LIVERPOOL, England -- Chelsea might have dropped two points at Anfield in Tuesday's 1-1 draw, but there is now a growing sense of inevitability about the Premier League trophy returning to Stamford Bridge this season.
Even though they slipped up in the title race -- and a draw away at Anfield is hardly the most damaging result for a team pursuing the championship -- Chelsea still found themselves enjoying a good night, with Arsenal losing 2-1 at home to Watford and Tottenham held to a 0-0 draw by Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.
The last time Antonio Conte's team dropped points, losing 2-0 at Tottenham on Jan. 4, the blow was cushioned by both Arsenal and Liverpool failing to win their own fixtures in the same round of games. If anyone is to reel Chelsea in, they need to capitalise on those occasions when momentum is halted, but Conte's men are leading a charmed life at the top of the table and are beginning to approach the point where the rest will start to focus on finishing second.
"The best thing is to see ourselves, not the others," Conte said. "We stay top of the table, and that is a great achievement, but it is important to focus on ourselves.
"There are 15 games remaining and 45 points. It's important to draw against a really good team, and now we must focus on playing Arsenal next week. But we must be happy with the result and the performance because it is not easy to play away at Liverpool."
Chelsea have already travelled to Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham this season, with Liverpool now ticked off the list of hazardous road trips en route to the title. Aside from a trip to Manchester United in mid-April, by which time the title might be within touching distance, Chelsea can look ahead to a comfortable run-in as they attempt to claim their fifth Premier League title. But they have earned the right to cruise to the finishing line, having overcome those two heavy defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal in the autumn to build their commanding lead at the top.
Chelsea are now nine points clear of the pack, with none of their so-called title rivals showing any signs of the consistency required to overhaul them. There have been some spectacular collapses by Premier League leaders over the years, with Newcastle United famously surrendering a 12-point lead in mid-January of 1996 to finish as runners-up to Manchester United.
United have also seen commanding leads eroded by Arsenal and Manchester City, in 1998 and 2012, respectively, but none of the current chasing pack looks capable of catching Chelsea, never mind overtaking them, and Arsenal's hopes will be dead and buried if they fail to emerge from Stamford Bridge with a positive result Saturday.
But Chelsea's lead is not simply due to the shortcomings of their closest challengers. Conte's team are a formidable unit with quality in every department, and though they allowed Liverpool to overturn their 1-0 lead to claim a 1-1 draw, they were the dominant team at Anfield.
Chelsea's three-man defence, organised in superb fashion by goal scorer David Luiz, was resolute before and after the moment Georginio Wijnaldum headed in James Milner's flick to equalise early in the second half. N'Golo Kante was outstanding in midfield, while Diego Costa was a constant menace to the Liverpool defence. The Spain forward won a soft penalty (subsequently saved by goalkeeper Simon Mignolet) after making the most of a challenge by Joel Matip, but his constant running and movement emphasised why he is the Premier League's leading goalscorer.
Liverpool appeared a shadow of their more rounded opponents, with Jurgen Klopp's histrionics on the touchline infecting his players with anxiety and emotion, albeit the negative kind that leads to rash decisions and rushed passes. Although Liverpool failed to win, they at least stemmed the tide of successive home defeats and avoided the ignominy of losing four successive games at Anfield for the first time since 1923.
With Tottenham and Arsenal the next two visitors in the league, Liverpool clearly still have a difficult route to get back on track, but if their morale is boosted by this result, then Klopp's team might yet emerge as the favourites to finish second.
"I said before the game, and people didn't like it, but this wonderful, powerful club needs to keep its nerves," Klopp said. "Not everything is bad because we lose. This team is outstanding in attitude, so let's do the best we can and see where we end up at the end of the season.
"The results tonight were good for us, but we must continue to fight. We must now just play 15 games with all we have. We have a chance, so go for it."
They must rediscover the form and goals of the early months of the season, but with Arsenal and Spurs unexpectedly dropping points, the door has indeed opened for Liverpool once again. The biggest beneficiaries of the chasing pack's jitters could yet be City and United, who currently sit in fifth and sixth.
City will move level on points with fourth-place Liverpool with a win at West Ham on Wednesday, while United can move to within two points of the top four if they defeat bottom-club Hull City at Old Trafford. Both City and United are now embarking on a soft run of fixtures, with clashes against the top four conspicuous by their absence in February. City face a tough March, but United don't meet a top-four team until Chelsea visit in April.
The race really is on for second, third and fourth, and as far as the title is concerned, Chelsea can begin to make space in their trophy cabinet. They can watch from the summit as the rest scramble for silver and bronze.