The race for the Premier League crown is set to intensify over the coming weeks and the contenders have just two short months to overtake current leaders and title favourites Manchester United writes Ger McCarthy.
There are ten rounds of fixtures remaining in the 2010/11 Premier League and following Manchester United’s 2-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge last night the bookies favourites to lift the championship look set for an intense battle that could right to the wire. The other top four ranked clubs have two months to mount a late title bid, this article concentrates on the various strengths and weaknesses of Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea ahead of what will be a fascinating run-in.
Injuries, suspensions plus Champions League and FA Cup commitments for the likes of Man United Chelsea and Arsenal suggest the destination of this season’s Premier League trophy might not be Old Trafford as previously thought. Sir Alex Ferguson side’s unbeaten run in the league came to crashing halt at Molinuex recently and last night’s capitulation at Stamford Bridge has left the door slightly ajar for the chasing pack to close in on the leaders.
The remaining weeks of the League will test each contender’s squad to the limit where the strengths and weaknesses of each club will be exposed before a champion is finally crowned.
The form and goals of Carlos Tevez has helped Manchester City up to third spot in the standings at the time of writing. 18 League strikes from the Argentinean striker have helped City overcome a slow start to take their place amongst the top four for much of the campaign. Tevez’s ability to link midfield and attack has also helped new signing Edwin Dzeko bed in and the combination of those two strikers should reap dividends in the coming weeks.
English international Goalkeeper Joe Hart has seen off the challenge of Republic of Ireland net-minder Shay Given and conceded a paltry 23 goals en-route to amassing 50 points. Roberto Mancini’s clear-out of the likes of Stephen Ireland and Craig Bellamy – with replacements Ya Ya Toure and David Silva impressing – has helped push the Eastland’s club into the outskirts of Championship contention. City’s home form has also been hugely impressive with 25 points garnered in front of their supporters and only two defeats thus far.
A lack of experience in contesting a Premier League title run-in places Manchester City as rank outsiders to claim the 2010/2011 title. True, the Eastland’s club have league winners from other countries within their ranks – including the likes of Ya Ya Toure – but an expensively assembled squad remain ten points behind their bitter city rivals which looks too much of a gap to close in the final eight weeks.
Manchester City look set to claim a Champions League berth by finishing fourth and fulfilling the pre-season wishes of the club’s new owners. The bar will be raised next year however when Roberto Mancini will be expected to challenge for and win the Premier League crown.
The reigning title holders gained a much needed win over Manchester United last night and that morale boost is likely to spur the Londoner’s on ahead of their remaining games. Chelsea’s defence has proven the stingiest in the Premier League conceding a paltry 23 goals. Carlo Ancelotti’s side have averaged 2 goals every home game as well thanks to the evenly spread 48 goals netted by top scorers Drogba, Kalou, Anelka and Malouda.
John Terry and new signing David Luiz look set to form a terrific central defensive shield for the title run-in even though goalkeeper Peter Cech has already enjoyed one of his best seasons between the sticks for the Pensioners. The return of Jose Bosingwa from injury and Ashley Cole’s form gives Chelsea a sound defensive platform heading into the last two months.
Michael Essien and new signing Ramires have settled into a midfield buoyed by the return of the long term injury Frank Lampard who announced his comeback with a concerted penalty in the 2-1 defeat of United. All the pieces appear to be falling into place for Chelsea but it looks too late for Ancelotti’s men to close the gap and retain their title.
The addition of Fernando Torres during the January transfer window will prove to be a strength in the long run but the arrival of the Spanish hit-man served only to unbalance a previously impressive forward-line. Ancelloti was forced to bench Drogba to accommodate the Stamford Bridge side’s record signing and Chelsea’s approach play suffered resulting in surprise results as the away draw at Fulham and 1-0 loss at home to Liverpool.
Hardly a weakness I’ll admit but the fact Chelsea’s eyes may now be fixed on a Champions League trophy their owner craves rather than the unlikely overtaking of Manchester United and Arsenal on the domestic front. In short the League title may be out of reach so the intensity needed in every fixture between here and the end of the campaign may be reserved instead for the lucrative European Cup competition.
Chelsea’s mid-season slump has left the 2010 Premier League Champions with too difficult a mountain to climb in their pursuit of Manchester United. It says a lot when the pre-match statistic from last night’s clash with United stated that had Chelsea lost they would have been closer (on points) to the bottom placed club rather than the league leaders. A morale boosting win was recorded but unless United suffer a drastic collapse the best Chelsea can hope for is third place this time around.
