As the Premier League reaches the half-way point in its season, Mark Siglioccolo takes a look into his crystal ball and wonders whether the days of Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea might be coming to an end.
Sixteen games into the season and it is shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested championships in recent history. What is even more exciting and nail-biting for the fans is that it does not look as if there will be a runaway leader, or possibly even a two-horse race for the title. Manchester United are always in contention until the bitter end but it cannot be denied that without twinkle toes Ronaldo weaving his magic they do lack that killer edge that made them so formidable last term. Sir Alex Ferguson will not want to relinquish his grasp on the trophy that he has won three years in a row and eleven times in total, and you would not bet against them to make it four in a row.
Chelsea have shot to the top of the table after a slightly shaky start, with Carlo Ancelotti seemingly seamlessly carrying on where Guus Hiddink left off. They will no doubt be United’s biggest threat; however with the African Cup of Nations robbing them of integral stars such as Didier Drogba and Michael Essien in January, Ancelotti may have to find cover in the transfer window. Roman Abramovich’s bottomless pockets will surely oblige, even though Peter Kenyon has said on several occasions that the club now needs to be self-sufficient.
With a game in hand and a string of typically flashy performances behind them, Arsenal could also amass a serious assault on United’s title. Losing Van Persie to injury from a fairly innocuous tackle by Georgio Chiellini in Holland’s friendly against Italy looked as if it may have derailed the Gunners’ season, as Eduardo’s injury did last season. However Arsene Wenger has steadied the ship and that game in hand could prove crucial in their attempt to reclaim the crown they last won back in 2003.
Finally, completing the line-up of the ‘Top 4’ is Liverpool, who were tipped to win the league before the season kicked off after running Manchester United so close last season. Anyone who had money on them to do so will be kicking themselves as nobody imagined that they would have capitulated so early on in the title race. Failure to escape their Champions League group and falling thirteen points behind Premier League leaders Chelsea mean that Liverpool’s season, and possibly Rafael Benitez’ future depends on FA or Carling Cup success, and cementing their place in the top four. With the quality that they possess they are more than capable of recovering from this slump. It is hard to imagine that one quietly spoken midfielder can make that much of a difference, but Liverpool simply have not been the same since the departure of Xabi Alonso.
With Liverpool stuttering, there are at least three potential heirs to their fourth place throne. Currently Birmingham City are the surprise in-form protagonists, but when the ‘business end’ of the season comes around, it would be a major upset if they were still occupying fifth place. Instead the trio of Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa are expected to crash the party and slug it out for that lucrative Champions league spot.
The financial clout of Manchester City would see them finish fourth quite comfortably on paper, and they have had a decent start. They were unlucky not to get any points out of the derby against rivals Manchester United in a seven-goal thriller early on in the season, but then did brilliantly to steal three points away from Chelsea. However with eight out of their last nine premier league games ending in a draw, come the end of the season they may well rue not converting some of those draws into wins. The transition from Mark Hughes to Roberto Mancini needs to go smoothly, howver, if City are to really push on and become a real force.
Another team beginning to really flex their collective muscle is Aston Villa. The Midlands team are now beginning to show some self belief and desire to fulfil their potential, and all credit to Martin O’Neil for instilling that in his players. They too have already claimed some scalps this season with an unexpected away victory over the current holders. There is a clear collective team spirit which reflects in the way they play and they are always there or there abouts in the top seven. This could be the year that they climb the table and shove the likes of Everton, who finished fifth last season, and Liverpool aside.
David Moyes is one of the best young managers in the country and normally the aforementioned Everton would also be in contention for fourth place. However with their terrible start to the season which has seen them lingering in the bottom half of the table, along with the intense competition only a miracle could see them pull it off now. However they are still more than capable of finishing in the top ten which is certainly what they will be aiming for.
It may prove too much for Everton however and on current form it will be Tottenham Hotspur who complete the top seven. Few people will question who the top three will be, but the other teams mentioned really could finish in any order from fourth to seventh. For a long time now Tottenham have been widely regarded as the fifth best team in the country, and the most likely to break into top four. Lack of consistency has been their major downfall though as you never really know which Spurs are going to show up; the Spurs who embarrassed Wigan 9-1 at home or the Spurs who managed to throw away a two goal lead away to Everton and lose at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers. Again, Harry Redknapp is a widely respected manager and he will be determined to instil a ‘champions’ mentality into his squad.
If Liverpool are to complete the familiar set then they will have to work for it like they have never worked before. With any team seemingly capable of beating anyone now and with the big teams showing signs of vulnerability, the so called ‘best league in the world’ has never been more competitive. Whichever team does cross the finishing line in fourth place will certainly have earnt it, and will relish the chance to make a name for themselves on the European stage. As the season draws to a close we may well see the extinction of the ‘big four’ as we know it, and the spawning of the ‘Super seven’.