Since its inception in 1992, the English Premier League has gained further prominence with each passing year, as various teams, following different strategies and practicing varied styles of playing football, battled it out with others to claim the coveted title. Each new season throws up new faces, new rivalries, new controversies, moments of ecstasy, moments of anguish, and incidents permanently embossed in the minds of the audience. In short, the ingredients for a successful entertainment package.
The current season is no exception, as football fans the world over continue to indulge in the dramatic frenzy and passion, generated on and off the field. With the top three teams in the current league standings slugging it out for the title, four teams competing for the coveted fourth place, and seven to eight teams involved in the relegation dogfight, the next three months will decide the fate of these sides. The Hard Tackle provides a comprehensive analysis of these clubs’ chances to accomplish their desired goals.
THE QUEST FOR SUPREMACY
In the past six seasons, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal have finished in the top four; Liverpool had lost the fourth spot to bitter rivals Everton in the 2004/2005 season. From 2004 onwards, The Blues and the Red Devils were usually favorites to win the title, with Arsenal and Liverpool coming agonizingly close to snatching the trophy in the last two seasons. However, this season sees Arsenal back in the mix of things, thanks to an uncharacteristically inconsistent performance by the big two, dropping points in between big wins. Who will make the most of the chances presented to them in the upcoming matches? A recap of where these teams stand in the current league table does little to answer this question.
Chelsea: They lead the table only by a solitary point, a stark contrast to their strong position in the league at the end of November. The John Terry saga has clearly affected him and wavered his focus for the time being; his performance against Manchester City is testimony to his present state of mind. Ashley Cole, one of their most influential players, will spend three months on the medical table, with Zhirkov joining him on the sidelines as well. Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard continue to impress, but the rest of the team appear to suffer from bouts of inconsistency. Anelka shone on the field in Drogba’s absence, but now is struggling to give an encore, after the latter’s return from the ACN.
More than these players, the Blues missed Essien’s massive physical presence and experience; Mikel Obi was unable to fill in the vacant defensive midfield slot efficiently. In spite of all these woes, the team is capable of remaining at the top position, if they can get their rhythm right and deal with set pieces more effectively. Also, Carlo must get Terry to take time off and pair Alex with Carvalho, and judiciously rotates his players, considering the grueling fixtures ahead. The key matches would be against Villa at home, Manchester United at Old Trafford, and Liverpool at Anfield. Win these games, and the title is theirs for the taking.
Players to watch: Lampard, Drogba, Essien(on his return)
Form guide (last six games played): LWLWDW
Upcoming matches (next five games): West Ham(H), Blackburn(A), Portsmouth(A), Aston Villa(H),Manchester United(A)
Manchester United: Their famous post-Christmas juggernaut came to the fore this season yet again, and the Red Devils look primed for a fourth consecutive title win. The absence of Ronaldo was no longer felt, as Wayne Rooney emulated the Portuguese winger’s red hot scoring streak of two seasons ago, aided by the new signing Valencia, who exemplified Sir Alex’s remarkable penchant for astute signings. The midfield, barring Fletcher and Valencia, looks anything but settled; Carrick is in woeful form, Anderson is out for the reminder of the season, Nani shows promise but committed needless fouls, and age has caught up the old warhorses Giggs and Scholes, who have put up a good show in some matches though.
The first choice defenders were not always available at the same time – Ferdinand was injured for some time, and was suspended for four matches after returning to the field; Vidic is a shadow of himself, and Gary Neville has had a mixed season. However, the consistent Patrice Evra , a ‘coming of age’ Johnny Evans, and Van Der Sar’s safe hands, have ensured the stability of the defense. As long as Rooney scores and Valencia continues to deliver those pinpoint crosses, Owen and Berbatov chip in with some goals, and the defense continues to concede the least number of goals, the Red Devils will be unstoppable in their quest for title number Nineteen.
Players to watch: Rooney, Valencia, Evra
Form guide (last six games played): WLDWWW
Upcoming matches (next five games): Wolves(A), Fulham(H), Liverpool(H),Bolton(A),Chelsea(H)
Arsenal: Written off at the beginning of the season, Arsenal were eleven points adrift off top placed Chelsea after a 3-0 defeat at the Emirates. However, they staged a remarkable comeback to close the gap, securing 24 points in the next ten games. Back to back losses to Manchester United and Chelsea put them on the back foot yet again, and pundits were quick to point out their poor temperament in big matches. Injuries to Van Persie, Eduardo, Walcott and Bendtner meant that Wenger was forced to play Arshavin and Vela as strikers, and they came a cropper against the more physical defenses. Vermaelan and Gallas showed big promise in their partnership at central defense, but the defensive frailties were exposed as the season progressed.
But in a strange turn of events, Arsenal’s subsequent wins against Liverpool and Sunderland, coupled with the other two dropping points, have reduced the gap to the top by a mere three points. The Gunners have a relatively easier run of games compared to their rivals, with only Manchester City being the major obstacle in their path to glory. If Cesc Fabregas can remain fit for the rest of the season, and the strikers and other creative midfielders put their names on the score sheet, the team can fancy their chances. The never ending injuries and the disastrous form of the goalkeepers could put a big dent on their aspirations, but if they could clinch the title, as a tribute to the recently injured Ramsey, it would vindicate Wenger’s desire to win with ‘beautiful football’.
Players to watch: Fabregas, Diaby, Bendtner
BPL Form guide: WWWLLD
Upcoming matches (next five games): Burnley(H), Hull City(A), West Ham(H), Birmingham(A), Wolverhampton(H)