All things considered, I feel as if I have a lot to catch up on. We’re at the midway point of the annual Christmas festival of football insanity, and I’ll come back to that at some point in the new year. I also intend to dish out some end of year awards at some point between now and Sunday evening (it would appear that this is somewhat de rigeur for blogs, so I may well follow suit), and I may even try some sort of ridiculous end of year quiz (with prizes and everything!), should I get the time. This evening, though, feels like about the right time for a quick review of how the domestic leagues are getting on so far – as the title says, a half-term report.
This season has, as we might have expected, been a mixture of the pretty damn good, the pretty damn bad, and the mind-numbingly predictable. The ascent of Manchester United to the top of the Premiership and the promise of a two-horse race provides at least a glimmer of interest at the top end of the table, whilst Reading’s over-achievement means that at least one of the Premiership’s longer standing occupants are staring relegation in the face. Further down the league, the pattern continues. There are teams in all five divisions that are over-achieving at the moment, but there are also reasons for me to enter into full Grinch mode, as we shall see.
The Premiership: Expect the “Battle Of Wits” between Jose Mourinho and Alex Ferguson to deepen as both managers to try to gain whatever psychological advantage they can between now and May. Things are looking worrying for Chelsea at present. They’ve shipped six goals in their last three matches and were reliant on more than a little luck against both Everton and Wigan. They’re also likely to be missing John Terry for a few weeks at least. United, however, seem to be being propelled along by the unlikely bed-mates of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. Their midfield still looks lightweight, but their attacking strength means that the appear able to out-gun anybody at the moment. Elsewhere, things are all rather, well, strange at the moment. Most of the rest of the Premiership are simply beating each other week in week out, which leaves us in the peculiar position of having Bolton and Portsmouth in contention for a place in the Champions League, along with half a dozen other contenders. The usual suspects are remaining enigmatic. Liverpool remain almost inexplicably in sixth place – their defeat at Blackburn yesterday seemed to further emphasise my belief that they’re so high up the table on reputation alone. Arsenal continue to show glimpses of extreme mediocrity amongst moments of genius. They were outstanding, for example, against Blackburn on Saturday, but laboured at Watford last night, and seem too reliant on moments of individual brilliance than any sort of plan. At the foot of the table, I think that we can safely disregard Charlton and Watford already. Charlton have a new manager (again), but reports from The Valley are suggesting that there is no money for new signings in the transfer window, and their performances have been as wretched over the last couple of weeks as they were at the start of the season. Sheffield United are showing a bit more bite than many expected, so it could be any one from five or six to fill up the third relegation place.
The Championship: Like a juggernaut, and almost completely unnoticed, Birmingham City have stormed into top place and now hold an eight point lead over the chasing pack. There’s every likelihood that they will continue to storm clear and could have it all sewn up by Christmas. My suspicion is that someone could come from nowhere to claim second place. I’m less than convinced by the current incumbents, Preston North End, and my inclination is that one of West Bromwich Albion or Wolverhampton Wanderers could come up on the rails. In Kevin Phillips and John Hartson, Albion have a Premiership quality front pairing, but they also have an alarming tendency to ship goals. Wolves have the opposite problem. They seem sound defensively, but have scored just 29 goals in 23 matches. Having said that, though, they have introduced the promising Michael Kightley on loan from Conference side Grays Athletic, and he might just prove to be the end of their problems in this respect. The play-offs are obviously too close to call, but Sunderland are gathering up a head of steam that may just propel them up. At the bottom, it’s looking pretty dire for Southend, Leeds and Hull, though I wouldn’t put anything past occasional crisis club Queens Park Rangers, who are plenty capable of dragging themselves into a relegation battle and not re-surfacing.
League One: Nottingham Forest have stuttered recently, but they got back on track yesterday with a comfortable win against Port Vale at The City Ground, and have the division’s most talented player in Kris Commons. Below them, it’s anybody’s guess. Scunthorpe have held second place for a number of weeks, but the January transfer window may just be their undoing. Have they got the resources to further strengthen their squad. Of the chasing pack, Bristol City look the best team on paper to make the step up, but Blackpool are the form team. It’s been a wretched season for Brentford, who are six points adrift of safety at the bottom and losing to everyone they play against at the moment. There are just six points between the nine teams above them, and it’s likely to go to the wire. However, Millwall are improving, Rotherham, whose climb to contention to stay up from an administration-induced minus ten point start is one of the more heart-warming stories of the season so far, look too good to do gown, and one suspects that Huddersfield will also have enough about them to pull clear of danger.
League Two: In football’s basement, Walsall have pulled five points clear at the top and will have to collapse quite spectacularly to avoid an instant return to League One. To my immense displeasure, Franchise FC have overcome an autumn wobble to push themselves into second place, with Wycombe and Swindon breathing down their necks. Wycombe have ensure that they don’t get too pre-occupied with their Carling Cup semi-final against Chelsea and keep their eyes on the main prize. I fancy that they won’t be able to do this (they collapsed from the top of the table last season), and that they could be caught by Swindon Town, who have recovered admirably from the loss of Dennis Wise to Leeds in the autumn. Scrapping to keep their League status, Macclesfield have made an extraordinary recovery after installing Paul Ince in his first managerial job. Just one defeat in eleven games has seen them haul themselves off bottom place, but they now need to keep their concentration. Two long-standing strugglers, Rochdale and Torquay United, are in the worst shape for a relegation fight so far as form is concerned, but Boston United’s reported financial difficulties could mean that they have a long, cold winter ahead.
Nationwide Conference: Oxford United continue to lead the Conference, but must be somewhat frustrated at the way that Dagenham & Redbridge, the season’s surprise team, are hanging grimly onto their coat tails. Again, money may prove to be the big issue. With average crowds of over 5,000, Oxford are better placed to bring in new blood, and this may prove to be crucial – but the pressure will be on them much more than it is on The Daggers. The relegation battle seems to be between the minnows and the former League clubs in varying degrees of financial meltdown. Southport and Tamworth are in an especially grim position, with a meagre twenty points each, and St Albans find themselves in the peculiar position of being one place above the drop zone in spite of being the division’s fourth highest scorers (if you hadn’t guessed, they’ve considered a jaw-dropping forty-nine already), but it’s said that it’s easier to plug problems at the back than problems up front, so I have cautious cause for optimism. The “big” boys in trouble are Rushden and Cambridge. Both seem to out-do each other each week in achieving a new low every week, though Rushden did beat Cambridge yesterday. Likely to go to final day, this one.
Scotland: Well, the SPL may as well give the championship to Celtic now. Fifteen points clear at the top and in the last sixteen of the Champions League. Not bad for a team containing Lee Naylor. Rangers’ continuing struggle to take up what they assume to be their perpetual place in the Champions League is giving me some entertainment, but the pantomime at Tynecastle is extremely frustrating. Hearts have the potential to usurp The Gers as Scotland’s second club, but the off-stage fighting is having a noticeable affect on their performances on the pitch. n case you were wondering, Dunfermline are shoo-ins to be relegated, with Gretna likely to replace them.
So, now you know. I’m off now to think up some fiendish questions for a super soar-away quiz. Keep checking back to see when I’ve finished it. It’ll give you something to do in the mid-holiday lull.