Stars align for Chelsea and Mourinho
With Chelsea seven points clear at the top of the Premier League table, manager Jose Mourinho's insistence that his side cannot be considered title favourites is beginning to ring hollow.
Exits from the FA Cup and the League Cup mean that the league is the only domestic silverware that Chelsea can win, but the vagaries of the fixture schedule mean that those prematurely curtailed cup runs now look like blessings in disguise.
It was thanks to Arsenal's involvement in the FA Cup that Chelsea were able to pull seven points clear at the weekend, while Manchester City's cup commitments have seen them fall nine points below Mourinho's side.
City triumphed over Sunderland in the League Cup final, but crashed to a 2-1 loss against Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup on Sunday and visit Barcelona in the Champions League this week.
Their return to league action will not be straightforward either, with a trip to a Hull City side buoyed by having reached the FA Cup semi-finals followed by consecutive away games at Manchester United and Arsenal.
Mourinho continues to assert that he would rather have three games in hand than a nine-point lead, but even accounting for City's superior goal difference, their three unfulfilled fixtures will not simply win themselves.
City's games in hand -- away to United, and at home to Sunderland and Aston Villa -- will also be complicated by the pressure of knowing that Chelsea have already bagged the points that Manuel Pellegrini's side are trying to make up.
Furthermore, whereas only half of City's remaining 12 league games are against teams currently in the bottom half of the table, Chelsea will face teams in the bottom 10 in seven of their last nine fixtures.
For both Arsenal and second-place Liverpool, meanwhile, only four of their 10 remaining opponents are in the bottom half.
Liverpool, at least, are free of cup distractions, but with Arsenal the only remaining heavyweights in the FA Cup, manager Arsene Wenger will have to take his eye off the league again in the near future.
- Barbs at rival managers
While Mourinho doggedly maintains that City are the title favourites, he is aware that Liverpool -- who, like Arsenal, have one game in hand -- could yet emerge as his side's most serious rivals.
"When we speak about Champions League (distractions) and the title race, we have to speak about Liverpool," he said.
"Since the beginning of the season they have one match every week. They rest, they prepare, they recover, they prepare, they play, they have a day off. This is a big, big, big advantage."
Nonetheless, the statistics show that whenever a Mourinho team has led the table at the end of February, he has gone on to win the league, be it with Porto, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, or in his previous stint at Chelsea.
He seems characteristically at ease with the pressure of being the front-runner, spraying barbs at rival managers and repeating with almost comical humility that his team's number-one aim is still a top-four finish.
He even managed to provoke a positive response from Samuel Eto'o after being shown on French television questioning the striker's age.
The Cameroon star, who turned 33 on Monday, scored the opening goal in Saturday's 4-0 win at home to Tottenham Hotspur, and celebrated by imitating an old man.
Whether by accident or design, Chelsea's players are respecting Mourinho's script, with both captain John Terry ("Manchester City are the strongest side") and Demba Ba ("We don't have our destiny in our own hands") playing down the team's chances of winning the title after the victory over Spurs.
Not everyone is toeing the same line, however, as Andre Schurrle demonstrated following the 3-1 success at Fulham earlier this month, in which he scored a hat-trick.
"We have to believe it," the forward said of Chelsea's title challenge. "I think everyone believes it now."