We’re two-thirds of the way through the 2014/15 Barclay’s Premier League season and things are heating up at the top of the table – and the bottom – as the fight for Premier League glory – and survival – hits the home stretch.
At the top, Chelsea (60 points) hold a five-point lead over defending champions Manchester City (55). The real fight lies between positions three through seven, where Arsenal (48 points), Manchester United (47), Southampton (46), Liverpool (45), and Tottenham Hotspur (44) are separated by a total of four points.
Meanwhile, at the bottom, Leicester City are four points from safety with 18, while Burnley, Aston Villa, and Queen’s Park Rangers are knotted at 22 points apiece.
Starting Point’s Greg Hudson takes a look at who he thinks will earn a place among the elite, who will fall short of glory, and who will find a way to survive the most challenging league in world football.
The Gunners have been a consistent side this season, scoring goals with their mobile, free-flowing offense. They haven’t always been in the top four, but they haven’t always been fit either, as injuries to Aaron Ramsey and star forward Alexis Sanchez have hurt their form at times, but Arsenal have looked strong throughout the campaign. Defensively they’ve been strong and have played well against teams that like to play a physical game, and while their zonal-marking scheme at set pieces is an achilles heel, they aren’t easy to beat, and I’ll pick them to finish in the top four.
The Reds came oh-so-close to winning their first league title in a quarter century last season, and the departure of Luis Suarez and the addition of several new players meant they were never likely to challenge for the title this season. A slow start and injuries to Daniel Sturridge and departing captain Steven Gerrard have left them without a star player at times, but the team as a whole is progressing well. They’ve lost just one of their last 18 games in all competitions, and that was an extra-time defeat to Chelsea in the League Cup, and new boys Adam Lallana, Alberto Moreno and Lazar Markovic have been weighing in with needed goals as the Reds offense has found its feet. Meanwhile, the shaky defense that cost them the title last year has come into its own with a new formation, and the Reds defense has kept a clean sheet in five of their last six games in the league. I think they’ll overcome the slow start and book themselves a place among Europe’s elite with a top-four finish.
Make no mistake, Southampton are the surprise of the season. They’re a team that many picked to be relegated this year after so many of their key players left for higher places, but the “replacements” brought in by Ronald Koeman have not only filled their shoes – they’ve improved the side. Saints always looked like a team that could beat anybody on the day, but this season their fearless style of play and high-pressure defense has seen them sit as high as third. They’re on the outside looking in at the moment, in fifth, but wins over Arsenal and Manchester United should give them confidence as they head into the final push for the top four. That being said, they players at Koeman’s disposal aren’t used to the kind of pressure they’ll face in the fight to the finish this season. They simply haven’t been in this position before. A 2-0 loss at home to Liverpool offers evidence that perhaps they just aren’t quite there yet. I think they’ll fight hard, but I think they’ll come up just short.
United have responded well to new manager Louis van Gaal, but they’re a very unbalanced team. They’ve put on some great performances this season, including a 3-0 home win over top rivals Liverpool, but they’ve also suffered a 5-3 defeat to Leicester City, who currently sit bottom of the league, and have been beaten for a double by Swansea, losing both games by a 2-1 margin. The simple fact about the Red Devils is that they’re a team of very talented attackers – Rooney, Di Maria, Mata, van Persie and Falcao are household names across Europe and South America – but a team who’s standout defender is Chris Smalling is doomed to failure. I’m not knocking the man, but a team that has aspirations of greatness in domestic and international competitions needs world-class defenders as well as attackers. They don’t have that at this point, and a failure to bring in any new men at the back during the January transfer window indicates that van Gaal or the United board simply don’t understand the severity of the situation. I don’t think they’ll finish in the top four, since good sides like Liverpool and Arsenal will take a lesson from Swansea and exploit the huge achilles heel United seem to ignore, and the Red Devils will have a lot to answer for when that happens.
Premier League Survivors
The Tigers struggled immensely over the Christmas period and fell as low as 19th in early February. But new signing Dame N’Doye has given the Tigers a spark, and it’s taken a lot of pressure off their other big man, Nikica Jelavic. N’Doye has weighed in with goals in both his starts, and Jelavic has found the target as well, helping the Tigers to back-to-back wins for the first time this season, and seeing them go four points safe. The form isn’t permanent but their fighting spirit and an improved performance at home suggests that Hull City will not fall victim to the sophomore drop the way they did in their first Premier League visit. I’ll pick them to beat the drop, not necessarily in easy style, but I think they’ll stay up at least another term.
They’re right where they’ve spent most of the season: in the drop zone. But they’re a side that fights, and their 1-1 draw at Chelsea at the weekend is an example of it. They were on the road against the league leaders, but when given a man advantage after Nemanja Matic was sent off, the Clarets pulled level, and they’ve got the players to get the goals they need to survive. Youngster Danny Ings is one of the highest-scoring Englishmen in the league this term, and fullbacks Ben Mee and Kieren Trippier have been effective at supplying him. Ashley Barnes and Sam Vokes have been valuable attacking assets as well, and Tom Heaton has done his part in net, as the Clarets look for survival. I think they’ve got the fight they need, but unlike Leicester City who embody that same spirit, the points suggest Burnley might just live to fight another day in the league.
Premier League Dropouts
Queen’s Park Rangers
The Hoops are an weird bunch. They have name – good names – filling their team sheets each week, but the results they’ve earned hardly reflect the talent. The simple fact about Rangers is that they’re a team without a purpose. Watching them play, they lack spirit, they seem to believe that they’re going to lose before the opening kickoff, and once they fall behind there’s not much getting back into the game. Charlie Austin is the league’s highest-scoring Englishmen, and he’s just been given no support. Bobby Zamora and Eduardo Vargas have provided sparks of intensity from time to time, but the Hoops just don’t connect. They’re all on different pages, and a book that isn’t in the right order ends up at the bottom of the stack, which is where QPR will finish: in the drop zone.
The Villans have the players and they have the money. But they don’t have the quality. They’re a collection whose whole has yet to equal the sum of its parts. They’ve lost their last six in the league, and they’ve fired manager Paul Lambert two thirds of the way through the season. Norwich City tried it last year, hoping it would give them a spark that would ignite a resurgence. It didn’t work, and the move is typical of desperation that’s setting in at Villa Park. They sit 19th and boast the league’s worst defensive record. It wouldn’t be so bad if the offensive weapons at interim manager Tim Sherwood’s disposal could find the net, but since the new year they often appear as if they don’t know what the goal looks like, let alone how to put a ball in it. They’ve failed to score in four of their last six, including matches against Hull City and Leicester. Their inability to beat the teams around them in the table bodes very ill indeed for a team that’s one of just seven never to be relegated from the Premier League, and I expect we’ll be watching a league without the Villans in 2015/16.