Arsenal’s average of 2.1 goals scored both home and away is amongst the most prolific statistic for any Premier League club this term. The emergence of Jack Wilshere as a creative force in the heart of Arsenal’s midfield has proven the most pleasing development for Arsene Wenger this year. Already and England international Wilshere has proven his worth with a succession of stellar displays in the absence of Fabregas. Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott produced some of their best displays in an Arsenal jersey this season and the form and fitness of both will prove pivotal to the Gunner’s ambitions in the run-in.
The Gunners’ ability to dissect opposition defences and produce some of the most beautiful football on the continent (apart from Barcelona) marks them down as serious title contenders despite the recent disappointment of a Carling Cup final loss to Birmingham City. A surprise home defeat to Tottenham along with the throwing away of a 4-0 lead at Newcastle (and 1-0 loss at home to Alan Pardew’s team) were low points in a campaign punctuated by inspiring victories over Chelsea and Manchester City.
In short, the search for a first major honour in six seasons goes on but Arsenal remain the most probable heirs to the Premier League title if they can close the gap on United in the remaining weeks. It won’t be easy but the likes of Nasri, Arshavin, Bendtner and Wilshere need to step up and assume the mantle of responsibility usually associated with Fabregas and Van Persie if Arsene Wenger’s young side are to finally realise their potential.
A perennial struggle with injuries which has dogged previous title bids looks set to prevent Arsenal from grabbing top honours yet again this season. The Gunners lost both Theo Walcott and Cesc Fabregas in recent weeks but the injury to striker Robin Van Persie could prove most costly, as the Dutch international appeared to be returning to form following an influential display and brilliantly taken goal in the Carling Cup final defeat to Birmingham City.
The mental belief required by any championship winning squad is not apparent amongst the current crop of Arsenal first teamers. There is no doubt that an abundance of talent and ability is present but that old chestnut of over-passing in front of goal rather than shooting against the stronger sides in the Premier remains infuriatingly present.
On paper Arsenal are the best equipped squad to overtake United at the summit of the standings but a loss of key players to injury coupled with inadequate replacements looks set to spoil another potential trophy-winning season for the North London club. Expect Arsenal to push United in close in the final weeks but a runners-up spot beckons yet again for Arsene Wenger’s team.
A squad that can boast the experience and achievements of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand can overcome a current mini-slump which has seen United lose two out of their previous four league games. Despite the fact first choice centre-halves Vidic and Ferdinand are set to miss the Liverpool clash on Sunday Manchester United still possess a squad capable of getting a draw at Anfield and building on that result to go on and win the title. The form of Edwin Van der Sar has been superb of late with the Dutch goalkeeper proving an impenetrable barrier with an average of 0.6 goals conceded at home and only 1.3 away.
United have never reached the heights of previous championship winning campaigns but have remained dogged and hard to beat throughout 2010/2011 and always done enough to get a result. Any side that can play badly yet manage to eke out a point away from home (United have only won 4 away games) whilst remaining unbeaten on their home ground will invariably be in title contention and if Man United can maintain that dogged approach in the closing weeks then the title is theirs to lose.
Dimitar Berbatov’s 19 Premier League goals have proven a welcome fillip to the disappointing form of England international Wayne Rooney who has contributed a mere 7. Javier Hernandez’s debut season in the Premier League has returned a welcome 9 strikes and all three strikers’ capability in front of goal will represents United’s biggest strength in the coming weeks.
The central midfield area has surprisingly proven to be a bone of contention for United’s fans this season. Apart from Paul Scholes (who has been used sparingly compared to previous campaigns) the lack of a creative midfield player that can unlock an opposing back four with a defence-splitting pass has frustrated United on many occasions. Various combinations of Darren Fletcher, Anderson, Darren Gibson and Michael Carrick have proven successful in protecting United’s back with but the burden of creativity falling to winger’s Nani and Giggs.
Discipline is another element which could yet upset Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad. Vidic’s red card against Chelsea plus previous unpunished indiscretions by Wayne Rooney will United under the microscope and on the back pages of the tabloids in the closing weeks.
Despite a recent dip in form Manchester United remain on course to lift this season’s Premier League title and possess enough experience within their squad to see out the final weeks of the season and bring the trophy back to Old Trafford. It will be close but United will win it out.
Ger McCarthy is author of the book entitled ‘Off Centre Circle’ about a lifetime spent playing amateur football in Ireland. Follow him on Twitter by clicking here.