An interesting sub-plot has already developed within the Premier League this season – the race for third place. Even at this relatively early stage in the campaign, it looks like being a two-horsed race for the title between the two clubs from Manchester, but as to who will finish third, the final results are less than clear with as many as five clubs in the mix at this stage. So who will come out on top?
Newcastle are the current occupiers of the Champions League spot with 22 points from their opening ten fixtures. Alongside Man City, they remain the only unbeaten team in the top flight. The Magpies unexpected run of form has seen them garner the best defensive record in the league with four clean sheets and just seven goals conceded – far flung from the days of comical defending around St James’s Park.
Theirs is a tale of a relatively small squad when compared to their rivals, performing to the maximum of their capabilities, built largely upon the platform of their quite frankly brilliant central midfield duo Cheikh Tiote and Yohan Cabaye, backed up by the likes of Demba Ba up top and Steven Taylor and Fabricio Coloccini at the back.
However, they look to have been dealt a fairly kind run of fixtures to kick off their campaign with. Home fixtures against Arsenal and Spurs aside, they’ve had a fairly comfortable run. It’s extremely doubtful whether they can continue this rich vein of form throughout the campaign, but they certainly still retain the hope of a European spot. Their next four games are Everton (H), Man City (A), Man Utd (A) and Chelsea (H) and it’ll be easier to gauge a fairer reflection of what to expect after this set of fixtures.
Spurs, currently in fifth place with a game in hand, look to be a side starting to hit their stride after the key acquisitions of Emmanuel Adebayor and Scott Parker around deadline day. They started the season with back-to-back horror shows in the league against both Man Utd and Man City, conceding eight goals in the process, with the hangover of the Luka Modric transfer saga and a lengthy injury list hanging heavily over the club.
Since then, though, they are unbeaten in seven with six victories, including a 4-0 hammering of Liverpool at White Hart Lane and a 2-1 Derby victory over Arsenal. They also have the added advantage of not being in the Champions League this season, which may go some way to hindering rivals Arsenal and Chelsea.
The lack of seriousness and degree of disdain with which Harry Redknapp treats the Europa League has been well documented in the past and could prove crucial in keeping his first eleven fresh throughout the season. They appear to have a fairly straightforward run up until the team’s home tie against Chelsea on December 22nd. Should they avoid any slip-ups in the meantime and manage to get a positive result against Andre Villas-Boas’s side, then they could well be favourites for the spot.
Chelsea have had a terrible week with Andre Villas-Boas coming under pressure for the first time during his short stay at the club so far. With a porous defence, discipline problems within the ranks and an apparent propensity to fail against any testing opposition put in front of them, they resemble a shadow of the side that won the title just two season’s ago.
The job on Villas-Boas’s hands is a huge one. Boardroom pressure, coupled with the need to refresh an ageing and thinning squad only serve to show how unenviable the task the young manager faces ahead of him. Poor results against Liverpool, Man City and Spurs between now and the new year could prove disastrous. While the naysayers are beginning to circle, Villa-Boas needs to be allowed the sufficient time to address the underlining issues with his squad.
For the first time in a long while, there appears to be a genuine worry about whether Chelsea will qualify for the Champions League this season. To my knowledge at least, that would appear to be a tad premature in its outlook.
Chelsea are far from the finished article at present, and the rebuilding project looks even larger than the most pessimistic Chelsea fan could have envisaged this time last year, but they still have comfortably enough quality to see them over the line in terms of European qualification. They face a tightly contested battle with Spurs for third this season and a lot depends on how they deal with challenging on four fronts. A kind run of fixtures in January should keep them in touch, but it’s too close to call at the minute.
Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool revolution continues apace and while the side can be said to be performing well within itself at the moment, they are developing a worrying habit of a failure to convert their chances in front of goal. A lot has been made about how much certain players have cost the club, but the side, without the distraction of European football this term, is without doubt stronger in terms of both depth and quality than this time last season.
Challenging for fourth remains well within their grasp and a failure to achieve Champions League football could prove costly to the rebuilding programme currently underway at Anfield. With so many new faces and an inherent inconsistency as a result, third would appear to be beyond them, for the time being at least.
Arsenal have restored a degree of normality to the league with a run of four straight victories. If they can keep the world-class Robin Van Persie fit for the entire campaign, they stand a chance of sneaking in. The new signings are beginning to bed in a little more and the likes of Arteta and Gervinho look as if they’ve been in the side for years, but question marks still remain over their defending, or rather lack thereof at times.
While the temptation to get carried away with the 5-3 victory against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge is strong, they still look prone to glaring errors at the back, of surrendering possession in dangerous areas and a creeping over reliance on Van Persie. If we’ve learnt one thing this season it’s that freak results in big games are now commonplace, so fans would be wise not to place too much stock in one result, for it could give a false impression of a side still going through its own teething problems.
There are far too many ‘if’s’ and ‘but’s’ when discussing Arsenal as a potential threat higher up the table, and they are in danger of missing out on fourth too unless they continue to step up against more testing opposition. The six-game run – Spurs (H), Liverpool (A), Newcastle (H), Aston Villa (H), QPR (A) and Man City (H) – between the crucial period of late February to early April, a time that has often put paid to any title hopes Arsenal may have harboured in the past, could define their season. Third place looks beyond them and they certainly have a battle on their hands for 4th already.
Spurs and Chelsea look to be the favourites for third at present. The tinkering job Villas-Boas has to contend with at Chelsea as he looks to address the myriad of issues affecting his squad, on top of the extra burden of European football, could prove the difference. Newcastle will inevitably fade away, but perhaps not as far as some people think, whereas Liverpool and Arsenal should set their sights on the more achievable aim of a 4th place finish. There appears to be quite a seismic shift in terms of consistency this campaign, the team that finds a modicum of it the quickest will ultimately be rewarded come May time.
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