It’s past Christmas and we are two rounds of matches away from being at the halfway point of the season. At the beginning of January in 2011, during the previous campaign, Chelsea were outside the top 4 – they were in the middle of a disastrous spell under Carlo Ancelotti – whilst Manchester United were top and comfortably clear of Manchester City in second. Arsenal and Tottenham occupied the other two positions. Liverpool were all the way down in 9th.
This season, the story is somewhat similar and yet altogether different. Manchester City, this time, lead the pack with Manchester United chasing in second position. Tottenham occupy third position, with conviction and justification too. Fourth position, currently held by Chelsea, is somewhat more open. Arsenal and Liverpool languish in 5th and 6th and both seem somewhat short on talent to be capable of launching a challenge for the top three positions. That suggests Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham will fight it out for the top position and how they end up will probably alternate a fair bit over the remainder of the season. The fact that none of these three are competing in the UEFA Champions League means that they will each be able to focus more intently on their tasks in the English Premier League. Tottenham are out of the Europa League whilst the two Manchester clubs are unlikely to put that competition ahead of the English Premiership. Manchester City and Manchester United are likely to use their fringe players, or those searching for match fitness, in the Europa League, leaving those who are considered first choice and most important by Roberto Mancini and Sir Alex Ferguson fit and focused for their tasks in the English Premiership.
It seems unlikely that Chelsea will break into the top three. They have a lack of imagination in attack, despite Daniel Sturridge’s continued improvement, and a questionable defence. What’s more, Didier Drogba, amongst others, will soon leave for the African Cup of Nations. With Chelsea not breaking into the top three, excusing an unlikely collapse from one of Tottenham, Manchester United or Manchester City,, the battle for the fourth and final Champions League position will be between Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool.
At this stage Chelsea will consider themselves favourites, with Liverpool the long shots, but Arsenal have been in impressive form for almost 10 weeks now and will also fancy their chances. Much of Arsenal’s success this season, that is to say whether they make that final Champions League spot or not, will depend on Robin Van Persie. He is Arsenals’ captain, top goalscorer and best player. Without him Arsenal appear altogether ordinary. Should he succumb to injury or poor form then Arsenal will struggle to maintain their current position, let alone improve on it. Liverpool, on the other hand, will think that their season can only improve from here. The team has a solid defence, a hard working midfield, but it is let down by a prolific profligacy in attack. Luis Suarez, for all his magic, is still rather wasteful and far from clinical. In spite of this, he is still Liverpool’s most important attacker. Andy Carroll has yet to convince any Liverpool fan of the worth of his transfer fee. Dirk Kuyt left his consistent scoring boots in Holland a long time ago and Craig Bellamy was never a reliable goalscorer, happening instead to score in fits and bursts. Liverpool need goals, Arsenal need Robin Van Persie to maintain his form, and Chelsea need to adjust to their managers methods. Two of the three won’t make next seasons Champions League via the English Premiership qualifying positions – after all Chelsea or Arsenal might still win the competition. Who will finish in the top 4 of the EPL? Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham and one more. Who will be the other one? Each guess is as good as the other.