Well, its the halfway stage in the 2009-2010 Premiership season and what have we learnt? That the Premiership is the most exciting, most open football league in the universe? Or something like that. The main talking point on every fan’s mind is of course a change to the status quo – has the Top Four’s (i.e. Chelsea, Man Utd, Arsenal and Liverpool) domination of the league come to an end?
At Christmas, Chelsea, Man Utd and Arsenal remain in the top three with Aston Villa, Spurs and Man City threatening to fill in the vacancy currently left by the out-of-sorts Liverpool (who lie in an uncustomary eighth!). Even unfancied sides like Fulham and Birmingham are looking to gatecrash the party with recent successes.
So seriously, folks, are we expecting real change to occur come the end of this season OR will the status quo be maintained? Its hard to say but based on the results so far this season, we can expect more shocks and more surprises in th emonths to come. I’m going to stick my neck and make some “educated” guesses about the eight clubs who will have a major say in the Premiership this season.
First up, the traditional “Top Four”
The Blues looked too strong for the rest of the field at the beginning of the season but are rather being found out of late, being held to draws by Everton and West Ham with unconvincing performances. Ancelotti must be wary of the treatment of Scolari last time out when Chelsea faded after a bright start and Chelsea have already sacked managers in mid-season in the last two seasons, so there is precedent. This is compounded by the absence of ALL his main strikers in January either due to injury (Anelka) or international duty (Drogba and Kalou). It’s hard to imagine how Ancelotti will deal with this problem without diving into the transfer market. Elsewhere, Ancelotti will be without midfield dynamoes Essien and Mikel whilst his other midfielders (Lampard, Ballack, Deco) – as excellent as they are – are clearly showing signs of aging and slowing down. Not only that but even Petr Cech is now more error-prone with the defending not as resolute as it used to be. Still, Chelsea is probably the team to beat and will be heavily involved in the title chase.
The Champions are going through a defensive crisis, with ALL their first choice defenders missing. Certainly, the main problem for Sir Alex is that – despite his protestations – Man Utd has not adequately replaced Ronaldo. Add to that the poor form of strikers Berbatov and Owen, too much has been placed on the shoulders of Rooney. Whilst Rooney is indeed a top player, he’s not in the same class as Ronaldo. In the creative department, Sir Alex is left with the average talents of Valencia, Nani and the tiring legs of Scholes and Giggs. Sure, the likes of Carrick and Fletcher will work hard and graft but will not provide the spark to turn games around. The fact is, Man Utd need to get a big name player in January like Ribery or Villa to strike fear into the opposition as the 0-3 loss to Fulham has certainly boosted the confidence of other Premiership sides and strengthen the belief that Man Utd is not as invincible as it used to be. Too good to be written off but Man Utd might find themselves coming last in the three-way title race.
How does Arsene Wenger do it? The Arsenal manager ignores conventional wisdom, choosing to nurture obscure youngsters and added the odd “name” player to forge a collective unit that is greater than the sum of its parts. I believe that there can be no doubt that Arsenal is chock full of talented players that on their day can play any team off the park. But where Arsenal is still lacking is attitude and mentality – when they are ahead and everything is going right, they can be an unstoppable force but if opposing sides get into their faces, or if a couple of decisions go against them and they need to fight and scrap their way to win, then this brilliant Arsenal team can be taken down. Lack of strength of depth is also the other issue. With Van Persie out for the rest of the season, Wenger is relying on Eduardo, Vela and Bendtner (?) to deliver the goods upfront and that must be a major concern for Wenger. However, in Fabregas, Diaby, Nasri & Arshavin, Arsenal do have midfielders with an eye for goal. In the final analysis, whilst Arsenal will certainly press Chelsea and Man Utd all the way, how Wenger deals with the mental strength of his young charges will determine whether Arsenal can go to the next level and win the Premiership with “kids”.
What more can we say about Liverpool? When Spurs beat Liverpool on the opening day, I was over the moon, considering that the Merseyside side only lost 2 games last season. BUT since then Liverpool has lost to Aston Villa, Arsenal, Portsmouth, Fulham, Chelsea and Sunderland, which rather diminishes Spurs’ achievement, don’t you think? But seriously folks, Liverpool is in deep doo-doo and unless results improve very soon, we might just see the end of Rafa Benitez’s reign at Anfield. It boils down to Rafa’s attitude and his obstinance regarding his selection. His decision to stick with two holding midfielders continues to be mystifying to Liverpool fans as he leaves creative players like Benayoun and Babel on the bench. Then of course there’s the Aquilani saga, which remains unresolved. Rafa must realize that losing can become a habit too and the Liverpool fans will not accept a mid-table finish for their beloved club. This outcome looks a certainly unless Rafa pulls a rabbit out of the hat and fast. His big name players are getting frustrated with the poor performances and his mediocre selections will continue to drain the confidence out of players who displayed the winning mentality so resolutely last season. Frankly, I don’t see Champs League football for Liverpool next season and maybe not even Eurpopa League.
Stay tuned for part two where I assess the “wannabes” viz. Aston Villa, Spurs, Man City & Fulham.