Last week Manchester City came from behind to beat Chelsea by two goals to one and many a football pundit saw that as proof that, despite all the draws and flattering to deceive, the Eastlands Billionaires could be a real threat to the ‘big four’ this season. Thus, after Everton’s injury-decimated side also matched Chelsea with a 3-3 draw yesterday, the same logic could be used to suggest that my beloved Toffees too, could realistically hope to breach the big four this season.
Such logic is clearly flawed though, because even as an Evertonian I’m realistic enough to know that we pose no threat to the Champions League spots and City’s inability to beat Bolton yesterday has seemingly confirmed that they too lack the necessary consistency to ‘break’ the top four. However, I still think we may see an unfamiliar team near the summit of the Premier League this season, considering Chelsea’s recent stutters alongside those of the other ‘big four’ clubs, it could be argued that they are not as untouchable as they have been in recent seasons.
Indeed, this seasons Premier League already looks to be shaping up to be one of the closest in the last ten years, with the good form of Villa and Spurs keeping them in touch with the title contenders and the unpredictability of the rest of the league keeping everyone on their toes – it really does seem this season that there are no foregone conclusions, every team can beat one another on any given day, and that’s a breath of fresh air.
Up until last week of course, Chelsea had seemed like the exception that proved the rule, romping to a five point lead in the title race and barely conceding any goals they even went to the Emirates Stadium and won by three goals to nil against an in-form Arsenal side. The strike partnership of Drogba and Anelka have looked like one of the deadlier combos in Premier League history and their wealth of midfield talent was being utilised beautifully by Carlo Ancelotti’s diamond midfield formation.
However, with defeat away against Man City and now a home draw against Everton – the first points dropped at home all season – their defence has been proven relatively shaky, with the usually dependable Cech, Terry and Carvalho unable to defend a set piece to save their lives. While it would be preposterous to write them off after just two slip ups, this is definitely a sign of the sort of weakness that simply hasn’t plagued the top four sides in recent seasons.
Nor are Chelsea the only top side showing signs of weakness. In light of Van Persie’s injury Arsenal have been exposed as a side that lacks any real enforcer and a striker with the ability to hold the ball up and make things happen while Manchester United have been nowhere near as imperious as you usually expect, with their defensive problems evident even before every defender and his dog in their squad got injured.
More obvious though, are the troubles plaguing Liverpool. For years now they’ve been a team far too reliant on one player – Gerrard, and though Torres has taken some of that burden since joining, their squad has been exposed as woefully short on strength in-depth this season and Rafa Benitez simply has no answers at all. While victory against Arsenal tomorrow would bring them back into touch, there’s no doubt that things need to change in January is Liverpool’s ambitions are to be fulfilled.
Of course, exacerbating the problem has been the early season form of Villa and Spurs in particular, with the former’s win over Manchester United yesterday lifting them to third in the table and Spurs’ goalscoring exploits – most notably in their 9-1 demolition of Wigan – catching the attention of the nation. However, while no one could possibly deny that these two sides are playing well and deserve their current positions, I don’t believe that they would actually be so successful in previous seasons.
Villa’s real strength so far this season has been the consistency of their revolutionised defence where Richard Dunne in particular has been a revelation, but they are also relying largely on the form of the Gabby Agbonlahor, who is really starting to develop some consistency and allying his blistering pace with some power and ever improving finishing. However, they too have had a couple of slip ups this season and if the ‘big four’ clubs hadn’t been quite so accommodating then we perhaps wouldn’t be so lavish in our praise of them.
Spurs too are currently riding high on their goalscoring prowess but they have been exposed at the back a number of times (which injuries haven’t helped) and at times Redknapp’s preferred midfield duo of Palacios and Huddlestone has been accused of lacking a bit of creative flair – but they appear too lightweight if one is sacrificed in favour of a more luxurious player. Again, while they’ve doubtless earnt their position, I can’t help but feel that they’ve benefitted from the ‘big four’s troubles rather than forcing the issue themselves.
Overall though, the upshot is that this season looks set to be a close run thing. I fully expect at least a couple of the ‘big four’ sides to get themselves together in the long run – Chelsea and United look most likely – and take the title away from the chasing pack, but I certainly think that the likes of Villa and Spurs will push Liverpool and Arsenal all the way to the last for a Champions League spot, and Man City and even Everton could be in there too if their respective consistency and injury issues are solved sooner rather than later.
Of course, we can’t rush to conclusions, two games don’t make a season after all, but it really is tempting to read a little into these surprising results when they occur. I’d simply encourage a more considered analysis of such results though, and rather than suggesting that Manchester City are top four material all of a sudden after just one good result, I think it’s far more telling to think about what that result, allied with this weekend’s results, say about Chelsea and the strength of the ‘big four’ in general. If I’ve read the signs correctly, it should be a cracking season.
Have your say:
What do you think of the the challengers to the top four? Will the big sides be their own undoing or will they come good eventually? Are Spurs or Villa really good enough to make it into the top four? Who is the most likely candidate to breach the usual suspects? Please leave a comment and let me know…