By Wayne Veysey at Villa Park
For the fourth time in three days, there was a change in the identity of the Premier League leaders.
Arsenal began and ended the latest set of fixtures at the domestic summit, while, in between, Chelsea and Manchester City enjoyed 24-hour spells in top spot.
|DATES FOR YOUR DIARY
KEY FIXTURES IN THE TITLE RACE
| MARCH 1
|MAN UTD||v||MAN CITY|
“We are top of the league,” crowed the visiting Arsenal supporters after Olivier Giroud's thunderous finish had sent his team two goals clear at Villa Park in a match they went on to win 2-1.
For those not camped in the red-and-white corner, Arsene Wenger’s team still appear to be the outsiders in what promises to be a genuine three-horse title race.
A mini-league is taking shape at the top, with the sights of the cluster of sides below - Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham and Everton - adjusted to fighting for the fourth Champions League spot.
In the game of musical chairs at the summit, there remain question marks over whether Arsenal have the staying power to be in the top seat when the music stops in May.
For Chelsea, who were last winners in 2010, and City, who were triumphant in 2012, there are fewer such doubts. Both clubs have the resources and squad power to withstand the bumps and bruises, physical and metaphorical, of the second half of the season.
Crucially, they possess the dressing-room knowledge and experience of how to successfully navigate a 38-match marathon.
Some of Chelsea's serial winners, notably the English core of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, are over the hill. But there is a solidity to the team, a capacity to grind out results and win ugly, that increasingly marks them out as the team to beat.
Chelsea appear to have overcome their autumn defensive deficiencies and settled into a winning pattern that is starting to look ominous, even if they are still far from the finished article.
Jose Mourinho wastes little opportunity to tout City as favourites, but Chelsea are hardly plucky little underdogs. They will address the most gaping hole in a squad overloaded with attacking midfielders by signing the €24 million ex-Blue Nemanja Matic, who will bring the kind of power and athleticism to the midfield that has been absent since Michael Essien was at his peak.
Chelsea cannot match City's firepower or attacking fluency but the likes of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian can open up the best teams, while the underused Juan Mata could still have a say in the destination of the title.
The most thrilling football this season has been played by Manuel Pellegrini's souped-up City, averaging three goals a game and playing the best football in the Premier League since Arsenal's Invincibles. Indeed, not even Wenger's 2003-04 vintage of Henry, Pires, Vieira and Ljungberg overwhelmed opponents as City have at their Etihad Stadium fortress.
They have coped admirably without the marvellous Sergio Aguero, and have the squad depth to thrive without Samir Nasri, who has been reinvigorated this season by Pellegrini's equable handling.
Yet, there appears to be no plan B with City. The early season misadventures away from home give hope to all sides hosting Pellegrini's team, as does a defence overly reliant on Vincent Kompany's organisational skills. Pellegrini's decision to axe Joe Hart now looks a masterstroke, and the recalled goalkeeper gives City a stronger base, but opponents will always feel they have a chance of opening up the winners of two seasons ago.
Arsenal have surprised everyone, seemingly apart from Wenger, with their consistency this season. The bedrock of their title challenge has unexpectedly been the defence, most notably the Wojciech Szczesny-Per Mertesacker-Laurent Koscielny alliance.
Bar a six-goal shellacking at City shortly before Christmas, Arsenal have been magnificently resilient, conceding just 13 goals in their other 20 league matches. The signing of Mesut Ozil has galvanised the whole team, particularly Aaron Ramsey, second only to Luis Suarez as the outstanding contributor to the Premier League season thus far.
Yet, there remains the sense, as in 2007-08, that Arsenal's title charge could ground to a halt. Theo Walcott's knee injury could not have come at a worse time, and it feels that Arsenal's lack of attacking manpower can only be solved by Wenger pulling a transfer market rabbit out of his hat.
If Wenger does not dig deep into his well-tailored pocket, it is difficult to see Arsenal keeping pace with Chelsea and City.