after the Blues' recent win at Anfield that whether Manchester City or Liverpool won the title his team will have beaten the champions at home and away. He is right, and well done for that, Jose, but a likely third-place finish, having taken 12 points off the teams above you, is barely praiseworthy for a side of Chelsea's size and ambition.

All of the top four have thrown away opportunities to win the league as the season has entered its final stages. Arsenal were top and looking unstoppable only a matter of months ago but injuries got the better of them; City captain Vincent Kompany unnecessarily gave Philippe Coutinho a chance to win Liverpool's clash with City; Steven Gerrard slipped to let Demba Ba in at Anfield. But Chelsea have made the most slip-ups, and their goalless draw at home to lowly Norwich at the weekend epitomised their failings succinctly in 90 minutes of football.

A steadfast defence was barely breached, but in a game that could -- and should -- have been the Canaries' sixth successive Premier League loss, Chelsea lacked verve, penetration or ruthlessness in attack as they fired yet another blank against a team from the lower half of the league. In six games in 2014 against Norwich, Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, West Brom and West Ham, the Blues have scored only two goals and gained just three points.

Mourinho-led sides are better accustomed to playing teams who prefer to dominate possession. When able to sit back against the better teams and look to counter, they prosper, but when teams do exactly that back to them, they struggle. Chelsea have averaged 2.03 points per game against the bottom 16 teams this season, compared to 2.67 against the top four, averaging just 41.8 percent possession against those leading clubs, compared to their seasonal average of 55 percent.

For early front-runners Arsenal, it has been the opposite story. Just one win, five points taken and 18 goals conceded in six games against the other sides in the Champions League places have seen the Gunners fall from the summit of the league. If they had kept pace at the same rate they have against the Premier League's other sides (2.29 points per game), they would be sitting pretty on 85 points at the top of the table.

Possibly most damaging about those defeats was the manner in which they occurred. A 6-0 loss at Stamford Bridge, 5-1 at Anfield and 6-3 at the City of Manchester Stadium were so devastating that the fact that Arsenal are now only five points off the top is largely overlooked. They will likely finish the season on 79 points -- which would have been enough to finish second last season -- but few, given the catastrophic failures against their title rivals, would consider this season a success. Only FA Cup redemption can save them.Luis Suarez has scored 14 of his 31 Premier League goals this season against sides currently in the bottom four of the table, with Liverpool tearing the lesser teams to shreds as they close in on 100 Premier League goals. They might have beaten both Arsenal and City at home, but they do not have the same big-game mentality as Chelsea under Mourinho, and six points from six games against the top four simply isn't good enough.

Having netted 2.87 goals per game on average against the lowest-ranking 16 Premier League teams, Liverpool have looked unstoppable at times, but when discounting their home wins over Arsenal and City, they have scored only twice in their four other matches agains the top four. Inconsistency against their title rivals looks to have cost them the title.

Manuel Pellegrini's Manchester City, meanwhile, looked to have lost it when Coutinho scored that goal at Anfield, but with a great record against the league's lesser teams and a couple more points than Arsenal against the top four, City seem ready to regain the title this season. A time in January when City were approaching 100 goals in all competitions feels like a long time ago, given that they have recently slipped up against the likes of Sunderland and also crashed out of the FA Cup to second-tier Wigan, but City's early-season form has been enough to see them through.

While slip-ups and mistakes have cost each team the title at different stages this season, City's have been fewer and further between than their rivals', and that could eventually be the difference.

All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings.