Football

Will the Premier League trophy ribbons be Red or Blue? A review of the title contenders

The Barclays Premier League in 2013/14 continues to live up to its lofty reputation as the best footballing brand in the world, due to the unprecedented four-horse title race with only half a dozen rounds left to play.

PL trophy

Excitement levels are at an unparalleled high thanks to, arguably, the most enthralling scrap to be crowned champions since the Premier League’s inception in 1992.

Although a genuine four-way battle is unique, exciting finales have not been a rarity in the Premier League.

– Inaugural season (1992/93)

The dawn of a new era. Sky television and stadia renovation. The creation of the new elite division changed English football’s top-flight dynamics—shifting an outdated and largely xenophobic business model into a thriving conglomerate.

During that first season, the underdogs set the pulses racing as unfancied Norwich City led the table ahead of heavyweights Manchester United and Aston Villa with six games remaining.

March 93 season top 3

Just two points separated the top three sides, with third-placed United eventually being crowned champions, which cued the beginning of Sir Alex Ferguson’s love affair with the Premier League title.

– Manchester United’s treble-winning year (1998/99)

Despite there being various instances of three-way battles, the closest example to the current season can be found in 1999, where United were top of the tree with fourth placed Leeds United only eight points behind. Ferguson’s side just crossed the line, one point ahead of Arsenal and weeks later they would go on to claim their place in history after that famous night at the Camp Nou.

March 1999 league table

– Arsenal secured their second domestic double in five seasons (2001/02)

In March 2002, two points separated Arsenal, Liverpool and United, with fourth placed Newcastle nine points behind the leaders, before Arsenal clinched the league title at Old Trafford.

March 2002 league table

– Sergio Agueroooooooo (2011/12)

For Gunners fans, despite being seven points adrift of the summit, there is still hope. Two seasons ago, Manchester City trailed United by eight points after 32 games played. It was a lead which they clawed back culminating in Sergio Aguero’s dramatic injury-time championship winner with the last kick of the season.

The Argentine combined with Mario Balotelli to sink QPR, ensuring City pipped their bitter neighbours on goal difference to claim their first league title in 44 years.

 

2013/14—THE CONTENDERS

March 2014 League table

1) LIVERPOOL71 points from 32 games

Thus far, Liverpool have enjoyed an exceptional season. Last campaign’s seventh place finish and a draining summer of persuading their talisman Luis Suarez to stay on Merseyside meant that even the most optimistic Reds fans hoped for no more than a Champions League place.

That said, the tiresome saga seemingly had no negative impact on Brendan Rodgers’ impressively calm and influential attitude at Anfield—reflected in the Reds positive and unmatched start as they chalked up three successive league wins.

After Suarez served the remainder of his suspension, he joined the party and has been in exceptional form with 29 league goals in 27 games. An additional 11 assists means the Uruguayan has been directly involved in almost half of Liverpool’s 88 league goals this season—and is currently the overwhelming favourite to win both PFA and FWA Player of the Year.

Luis Suarez celebrates

If Suarez is a strong contender for the individual playing gong, the managerial version must belong to his manager.

Rodgers hit the ground running following his Liverpool appointment from Swansea in 2012 and he wasted little time in applying his methodology of making Suarez the focal point in his side—to the detriment of Liverpool’s record signing Andy Carroll.

“What we try to do here is create the environment for the elite player – and Luis is an elite player. We have created an environment for all our players, but obviously for him I had to make a call last year by letting Andy Carroll go out on loan. That created a situation where we could get the benefit of Luis’ talent, but he still had to perform, and he has done that tremendously well.”

The Northern Irishman’s handling of Suarez, accompanied with the development of Raheem Sterling, plus the astute purchases of both Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho has been commendable. Furthermore, Steven Gerrard has been transformed into England’s answer to Andrea Pirlo, as a quarter-back in front of his back four.

Rodgers celebrates with his players

If his man-management skills are impressive, his tactical nous is second only to Jose Mourinho (a former mentor) in the Premier League, with Rodgers frequently outwitting his touchline opponents. This was evident in Liverpool’s recent win over Manchester United, as his side were comfortable winners through their diamond midfield  formation—a tactic which many so-called experts would have rendered as archaic.

In combining these qualities, Rodgers is laying solid foundations to write another illustrious chapter in Anfield’s golden history.

  • Key game thus far

3-2 vs Fulham at Craven Cottage

Steven Gerrard sealed the points in a cracking mid-week tie by the Thames. Fulham had led 1-0 and 2-1 but Gerrard fired in a winning penalty in the last minute, making the statement that Liverpool meant serious business this season.

  • Key Man—Luis Suarez

Despite claims that Liverpool are not be a one-man band, the Uruguayan is irrepressible among opposition defences. He looks certain to break Alan Shearer and Cristiano Ronaldo’s 31-goal record from a 38-league game season, and could even challenge Shearer and Andy Cole’s overall record of 34 goals (scored during a 42 game season).

  • Where the title could be won or lost 

In London. The fixtures against Manchester City and Chelsea are the most obvious obstacles but given the Reds formidable home record, the more likely hurdles will be their outings to the capital to face West Ham and Crystal Palace.

Both will be stern tests for the Reds, commencing with the Hammers this Saturday evening. But if Liverpool supporters wake up three points richer on Sunday morning, they will truly begin to believe that their first league title in almost a quarter of a century is around the corner.

2) CHELSEA—69 points from 32 games

The Blues’ faithful were delighted with the Special One’s return to Stamford Bridge last summer. Even neutrals were pleased to have him back in England after an almost six-year absence.

The Portuguese wasted no time with psychological warfare by pointing out that this was a transitional year for Chelsea. However, with the likes of Eden Hazard, Oscar, Juan Mata and summer signings Willian and Samuel E’to on his roster, plus being reunited with his trusted lieutenants of Petr Cech, John Terry and Frank Lampard, finishing the season off the pace always appeared to be an unlikely scenario.

Mourinho

Even after Chelsea made the headlines by defeating Manchester City at the Etihad stadium, Mourinho deflected any praise and likened his team to a “little horse that needs milk and needs to learn how to jump”. In reality, his tactical victory over Manuel Pellegrini ensured the Blues became a significant player in this season’s title race.

“I win anyway because this is a special season for me and my Chelsea, even if we don’t win anything. If we don’t win and don’t see any evolution, yes, OK, then that’s bad. But I see evolution in the players, in the team, in the mentality, in the approach. To push to win the Premier League and to go from the Europa League to the last eight in the Champions League is an important step. It’s a new feeling for a lot of the players and let’s see what happens next.”

From there on Chelsea confidently galloped ahead, ensuring Stamford Bridge resembled an abattoir with the recent slaughter of Arsenal.

That result however was sandwiched between two rare defeats against Aston Villa and most recently, Crystal Palace. The latter was Mourinho’s first loss in 54 games against newly promoted opposition (including his spells in Spain and Italy). This unstable spell continued with the Blues’ first-leg Champions League quarter-final defeat to Paris Saint-Germain. His forwards, particularly British record transfer signing Fernando Torres, have bore the brunt of his frustrations and in doing so, he has built up a significant business case for owner Roman Abramovich to dig deep into his vast pockets again this summer.

Fernando Torres struggling

Despite writing-off his side’s chances of winning the league, the Blues have an enviable run-in.

  • Key game thus far

1-0  vs Manchester City at the Etihad stadium

Until that Monday evening, the Etihad stadium was English football’s fortress with both North London clubs on the receiving end of clinical hidings.

Mourinho did his homework and won the battle of the minds as the Londoners nullified City, leaving with a comfortable victory which was not reflected by the narrow score line.

  • Key Man—Jose Mourinho

Despite Mourinho writing-off his sides title chances, behind closed doors he will be targeting both success in the Premier league and Champions League. Since his last tenure at Stamford Bridge, the Portuguese has delivered a historic treble for Internazionale and also broke up the domination of one of the world’s greatest ever club sides, in Barcelona, whilst at Real Madrid.

  • Where the title could be won or lost 

In the Champions League. Of the four clubs fighting for the title, the Blues are the only team also playing in Europe and they are in a significant battle with Paris Saint-Germain as they seek to rescue the tie following a 3-1 reverse in Paris. Their bouncebackability will be severely tested during the next two weekends.

By the time they visit to Anfield (end of April), the dynamics of the title race could have shifted significantly.

3) MANCHESTER CITY—67 points from 30 games

The Sky Blues started off the season in emphatic fashion crushing the likes of Spurs and Arsenal in Manchester. The chief tormentor was Sergio Aguero, but injuries have halted what would have been a fascinating South American race to the Player of the Year crown.

The Argentine marksman’s absence has been compounded by strike partner Alvaro Negredo’s dip in form. However, Manuel Pellegrini’s principal spine of David Silva, Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany have dominated their opponents during most of the season and they recently negotiated a critical period unscathed.

Four points on their travels to Old Trafford and the Emirates ensured that their Chilean coach could sleep better as he admitted, “Maybe I was more worried before this week.”

“Our whole team is in a good moment. In the last six [league] games, we have conceded just one goal – the one that Arsenal scored. It is not easy to play here against Arsenal. We have had two difficult away games in the same week and that’s why I say four points was not bad.”

