The 2013/14 season will be remembered as a classic year if only for the sheer level of competition at the top and especially at the bottom of the league, writes Alan Casey.
There are more title contenders than ever before in the Premier league era, while the relegation battle occupies almost half of the table and fluctuates at a dizzying rate. To help you keep on top of the weekend’s action, Pundit Arena is taking a closer look at the table’s big climbers and fallers in Premier Snakes and Ladders.
At this stage of the season you would expect a little more clarity from the table. However after the weekend’s fixtures, only six points separate the top four while eight points separate Swansea in tenth and Fulham in twentieth. The table continues to refuse to conform to any clear pattern and there has been substantial movement at the top.
The top three all switched positions with Chelsea capitalising on Manchester City’s draw and Arsenal’s loss. Liverpool have consolidated fourth position for now with a 5-1 annihilation of Arsenal. Rodgers reduced the gap to the top of the table from eight to six points and Liverpool now lie four points behind City in third.
Rodgers has already dismissed their title hopes. However with their good home record and with Man City and Chelsea yet to come to Anfield; they may now be back in contention. And to really top off Liverpool’s weekend, Everton lost 1-0 to Tottenham on Sunday. Despite their draw, Manchester United remain in seventh but are now ten points behind Liverpool in fourth and five behind Everton in sixth. Handel’s anthem may not be heard at Old Trafford next season.
Whereas at the bottom, we are finally getting a clearer picture. West Ham’s escape from eighteenth to fifteenth dropped West Brom into the bottom three alongside Cardiff and Fulham, despite their draw with Manchester Uninted. To add to West Brom and Fulham’s woes, their next opponents are Chelsea and Liverpool. But first we will begin in London with Arsenal, the deposed league leaders.
2nd Arsenal -1
Losing 5-1 is a damning reflection on any team’s title credentials, especially at the business end of the season. Step back to late 2013 and with Ramsey and Ozil oozing class in midfield; it seemed that Wenger had rediscovered the winning formula. However with the Welshman injured, Flamini suspended and Ozil running a little flat, Arsenal’s title resolve is once again attracting familiar questions.
In the build up, the big hype surrounded the SAS’s Suarez. But it was the ‘S’ of Skrtel that struck twice within the first ten minutes. Arsenal conceded two more in the first half before Sterling added the fifth after the interval. Liverpool were admittedly imperious on Saturday but it is concerning that all Arsenal could muster in response was a consolation penalty.
The removal of Giroud and Ozil with thirty minutes to play is revealing. Both players, as well as Ramsey have been over relied upon and Wenger’s decision not to reinforce his thin squad last month will be questioned. They play Manchester United next. Not the threat they once were but nonetheless it isn’t the greatest of rebound games. Maybe of a greater concern though is the European front reopening soon and further stretching their already thin squad. But at least they were not alone in dropping points this weekend.
3rd Manchester City -1
Would anyone have predicted this a week ago? Prior to the Chelsea fixture last Monday, we asked whether City feared anyone; but apparently they do. Going into that encounter, City looked likely to secure top spot and hold it for some time. Yet they have been forced back to third over the space of six days.
On Saturday, drawing to Norwich was a surprise but City being held to a goalless draw seems almost bizarre. This is not to dismiss Norwich, who had chances themselves. However City have been gluttonous in front of goal lately and indeed trounced Norwich by seven late last year. Unsurprisingly City dominated possession but to no avail and Norwich came close themselves towards the end. It appears that even a club like City, with such enormous wealth, still misses a player of Aguero’s calibre.
Up next is Sunderland. Impressive recently but the Black Cats find themselves back in seventeenth after losing to Hull. In the months ahead, the Norwich draw will most likely look like a blip and City remain many people’s favourites for the title. However the cloak of invincibility is no longer there and they remain weak on their travels.
1st Chelsea +2
A few months ago, Mourinho dismissed Chelsea’s title chances. But while the Special One may be more modest now, the mind games remain. Clearly Chelsea are the real winners this weekend after capitalising on slip ups around them. On Saturday, a weakened Newcastle were sent packing with Eden Hazard’s first hat-trick for the club.
Of late, Hazard’s performances have confirmed Mourinho’s decision to offload Juan Mata. At this point, the Belgian is the league’s most in form player and is beginning to add regular goals to his repertoire. He is also sustaining his performances over the course of a game. His three goals on Saturday came on the 27th, 34th and 63rd minute and he is offering Suarez genuine competition for player of the season.
Mourinho has now got the grips with his squad and Matic is an industrious signing in his manager’s mould. Regardless of the mind games, Chelsea are top of the table, on real form and the Special One has been here before. He will not concede points easily.
14th Crystal Palace +3
Palace’s yoyo season continues unabated. Last week they plummeted back to seventeenth after losing to Arsenal and we asked whether they would bounce back immediately. The response came on Saturday with Pulis’ men staging another offensive on the table and rising to fourteenth after dispatching West Brom 3-1.
Pulis gambled in handing debuts to his three new signings. However Scott Dann was untroubled in defence and Joe Ledley and Thomas Ince scored Palace’s first and second on their debuts. Marouane Chamakh added a penalty after the interval. Ince’s arrival, while only on loan, will no doubt please Palace supporters. He could yet provide the cutting edge to counterbalance their dogged work rate and it looks like good business.
Palace may drop back down the table again with Everton up next. However they have demonstrated that they can beat their fellow relegation strugglers which should ensure their survival. Pulis has never been relegated as a manager; it looks likely this record will continue for another season at least.
5th Tottenham +1
We could have discussed Everton but given the weather lately I feel like concluding on a positive note. Spurs leapfrog Everton into fifth with a 1-0 win and now lie three points behind Liverpool in fourth. Following the massive influx of players in the summer and Villas-Boas’ dismissal, Spurs could have become destabilised. However Sherwood, despite a few odd comments about the rise of defensive midfielders, deserves credit.
On Sunday, the fate of both teams seemed determined by their strikers. Spurs, despite not creating many chances, got the goal thanks to a rejuvenated Adebayor. Everton on the other hand, despite dominating possession, struggled to convert their chances with Lukaku absent. In a way, Adebayor decided Villas Boas fate and he appears to be doing the same for Sherwood. While the Portuguese seemed more tactically suave than his successor, Sherwood’s man-management of the Togolese marksman has been priceless for Spurs.
Up next is a Cabaye-less Newcastle and Tottenham may hold onto fifth for a while. However with frequent changes of manager and a seemingly aimless transfer splurge last summer, Spurs look disjointed at times. Indeed Liverpool may be the biggest beneficiaries from this change in the table. With Everton now five points back, perhaps Liverpool’s greatest challenger has been mortally wounded.
Pundit Arena, Alan Casey.