Football FanCast columnist Dean Brown reflects on how the Premier League table is beginning to take shape and wonders who will be contesting, with his beloved Villa, for a place in the top four.
November is always a time for reflection in the Premier League. The silly season of the first few months of the new campaign comes to an end and the runners and riders at both ends of the table tend to come into focus. Therefore it is no surprise to discover that three of the so called ‘big four’ currently occupy the Champions League places and two teams widely tipped to struggle are festering in the relegation zone. But there has been more than a little bit of unpredictability about this season and the gap between the best and the rest appears to be at a diminished level to seasons past.
From a Villa point of view 18 points from 10 games is a good return and, should the team win its game in hand at Upton Park, Villa will be sitting pretty in fourth with over a quarter of games already played. But Villa fans have been slow to herald this season as the breakthrough year for the club. Obviously memories of last year’s dramatic end-of-season slump still hurt and there remains a sneaking suspicion that the team has not hit the heights that it has previously, despite excellent wins over Chelsea and Liverpool, due to the loss of Gareth Barry and Martin Laursen. Nevertheless, Martin O’Neill has experimented well in the midfield making Villa more fluid, whilst tightening the backline under the stewardship of Richard Dunne et al.
Perhaps Villa fans biggest fears also equate to their biggest hopes for the season. If Villa have been beating the big teams without playing as well as they can then it implies that once top form is hit the side has an excellent chance of challenging the top four. But on the flip side, if the loss of the pre-mentioned players proves to be too much of a hurdle for the remaining team to handle, then the current level may dip, dropping Villa to the no man’s land of mid-table. It is still early days to analyse whether O’Neill will hit upon the right tactical blend to get the most of the players he has, so perhaps instead it is a good opportunity to look at some of the teams that Villa will be up-against for that magic fourth spot.
Although everything is possible between now and the end of the season, I personally believe Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal have shown enough to convince that they will be three of the league’s top four clubs. Arsenal’s squad strength was questioned before the beginning of the season, but, unless Wenger’s side loses a staggering number of players to injury, it seems doubtful that they will struggle too much to secure their Champion’s League birth. Which leaves the question of who will join them?
Without question it has been a disastrous start to the season for Liverpool. The usual problems off the pitch have been matched with massive ones on it. A lengthening injury list, a shaky defence and a manager increasingly under fire from all sides have left the club nine points adrift of Chelsea already and teetering on the brink of dismissal from the Champions League at the first stage. All in all the team looks a shadow of the one which pushed Manchester United for the title last season, playing some scintillating football in the process.
This season’s problems have been influenced by Benitez’s restrictions in the transfer market, but attributing all the problems to that is too simplistic. The Spaniard’s continued patience with players such as Voronin is frankly baffling. Against Fulham it would surely have been a great chance to give someone like Ngog a chance to shine and maybe even develop a partnership with Torres. It didn’t happen. Voronin was dire and Liverpool lost 3-1. Fault doesn’t just lie with the manager, the likes of Kuyt, Skrtel, Lucas and even the usually reliable figures of Gerrard and Carragher have disappointed.
But never write off a champion. Liverpool have been in tight spots before and Benitez has managed to wave his magic wand and drag the team into the Champions League. The fact that this looks set to be a low points scoring season, with plenty of teams beating one another, may well help Liverpool, but they need to stop the rot and fast. All games are now crucial for Benitez’s side, he will be praying that the club’s top stars get off the injury table and back to full-form.
Liverpool have to be favourites to make the Champions League along with the rest of the ‘big four’ as they have the knowhow and are thoroughbred winners. But if there was ever a time to demote the club, now would be it.
Mark Hughes expensively assembled side started like a runaway train. They won five of their opening six games, only losing to Manchester United in a thrilling Manchester derby. But since then City have drawn four consecutive games and the most recent performance against Birmingham was the worst the team has put in all season. It is so hard to predict Manchester City as the team is still finding its feet playing as a unit. There are also so many egos in the squad, particularly up-front, and what will happen when one becomes unhappy (as one will, it’s the way football works) remains to be seen.
Hughes will undoubtedly be disappointed by the standard of opposition his side has been dropping points against. Wigan, Fulham and Birmingham all represented winnable games. Nevertheless, definite progress has been made from last season and the fact that City are drawing when their performance dips rather than losing is the mark of a good side.
City will be there or thereabouts come the end of the season, the strength of the squad and the resources available from the owners dictates that will be the case.
Watching Tottenham Hotspur must be like being inside a soap opera. The club is ether high on the elixir of life or preparing to dig its own grave. This time last year the question was whether or not the club could actually be relegated; now its ability to enter the top-four is up for debate.
There are plenty of unknowns at Spurs. Upfront, the ability of Jermaine Defoe to continue to score at the rate he has done so far in the Premier League, the role of Robbie Keane in the side and the on-going debate as to whether Peter Crouch is a player who scores goals that win games, or scores goals in games already won. Another is the continuing saga over Ledley King’s fitness. But perhaps the biggest is Harry Redknapp’s ability to manage at the peak of English football. No one should forget that this is the biggest job he was had in football to date (with the greatest respect to West Ham, Southampton and Portsmouth) and the pressure’s that come with the Spurs job are notorious. Will he keep his aura if results tail off and the club dips into mid-table?
The return of Modric will be a big moment in Tottenham’s season, but, personally, I think this year will not be the one in which Spurs break the top-four. There remain too many frailties in defence and the side still seems to be very confidence driven and fragile once it has fallen behind. Europa League is a more likely outcome.
It might seem strange to include Everton in a list of those competing for the Champions League, considering the clubs fairly dismal start to the season, but the ability of David Moyes’ side to hunt down the top clubs has been proven in the past. Everton is another club that is battling a lengthy injury list, but there are signs that the crisis is beginning to ease.
The return of Mikel Arteta will be crucial in determining how the club fares this season, although in the meantime if Moyes could solve the club’s on-going striker dilemmas Everton fans would likely be relieved.
Everton are undoubtedly a long shot, but it would be a brave man to rule them out completely.
Chances are the top four will remain unbroken this season and the debate as to who will challenge the hegemony will continue for another season. But there are those who sense that the tide is turning, in which case the battle of the pretenders could give birth to the next team at the peak of the English game.