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With the festive period now out of the way and just passed the half-way point of the season, we have a pretty clear picture of where things stand top and bottom of the Premier League.
Though there have been a few surprises: the excellent first half of the season West Brom have had, the relegation scrap that Newcastle are now embroiled in and just how shockingly awful QPR were under Mark Hughes; the title race is somewhat predictable.
I said before the season kicked off, that the title will be a 2 horse race and that I fancied Man Utd to nick it ahead of rivals City. That prediction is looking likely to come to fruition and if it does, with City’s second consecutive exit from the Champions League at the group stages, it could cost Roberto Mancini his job; although Pep Guardiola’s decision to take over at Bayern in the summer may cause the City owners to stick with Mancini.
Despite costing £24m, Robin van Persie could prove to be a bargain for Utd. His finishing prowess has been the difference for his side this season and much needed at times, as a once solid defence has become porous; but the determination to win back the title after the final day drama of last season and the goals of van Persie is likely to be enough to see them through.
Despite their impressive start to the league campaign, I felt the imbalance in Chelsea’s squad would cause them to falter and that has happened. It was still something of a shock though to see Di Matteo sacked when he was and even more of a shock to see Rafa Benitez take over the reins at Stamford Bridge.
Perhaps, just as surprising is that after starting the season with just 2 strikers, they haven’t looked to rectify the situation thus far in the transfer window. Demba Ba has come in, but Daniel Sturridge has gone to Liverpool and with Fernando Torres looking forlorn once more, it puts a lot of responsibility on Ba.
Tottenham, under Andre Villas Boas, have done better than I expected and although Gareth Bale is their match winner, Moussa Dembele has been the man who’s made them tick; at £15m, he’s been a very good piece of business for AVB. The Spurs squad still lacks a bit depth in certain areas, but despite them too often looking to sit on a lead, the players seem to be taking to AVB’s ideas.
Arsenal fans will be hugely disappointed with their current position and all too familiar lack of consistency. The return to fitness and form of Jack Wilshere and impressive performances of Santi Cazorla are amongst the few bright lights in a largely frustrating season so far. Podolski has a decent goals return so far, but too often ineffective stuck out on the wing, instead of being used in his natural striking role.
Fellow summer signing, Giroud, has struggled to make an impact, but it seems he thrives off crosses and that’s not something Arsenal provide in abundance. The positive end to the Walcott contract saga could give them a lift, but the weakness at left back and defensive midfield continue and it’s hard to see them finishing top 4.
Everton got off to their best start to the season in 8 years, arguably over achieving by being in real contention for a top 4 finish. The Toffees have a strong starting XI, with Baines, Pienaar and Fellaini being their stand out performers, but the lack of depth to their squad means that should they start to pick up a few injuries, the second half of the season could be tougher for David Moyes men.
After a difficult start to the season, Liverpool are adjusting to Brendan Rodgers ideas and are playing some good football. The wasteful finishing of last season continued early this campaign, but the goals have started to flow recently, especially for Luis Suarez.
The Uruguayan hitman has already reached the 20 goal mark and has been truly outstanding, carrying the burden of being 1 of only 2 senior strikers, following Andy Carroll’s loan move to West Ham and then the only fit striker, once Fabio Borini got injured on international duty. The recent addition of Daniel Sturridge has eased that burden and the Reds are looking better equipped for the send half of the season, but the top 4 is still likely to still be beyond reach.
Swansea’s impressive debut Premier League season has been followed up with a mature campaign thus far under new boss Michael Laudrup, who unearthed arguably the signing of the summer in Michu, an absolute steal at £2m.
Another manager gaining plaudits, is Steve Clarke at West Brom in his first managerial job. The Baggies have continued to be solid, but they’re also playing some good passing football, exceeding the expectations of most, including yours truly.
Martin O’ Neill’s Sunderland endured an arduous start to the campaign, but recent form has dramatically improved; with regular goals from Steven Fletcher and the attacking threat of Adam Johnson, the security of a mid-table finish looks certain; something local rivals Newcastle cannot be so sure of at the moment.
It’s been well publicised that the Magpies form has been disastrous since manager Alan Pardew signed an 8 year contract, but injuries to key players Taylor, Cabaye, Gutierrez and Ben Arfa are more significant than that contract and despite the loss of Ba to Chelsea, Newcastle have too much quality to be relegated and I’m sure will end up mid table.
Of the three newly promoted sides, West Ham have looked the most secure. The experience of manager Sam Allardyce and key squad members means their Premier League status should be safe.
Southampton and Reading have impressed at times, but have also looked naïve in some matches in what is a tough learning curve for both sides; the bizarre sacking of Nigel Adkins could potentially have ramifications for the spirit they will need in order to survive.
The impulsive summer spending of Mark Hughes at QPR was a recipe for trouble and their diabolical performances in the opening few months of the season cost Hughes his job. The appointment of Harry Redknapp is a good one, but it’ll be as difficult to shift the average players on over inflated contracts, as it will be to keep the hoops up. However, you wouldn’t rule out them surviving on the final day of the season, with some kind of dramatic twist.
The decline of Aston Villa has been a shocking one; Paul Lambert is a manager of undoubted talent, but a mixture of phasing out the big earners, injuries to key players and having to rely on unproven youngsters is looking too much of a task. Unless Villa an experienced defender and central midfielder, they could quite easily be looking at Championship football next year.
Another team staring relegation in the face is Wigan. Roberto Martinez has received praise for his positive approach and keeping a weak squad up, but this year it’s hard to see them defying the odds again, unless 2or 3 rumoured loan signings materialise.
In short, I think the current top 4 of Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea and Spurs won’t change, but who goes down is a lot more difficult to call, but I think it will be 3 from Reading, QPR, Aston Villa, Southampton and Wigan; I don’t know why, but I have a sneaking suspicion that QPR and Villa will just escape.
So, it’s certainly not been a classic season so far, but the battle for places at the top and bottom promises to make things interesting.
Written by Andy Wales
Follow him on Twitter @AndyArmchair
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