City have already tasted success in the form of the League Cup but that alone will not satisfy the club’s Abu Dhabi-based owners. Despite the pressure to win trophies, Pellegrini’s calm and non-confrontational demeanour is a breath of fresh air in a league bristling with too many egotistical millionaires.

Nasri winner in the League Cup

The Sky Blues have form in successfully closing out a season—evident as per Aguero’s earlier heroics, and given their Chilean coach’s calming influence, Toure et al will be confident of another Premier League championship medal this campaign.

  • Key game thus far

3-2 vs Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena (Germany)

Conceding two goals after 12 minutes spelled out doom and gloom but the widely considered best team in the world were rocked as City struck back to win 3-2. Unfortunately the Mancunians’ maths skills were not up to scratch as had City scored another goal, they would have finished top of the group and avoided a seed in the last-16, which turn out to be Barcelona and ultimately, elimination.

Nevertheless, turning the game on its head in Germany was the perfect tonic for City to get their season back on track.

  • Key Man—David Silva

The Spanish playmaker was “virtually unplayable” according to The Times’ Matthew Syed, “finding space between the lines, channelling attacks and, in general, creating mayhem disproportionate to his diminutive size” in the recent Manchester derby.

His flair must have been too much to bear as the Old Trafford faithful reportedly turned on their own, venting their frustration at both David Moyes and Sir Alex Ferguson for United’s demise this season.

  • Where the title could be won or lost 

On Merseyside. City face daunting trips to both Liverpool and Everton three weeks apart. In 31 league games only Southampton and Sunderland have left Merseyside this season with maximum points. If City can replicate their most recent outings in London and Manchester, they will be a strong position.

4) ARSENAL—60 points from 32 games

Fresh from posing for a “selfie” at White Hart Lane after Arsenal won the most recent North London derby, a week later Wojciech Szczęsny and his photogenic pals confidently strode to Stamford Bridge.

Szczesny selfie WHL

Within 17 minutes that confidence eroded, firmly replaced with a mixture of anxiety and fear as Arsene Wenger’s men found themselves in all sorts of bother. Chelsea were 3-0 up and Arsenal were down to 10 men following a laughable case of mistaken identity for the unfortunate Kieran Gibbs. In the end Chelsea settled for six.

It was more than just a heavy defeat for Wenger. His landmark 1,000th game in charge of Arsenal should have been a celebration but instead it was a self-confessed “nightmare” for the Frenchman. A few days later, they blew a 2-1 lead over Swansea via a calamitous last-minute own-goal which meant that after largely enjoying the campaign, pockets of Arsenal supporters called for Wenger’s head.

Wenger against Chelsea

The Gunners restored some pride as the North Londoners dug deep to produce a strong second-half performance, claiming a share of the spoils against Manchester City.

“We have gone through an absolute nightmare, we have gone through a storm. It is difficult to protect the players from that. The critics come very quick, fast, very hard. The only way you deal with it is to respond in the next game like we did.”

Having endured a turbulent last few months, being seven points behind the league leaders with a favourable run-in, is hardly a terrible position to be in.

The club’s proven strength of getting over the finish line is their trump card. Take last season as an example, Andre Villas-Boas outsmarted himself by suggesting, “Arsenal were in a negative spiral” with 10 games left to play. The Gunners then accumulated 26 points from a possible 30 to secure their 16th consecutive season in the Champions League.

Furthermore, Arsenal have been severely unlucky on the injury front. Having to make do without the likes of Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshire and Theo Walcott during the business end of the season would bring a tear to anyone’s eye.

Their immediate next test is a stern one—Everton away. A victory would all-but sow up a fourth place finish and would leave the Gunners only looking upwards.

  • Key game thus far

1-0 vs Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane

Tomas Rosicky scored a sublime goal after only two minutes and then effectively Arsenal’s rear took over. Despite Spurs not being at their best, the North London derby was unlikely to be a timid affair but the Lillywhites could not take any of their chances. At the final whistle, the red half of North London celebrated like they had won the title (hence Szczęsny’s unfortunate selfie).

  • Key Men—Aaron Ramsey

Aaron Ramsey is expected to return this weekend, making his first league appearance since December. Having scored eight goals plus six assists, the Welshman’s return could galvanise the Gunners in replicating their early season form.

  • Where the title could be won or lost 

In the FA Cup semi-final against Wigan. This will be a huge occasion for Arsenal against the Championship side, who are of course defending champions. That said, there is huge expectation on Wenger to deliver the FA Cup this season and the semi-final will test the Gunners’ fragile confidence to the max.

REMAINING FIXTURES

Title run-in Fixtures April onwards

MELOSPORT FORECAST

The majority of Manchester City’s squad are recent title-winners. They have the know-how to win and given their straight-forward home matches, City should have enough guile and experience to see them crowned champions.

 

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