The Race For Europe

After 13 games the Premier League juggernauts are beginning to jostle for position and a place among Europe’s elite next season. With the exception of Manchester City (who ALMOST look invulnerable), pundits would be hard pressed to predict how the top six will look come the end of May.

With the domination of the ‘big four’ in recent years, the race for Europe had looked a little too predictable as Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool seemed to monopolise entry into Europe’s top club competition; the Champions League. However with the crumbling of the Liverpool machine under Gillett and Hicks, the rise of Tottenham under the exceptional leadership of Harry Redknapp, and lest we forget the gushing wave of Arab oil on the blue half of Manchester, the established order of the ‘big four’ has well and truly been swept away.

Now there are six clubs realistically vying for power. Although the title would appear to be Man City’s to lose (as they look head and shoulders above the rest of the pack), the remaining three Champions League places appear to be up for grabs.

Manchester United
Under the stewardship of Sir Alex Ferguson the red devils have dominated the Premier League and even knocked Liverpool off their perch by surpassing their record league title haul. Although Sir Alex has managed some exceptional teams in the past that have dominated, he has also had to navigate his way though some tricky periods of transition by breaking up and rebuilding successful sides. Nobody would doubt Fergie’s ability to come through; nonetheless it cannot be denied that United are currently in the middle of a tough transition. United started the season in imperious form by ploughing through their opponents whilst ingratiating the likes of Cleverly and Welbeck into the team.

However cracks have appeared to form, injuries to the likes of Cleverly and the humiliating 6-1 battering at the hands of their blue neighbours Man City have put things into perspective. United sit second in the table with 30 points and are still picking up victories, but they are not playing well. One problem is that their talisman Wayne Rooney is going through a dry patch; he hasn’t scored in the league since the 3-1 victory over Chelsea.

Wayne Rooney has not scored since the 3-1 victory against Chelsea in September (Picture from http://www.moviespad.com/photos/wayne-rooney-manchester-united-947ec.jpg)

Nonetheless United will surely come good and finish comfortably in the top four, however they may have already surrendered too much ground to their noisy neighbours to claim a 20th league title this season.
Prediction: 2nd

Manchester City
The blue moon is rising, and it looks mighty impressive. Since the 2008 Abu Dhabi takeover City have spent heavily on players, around half a billion! The recruitment of world class technicians such as David Silva and Yaya Toure have been complimented by Roberto Mancini’s desire to open up his team and unleash hell upon City’s opponents. In 13 games the sky blues have been majestic, scoring 43 goals and amassing 35 points. The only blemishes on their record have been two draws against Fulham and Liverpool.
Although Liverpool gave them a scare on Sunday, City looked impressive as they withstood a huge amount of pressure during the second half and held on for a hard fought point. Man City not only look exciting going forward but consistent in defence; they have the joint best defence in the league.

In the context of a stuttering United, this league title is City’s to lose, and with the depth of their squad it doesn’t look like they will choke any time soon.
Prediction: 1st

Chelsea
Chelsea have been the only credible challengers to Manchester United’s domination in recent years. Roman Abramovich’s huge investment on players and the guidance of Jose Mourinho helped forge a powerful Chelsea side that became Premier League stalwarts; and went on to win three league titles (one under Carlo Ancelotti).

However Chelsea are now an ageing side and have become stale as a life-force within the league. Players such as Drogba, Terry, and Lampard who were previously the epitome of Chelsea’s driving success now look like they are on the decline.

Abramovich appointed Andre Villas-Boas in an attempt to instil a new lease of life into the team to compliment the January transfer spending on Torres and David Luiz. However a rotten run of form (five losses in nine in all competitions) has shown that there can be no quick fix to Chelsea’s problems. Firstly Villas-Boas, if he is the right man for the job, clearly needs more time to adapt to the style of play in England. Secondly, Chelsea are in need of a costly recruitment drive as they lack quality and imagination on the flanks, while their previously watertight defence is sinking like the titanic. This is not to say that Chelsea are finished, only a fool would write them off. However they are in danger of losing ground to their rivals.

