Ian DarkeESPN.com writer
CloseDarke, who called games for the network during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, is ESPN lead soccer voice in the United States. He has covered the Barclays Premier League and the Champions League since 1982, and has one of the world’s most recognizable soccer voices.
The Premier League is boiling towards what looks like a dramatic climax. Here are some of the big questions to be answered over the next two months:
Can Liverpool catch Manchester City to regain the title?
It looked impossible at the turn of the year — when City led by 11 points — but draws for Pep Guardiola’s team at Southampton and Crystal Palace, as well as a shock home defeat to Tottenham, has pushed the door open for Liverpool, who have won their last nine league games by a combined scoreline of 23-2.
City lead by just one point with nine games left and the title could be decided by a clash between the top two at the Etihad Stadium on April 10, but ongoing Champions League involvement might prove distracting for one or both clubs, as may an FA Cup semifinal head-to-head six days after the league meeting.
Or perhaps there is just a day when one team or the other falls to an unscripted defeat, with three points dropped unexpectedly having a major impact on the destination of the Premier League trophy in May.
Jurgen Klopp, left, and Pep Guardiola, right, have won the Premier League before. Who will prevail this season? Getty
Will Chelsea’s off-field issues affect results?
Thomas Tuchel will try and embrace a siege mentality among players with plenty to play for, but they are only human and there is real anxiety. The freezing of Roman Abramovich’s assets means no one at Chelsea can be certain of their future and, with the club left in a vacuum.
The end of a golden era might be nigh. In the short term, though, the team remains good enough to find a silver lining among the many storm clouds by finishing third in the league and winning the FA Cup, Champions League, or both.
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Who will claim fourth place and a ticket to the Champions League?
It is advantage Arsenal, who have games in hand on their rivals and are showing real consistency, having claimed 10 wins in their last 13 league games.
A return to Europe’s premier competition would be a triumph for Mikel Arteta and his stylish young team, especially given a terrible start to the season when they lost three straight games and failed to score a goal.
Arsenal’s cause is helped by the flaws of the other contestants in this top-four race, with Manchester United and Tottenham erratic and unconvincing. Both clubs are still to play Arsenal and those two games could prove decisive.
West Ham and Wolves retain outside, but a top-six finish looks a more realistic target. The Hammers are also enjoying a Europa League win, with a quarterfinal clash against Lyon upcoming; does David Moyes have enough depth in his squad after making no signings in January?
What is left for teams marooned in mid-table?
All will target a top-half finish, with Southampton and Crystal Palace good to watch and Aston Villa seemingly going the right way under Steven Gerrard. Leicester’s porous defence means they have disappointed, but the UEFA Conference League is winnable.
Elsewhere, Brighton have faded with six straight defeats and are winning more friends than points because they have no firepower up front. Newcastle have joined this mid-table group after a superb recovery under Eddie Howe; with their spending power, this might be the start of something big.
Who will be relegated?
Brentford have been boosted by Christian Eriksen’s arrival and Ivan Toney’s goals and, below them, recent wins for Leeds — against Norwich at home and then at Wolves — were as vital as they were dramatic, as was Everton’s late strike to beat Newcastle.
Both clubs were in freefall and neither can relax. That Frank Lampard has to question the mentality of his Everton players is a worry, as is their pathetic away form, while Jesse Marsch must maintain momentum at Leeds.
As for the clubs in the bottom three, Waford had an excellent win at Southampton, so perhaps Roy Hodgson’s rigorous methods are starting to take effect. Burnley’s resilience is not what it was and they could go this time unless Wout Weghorst can find his Wolfsburg scoring touch. Norwich are not good enough and surely doomed.