You might well say it’s a bit early to be drawing conclusions from this weekend’s Premier League action given that there’s still plenty of fixtures to be played tomorrow and Monday, but I think we can safely say that Saturday’s action both on and off the pitch has given us plenty to be discuss to be going on with. Plus, tomorrow is likely to be both my last day with an internet connection for some while and very busy, so there’s no time like the present.
To business at hand then and as I said yesterday, this season’s Premier League action is proving to be nigh on impossible to predict. We’ve now had two weekends full of surprise results and the established order that has developed over so many years seems to be quickly unravelling. It’s hard to know what to make of it at times but I think at least some conclusions can be cautiously made.
Up until now there has been plenty of speculation over whether this season would be the one that saw the ‘big four’s tyranny over the Champions League places broken for the first time since Everton did it in 2005, but I believe that after this weekend’s results we can say with certainty that it will. Indeed, if I was a betting man I’d be putting money on it right now, regardless of Rafa’s guarantee.
It’s quite simple really – up until now the ‘big four’ have had too much quality and too much depth while the chasing pack has largely been lacking in both. But while it seems that each of the ‘big four’ sides has gone backwards in these departments, the chasing pack have strengthened, and the gulf between the two groups of teams still exists but nowhere near so decisively as it did previously, and the ‘big four’ have well and truly lost their air of invincibility.
We can draw sub-conclusions too. For example, Liverpool are almost certain to miss out on the top four while Manchester City are all but guaranteed not to take advantage of the Reds fall. Liverpool’s poor form thus far has largely been blamed on the absence of their two key figures, Gerrard and Torres, but even with both in attendance alongside other returnees like Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani they were quite shocking against the League’s bottom side.
One wonders if this might be the straw to break the camel’s back too, as surely Rafa Benitez’s position is quickly becoming untenable at Anfield, or so it seems from the outside at least. Though they still lie in seventh they are thirteen points behind leaders Chelsea (who also have a game in hand) and their two main targets, indeed, their only real targets – to win the Premier League and the Champions League – are now beyond their grasp.
It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if he was soon lining up behind Mark Hughes to apply for unemployment benefit, but his place in that line would be far more deserved than the Welshman’s. Don’t get me wrong, I have little sympathy for Hughes – the way he’s acted in certain affairs in recent times has severely lessened my respect and liking for the bloke and he knew precisely who he was in bed with all along – but to sack him now is unjust when assessed from a purely footballing perspective.
I’ve suggested a number of times on this site that City’s best bet if they are to achieve their lofty ambitions would be to model their development on their most fierce rivals from across the City. That success was built partly on financial wealth too, but equally important was the stable management of Alex Ferguson and the steady development of a strong youth academy. City certainly possess the wealth and have expressed a desire to develop young players, but their other claims of steady progress and faith in Hughes have quickly been shown up.
And while Roberto Mancini is a fine manager in his own right, I think that his appointment will actually slow the progress of Manchester City in the short-term at least. He will now want to bring in some fresh faces of his own (and will be generously backed I’m sure) which will only add to the discontent that is probably already brewing amongst the already overpopulated dressing rooms at the City of Manchester Stadium.
Hughes’ record may have been average at best so far and I’ve been plenty critical of City’s form so far this season, but I stressed before the season even began that consistent success would take time to establish. Now they must start again from square one, despite Hughes having shown that he had already made progress with City – if nothing else, they’re very difficult to beat, having lost only twice so far this season – and once in unfortunate circumstances against their city rivals.
So I’m quite certain that Manchester City have shot themselves in the foot and won’t be taking advantage of Liverpool’s disastrous form, so who will be the team to step up? Spurs are looking likely candidates at the moment, with that excellent win against City and followed that up with their win against Blackburn today suggesting that their slip up against Wolves last week was probably more due to their exuberant Christmas party than any lack of quality.
Indeed, if their performances since Harry Redknapp found out about their deceptive trip to Dublin and threatened them with “severe” punishment are anything to go by it seems that Redknapp is capable of being a hard-fisted boss as well as the genial ‘one of the boys’ type gaffer that so often comes across in interviews. That can only be a good thing for Spurs hopes of the Champions League, because there’s a long way to go and they need to be kept focused and determined if they are to succeed.
I think it will be Aston Villa though, rather than Spurs, who will break the top four this season. Their win against Stoke yesterday was described by O’Neill as one of the best performances of the season and I can see why. In a season where so many of the top sides continue to slip up against lesser opponents Villa managed to grind out a result against one of the more stubborn teams in the League this season, proving that they are more than just a pretty face, and have the grit that will see them keep fighting all the way – unlike last season.
Fulham may yet prove a dark horse though, with Hodgson having rekindled the home form that they showed last season, thanks largely to the unlikely heroics of Bobby Zamora. I still scoff at suggestions that he could play for England – if it’s taken him this long to step up to Premier League level then just think how long he’d take to adapt to the international stage. Zamora must keep firing if they do hope to challenge the ‘big four’ but I can’t see it lasting indefinitely to be honest, yesterday’s upset as much to do with United’s poor performance as Fulham’s quality.
Still, after their early season form suggested they may be in for a relegation fight their fans will certainly be contented at the moment. The same may go for Portsmouth fans but even more so than Fulham I think yesterday’s result may be a false representation of their prospects. They despatched Liverpool with little trouble, but that was largely because Liverpool were quite awful and Pompey took their chances with aplomb, for which they do deserve credit.
Hull were brought back to earth with a bump by Arsenal after a mini-revival in recent times, the Gunners rediscovering their scoring form themselves and taking advantage of United’s slip up to climb to within two points of last season’s Champions with a game in hand. If anything though, yesterday’s action has just confirmed that the title is Chelsea’s to lose (and well they might on recent showings) if they can achieve greater consistency than their rivals.
On yesterday’s evidence though, these conclusions will soon prove too hastily drawn. I can’t remember a more unpredictable season in my years of following the Premier League and though I am reasonably confident that Liverpool and City won’t compete in next season’s Champions League I’ve been wrong before and with plenty more twists bound to be waiting just around the corner, this season is not one to be pinned down easily.
What do you make of this weekend’s Premier League action? Do you agree with the conclusions I’ve drawn? Please do leave a comment below and let me know…