Premier League

English Premier League: Race to the Title

Mid-way through March, and May beckons. Most clubs have only eight or nine games left, and the top four is separated by only six points in what is one of the closest finishes to a season in recent memory.

Manchester United have presumably now accepted this season as a write-off. It was always going to be ‘a transitional period’ (a football phrase that is fast becoming as cliche as “at the end of the day”), but this season has stretched the patience of most United fans to say the least. Losing 3-0 to any team at Old Trafford would have been unthinkable just half a year ago, but losing to Liverpool will be all the more bitter considering the evidence of their development. Transfers have also been a slight cause for concern, although Fellaini has been unfortunate with his injuries since his arrival, and has looked good in recent games. Mata has not quite had the desired impact out wide however, with Mourinho showing just how right he was. A summer departure for van Persie may be just the thing Mata needs, freeing up the no. 10 role as Rooney is pushed up front.

Everton look as if they will miss out on a Champions League spot this year, although they will hardly see this as a poor season. Martinez has settled well, again showing Bill Kenwright’s nous for appointing managers, and Martinez’s fresh tactical changes have been positive for the most part, although a number of results in the past few months have exposed certain inadequacies. Barkley’s poor run of form since his return from injury hasn’t helped either, but at 20 years old he can be forgiven for patches of inconsistency. Transfers have also proved shrewd, with James McCarthy having an excellent debut season, and the loaning of Romelu Lukaku an early coup. The summer window will be telling of their progress.

Tottenham also look set to miss out on a Champions League spot, with results such as their 4-0 thrashing from Chelsea and a 1-0 home loss to Arsenal not helping. These results will also cast doubt on the long-term future of Tim Sherwood, who has recently come under pressure, and Louis van Gaal expressing his interest will not help him as Daniel Levy narrows his eyes. Ultimately, it will be a case of the opposition proving too strong, with results against rivals deciding Tottenham’s season for them. Many of their summer transfers have simply not lived up to expectations, and a clear-out will be at the front of the manager’s mind in summer, whoever might be in charge.

Arsenal’s title hopes have faltered since their strong early season showing, with a lack of depth up front and an over-reliance on Ozil and Ramsey proving telling over the course of 30 games. Losing Walcott hasn’t helped either, although this will give Oxlade-Chamberlain the perfect chance to prove his England credentials; nothing sharpens a footballer’s focus like a World Cup. With the Emirates now paid off, the summer window will be vital to building a title-winning team, and Wenger is excellent at picking out his man (admittedly sometimes to the point of over-cautiousness), never spending for the sake of it.

Liverpool’s season has been a joy to behold, with the exception of green-eyed Manchester United fans enjoying their excellent brand of attacking football, a belief in winning by simply scoring more than the opposition. This is in part due to their lack of depth at the back, especially on the flanks, although with the prospect of Champions League football next year, they should have no lack of suitors. For this season however, it looks as though Manchester City and Chelsea will prove too much to cope with, their relentless performances proving too much as Liverpool occasionally slip up in a high-scoring draw. Good to watch as a neutral, though, and though they do have to be considered as title-challengers at this point, others have stronger cases.

Manchester City were expected by many to win the league, with most pointing, quite rightly, at their sheer strength in depth. Yet, minor negatives have added up. Aguero’s injuries would hinder team, and City have looked a little bereft of quality up top in his absence, despite Negredo’s impressive debut season in the Premier League. Pellegrini’s lack of experience in England must be taken into consideration as well, as he unfortunately looks set to carry on his reputation as a nearly-man. City will hope that Aguero comes back as soon as possible as they look to take advantage of their games in hand on Chelsea. Their future is in their hands in a finish that looks to be every bit as dramatic as their stoppage time title-winning goal from 2011-12.

Chelsea are still many people’s favourites at this point despite City’s games in hand, and there is only one reason for this: Mourinho. The man has the ability to conjure something out of nothing, with his tactical decisions bordering on genius (see this for evidence). He has quickly changed the side into his own, offloading Mata and de Bruyne in favour of others who fit his system, with great results. Selling the club’s Player of the Season was never a gamble in his eyes, and his performances at United thus far will only add to that twinkle in his eye. His tactical masterclass over City (in the league) shows why they are the team to beat, despite his infamous mind games denying this, although they have at times become over-reliant on their brand of quick counter-attacking football.

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Liverpool 1 – 2 Manchester United (23 / 09 / 2012)

Didn’t see that coming. Well, first I didn’t see Liverpool being the better team, but as I watched the first half unfold, with Liverpool hounding United all over the pitch, I thought it was only a matter of time until they scored and won. Half-right isn’t too bad.

The only thing less consistent than my match prediction was the refereeing. Evans should have been booked. Evra should have been booked. Shelvey should have been booked, and been shown a second one shortly after, rather than a straight red. Valencia’s penalty was laughable, given for a tackle that never came. It’s debatable whether Liverpool should have had one too in the dying minutes.

Liverpool need two things. I’ve lost count of the number of football conversations I’ve had which mention Liverpool’s need for a proper finisher, because if Borini is meant to fill that gap, Rodgers should be sectioned. The other thing they need is luck. They barely did anything wrong today, attacking the game with a ferocity United couldn’t match, and it’s rare to concede two goals that you can’t do much about.

I also like how Rodgers is giving youth a chance, though I suppose when your other choice is Stewart Downing, you’d play anybody instead. Suso was particularly impressive, popping up everywhere, just running and running. Allen also impressed by actually running with the ball, rather than just squaring it to a man ten yards away.

Given time, Liverpool will be successful again, but I think it will take longer than the board are willing to give Rodgers, and then they have to do it all over again. Here’s hoping I’m wrong yet again.

Everton 2 – 2 Newcastle (17 / 09 / 2012)

Football doesn’t need yet more evidence for goal-line technology, but here it is. I’m a huge advocate for it, it can’t come quickly enough in my eyes. No point harping on about it though; the goal wasn’t given and that’s that. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the result here didn’t matter as much. Granted, Everton will be angered by not walking away with a win after battering Newcastle in the first half, but it’s the performance tonight that means so much more.

Being notoriously slow starters, they should feel ecstatic at starting the season this well – including beating United 1 – 0 in their first game. Without wanting to wade into the quagmire of football cliché, it is a 38 game season, and dropping two points tonight means nothing compared to the tens of points they’ve dropped at the beginning of previous seasons.

For Newcastle, a draw means it’s not quite time to panic yet, but they haven’t started too well by any stretch of the imagination. They beat an out-of-sorts Tottenham 2-1, yes, but so they should have. They lost 2-0 to Chelsea, which considering the form the London club was in, it was probably a relief not to concede more. But drawing 1-1 with a Villa side that frankly look ready for the drop is not a result which shows the intent or ability to match last seasons final position. But again, it is a 38 game season. Excuses could be missing out on signing Debuchy from Lille, or the uncertainty surrounding a possible transfer of key players over summer, but these are just simply excuses, and Newcastle have to move on.

It was a good game though as a standalone feature, and one where the controversy actually made the game better rather than detracted from it. It was slowly coming to life in the second half, but the game just exploded with the non-goal and it was end-to-end from then on. Leighton Baines once again reminded people why, I think, he is the best left back in the premiership. Cap it off with two late, late goals, and what you have is one of the best games of this year so far. Roll on next week.