Monday, 31 March 2014

Kings and Kingmakers.

If Sunday was a fine day for Merseyside as a whole, Saturday was also almost as good for both halves of the city, despite neither side setting foot on a football pitch.

Crystal Palace against Chelsea, pitted a master of tactical planning, prepared to sacrifice every ounce of entertainment from a match to achieve his desired result against.......Jose Mourinho. Ultimately, Pulis' continuing love affair with a binary scoreline could prove decisive in turning Palace's survival from merely possible to probable. However, the loss of three points in a 1-0 defeat, stalled Chelsea's pursuit of another Premiership title, just when even Jose was daring to dream.

The result of the evening fixture was almost as good for Liverpool, as close rivals Manchester City found a visit to the Emirates as difficult as the respective league positions suggested it should be. Arsenal, with UCL football now in the balance, stirred enough to deprive City of two points and, for the moment, fight off a sustained challenged for 4th from Merseyside's Blue half.

Wins for both Everton and Liverpool the following afternoon, then pressed home the advantage that Saturday's results had delivered. Radio 5 Live's 606 phone-in had a decidedly red hue, with outlandish comparison being drawn between Brendan Rodgers and Shanks and honeymoon flights being cancelled to take in the clash with Manchester City in April.

A bunched finish is more often a sign of overall mediocrity, rather than excellence, so the accolades could perhaps be shelved for a few years, at least. But there is no denying that Liverpool are an improved side and an attacking style that dares opponents to keep up, rather than a pragmatic, defensively stifling approach has captured the imagination of fans beyond their natural heartland.

Chelsea and Liverpool each has six games remaining, City has eight, but the best team doesn't always gain the most points over a short span of matches, as luck and strength of schedule effects kick in. The highest placed side after half a dozen games, more often than not doesn't stay the 38 match distance, so a sprint finish from a reasonably level break, combined with a visit to Anfield for both City and Chelsea will likely see the title odds fluctuate throughout April.

An uninterrupted run of victories would ensure the title for either City or Liverpool, but, in the likely event that a few Palace-like slip-ups lie in wait, the importance of home matches for Liverpool against first, Manchester City and then a fortnight later, Chelsea is clear.

How Results Against Manchester City & Chelsea Could Decide the Title Race.

Outcome of H2H From Liverpool Perspective. % Chance of Liverpool Winning EPL.  % Chance of Man C Winning EPL. % Chance of Chelsea Winning EPL.
MC(W) & Che(W). 71.5% 27.0% 1.8%
MC(W) & Che(D). 36.0% 48.0% 16.0%
MC(W) & Che(L). 24.0% 42.6% 33.4%
MC(D) & Che(W). 37.1% 59.5% 3.4%
MC(D) & Che(D). 17.0% 70.5% 12.5%
MC(D) & Che(L). 7.0% 58.9% 34.1%
MC(L) & Che(W) 11.8% 86.8% 1.4%
MC(L) & Che(D). 2.1% 91.1% 6.8%
MC(L) & Che(L). 0.6% 78.5% 20.9%

One way to attempt to quantify the importance of the upcoming games is to simulate the remainder of the season and examine the frequency at which each side tops the table under the nine possible combinations of match outcomes for the two huge games at Anfield.

We should have sufficient information to be able to frame reasonably accurate match odds for the remaining 65 matches and use these probabilities to re-run the EPL table without the need to play the matches. Around one season in five, Liverpool might achieve victories over both City and Chelsea and in light of the boost given to their chances on Saturday when their rivals dropped points, such a clean sweep would see them claim the title just over 70% of the time.

As a slight reality check, every combination of results other than a Liverpool clean sweep in these two head to heads makes a Liverpool title odds against. Manchester City still achieve more title winning simulations than Liverpool, even if they lose at Anfield, but Chelsea avoid defeat two weeks later. Chelsea also increase the size of their minority vote with a favourable Anfield experience.

So Liverpool's advantage from playing their closest rivals also has the downside of increasing their strength of schedule in the remaining games. Should City lose to Liverpool, they will have a motivated Chelsea going into bat for them two weeks later. 

A fascinating end to the season, with rivals possibly relying on each other to beat whichever side steals a march towards the title. For all the hype surrounding Manchester City's visit to Liverpool in April, it may be their return to the city in May, this time to Goodison Park, that finally clears up the 2013/14 EPL title race. 

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