Villas-Boas has struggled at Chelsea since his move from FC Porto in the summer. (Picture from http://i.thisislondon.co.uk/i/pix/gen/2011/11/andre-villas-boas-chelsea-fc-26648.jpg)

Villas-Boas may not be the right man for the job, under him his side look slow and cumbersome in attack, neglecting the flanks, while his inability to effectively pair Torres and Drogba must surely have frustrated Abramovich. Chelsea’s fortunes could quite easily change as they still have some superb players; old and new, such as Daniel Sturridge, Juan Mata, and Didier Drogba. They can be a match for anyone on their day, but this season they have been anything but consistent and for that reason I believe they will just miss out on a top four finish.
Prediction: 5th

Tottenham
Spurs have always been easy on the eye, but Harry Redknapp has added real steel to the team. With the likes of Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, and Rafael Van Der Vart the side possesses creativity, pace and goals. Furthermore, with new signing Scott Parker patrolling the centre of the park Redknapp’s side are capable of battling to hard fought victories.

Since Spurs’ humiliating losses to Man City and Man United they have went on to record nine victories from ten in the league. Spurs have not only been consistent but even battled to victories in games where they have been under the cosh, such as the 3-1 away victory over Fulham. They also have a game in hand on Manchester United, if they win they will leap-frog them into second place. Doing well in this league is all about performing consistently, other than City, Spurs have been the most consistent in the league so far.
Prediction: 3rd

Liverpool
Liverpool fans must be cursing their poor home form and apparent inability to kill off teams when they have the chance. Five home draws have left Liverpooll lying sixth in the table on 23 points. Although they are very much in contention it has been a season of ‘what if’s’ so far for the Kop. Home draws against Manchester United, Sunderland, Norwich, and arguably Man City should have been victories. Had this been the case the reds would be serious title contenders. Nonetheless results are what count. Liverpool have lacked a killer instinct in front of goal, which has led to a squandering of chances, and an inability to convert decent performances into victories.

However there still remains real cause for optimism, they have the joint best defence in the league and are currently on an unbeaten run of 11 games in all competitions. Furthermore their recent away victory over Chelsea in the league, and their outstanding performance against Manchester City that nearly culminated in victory shows promise for the reds.

So far this season Liverpool have not been consistent enough in terms of recording victories, however they are showing signs of gelling together better as a team with each game. This combined with the momentum gained from recent form may well provide Liverpool with the ammunition to mount a serious assault on the final Champions League place.
Prediction: 4th

Arsenal
After the sales of the influential Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas were compounded by a bad start to the season, some Arsenal fans committed blasphemy and questioned Arsene Wenger’s tenancy as the guardian of Arsenal FC. However after an incredible run of five wins from six in the league the gunners have put themselves back in the mix for a top four finish.

Robin Van Persie has been outstanding for Arsenal this season. (Picture from http://www.sportsnewseye.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Arsenal-Club-New-Captain-Robin-van-Persie.jpg)

The principal reason that Arsenal are currently flying so high is that Robin Van Persie has been in the form of his life, plundering 13 goals so far this season. With the Dutchman currently looking like one of the most dangerous strikers on the planet, critics would be brave to rule Arsene Wenger’s men out of a top four finish. However Van Persie has struggled with injuries throughout his career, were he to become injured Arsenal’s run of form might abandon them. Arsenal’s next highest league scorers are Theo Walcot, Gervinho, and Mikel Arteta who have just two league goals each to their names.

Although Wenger’s men still remain capable of producing magnificent performances on their day, the erosion of their squad has left them short of quality should their first XI become injured. If Van Persie becomes injured it seems unlikely that either Chamakh or Park would take up the goal scoring mantel for the gunners.
Prediction: 6th

Newcastle
Alan Pardew has done a remarkable job at Newcastle this season. Somehow, against all the odds they are flying high in fourth place with 26 points. They have replaced the likes of Joey Barton, Andy Carroll, and Kevin Nolan with Demba Ba, and Yohan Cabaye. Furthermore they have a solid defence and have based their success on battling to great performances such as the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Newcastle are the surprise package of the league this season, however they lack the quality to consistently rack up the required number of victories to pip the Premier League juggernauts to a place in the Champions League.
Prediction: 7th/8th

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