2015-16 Premier League Preview

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The 2015/16 Barclay’s Premier League season is just days away, and while the spending and the speculation are far from over, the countdown clock to opening day is all but spent. The big boys will fight for glory and the minnows will fight for survival, and to kick off the 2015/16 season preview, The Starting Point takes a look at the clubs to watch in the hunt for glory this season, courtesy of Premier League analyst Greg Hudson.

Club to Win it All: Chelsea F.C.

Jose Mourinho’s men won it all last season, and there’s no reason to think they won’t do it again in 2015/16. They have a seemingly irresistible mix of solid defense anchored by John Terry, quality midfield play in the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Oscar, and clinical attack through Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, and that makes them a danger on their worst days, and a juggernaut on their best.

The summer has been fairly quiet at Stamford Bridge, with the biggest activities being the departures of backup goalkeeper Petr Cech to Arsenal and the return of defender Felipe Luis to Atletico Madrid after an unremarkable year with the London side.

But the relative quietude for Chelsea is more a sign of their confidence than of a lack of initiative. It’s often said that champions who don’t improve don’t remain champions very long. It’s true, but although they haven’t added to their squad, this is a fairly young group of players – goalkeeper Thibault Courtois, defender Cesar Azpilicueta, midfielders Oscar and Nemanja Matic, and both Hazard and Costa are still at-or-before their prime – and they’ve spent the summer gelling into an even better side. A 1-0 setback in the Charity Shield to Arsenal won’t bother them much: they’re still the favorites to win the title – and for good reason.

Dark Horse Title Contenders – Arsenal F.C.

Arsenal were the in-form team of the second half of last season, and they’ll look to continue that hot streak in 2015/16, as star forward Alexis Sanchez begins his second season with the club and home-grown talent Francois Coquelin and Hector Bellerin look to become staples in the fiber of the club.

The biggest action of the summer was the acquisition of goalkeeper Petr Cech from Chelsea, and while he’d been supplanted at Stamford Bridge by young hotshot Thibault Courtois, expect Cech to step right into the Arsenal squad between the sticks and make an immediate impact for Arsene Wenger’s side at the Emirates this season. Goalkeeping was Arsenal’s Achilles heel last term, as both Wojciech Szczesny and David Ospina failed to really bolster the defensive unit.

With Cech in goal, Arsenal can fully commit to the kind of attacking play that saw them finish third last season. That gives the likes of Mezut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey the confidence to get forward and help Sanchez, Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott with the goals Arsenal need to mount a title challenge.

Most Overrated Club – Manchester United F.C.

Yes, yes, I’m on the Hate United bandwagon. But not really. If you look at Manchester United, you see the single most imbalanced team in all of European football – world class attacking talent in front of a back line with no true leader and a goalkeeper whose days at Old Trafford are numbered – and that number is alarmingly small.

There’s no denying that United have some world class attacking ability. Even with the departures of Angel di Maria and Robin van Persie, the Red Devils still have Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera helping create magical moments on the pitch. So when I looked at Man U’s situation at the end of last season – particularly given that they’d be returning to European competition in the Champions’ League – I assumed their top priority would be defensive strength. With Mats Hummels strongly linked to Old Trafford and Chelsea’s Petr Cech available to replace goalkeeper David de Gea, whose move to Real Madrid is somewhat of a foregone conclusion, it seemed compulsory that United make the move to bring world class defending to the Theatre of Dreams, in a necessary attempt to improve a side which allowed five goals to Leicester City last season.

But they didn’t. The only defensive move the team has made has been the addition of fullback Mateo Darmian, which was followed with the departure of long-time right back Rafael. Instead, the side have brought on Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger to improve the midfield, and world-class winger Memphis Depay to add to the goals department. But where is the defense!? It’s a question manager Louis van Gaal has ignored, or else he’s lost the memo. When your top defensive unit includes Chris Smalling, you’re in big trouble. And with de Gea gone in the coming weeks, there’s no way United can mount a serious title challenge. If you want proof that an all-attack-no-defense system doesn’t win the title, just ask Liverpool: they came about as close to pulling it off two seasons ago before it all unraveled at the finish line. Don’t be looking to see Manchester United at the top of the pile this season – unless they make some serious moves between now and deadline day.

Most Underrated Club – Liverpool F.C.

Two seasons ago, the Reds came as close to winning the title as a team can come without a solid defensive unit. Sadly, two years later, that defensive unit hasn’t improved much. But Brendan Rodgers has a much more all-around team now than he had in that (un)forgettable campaign in 2013/14. The likes of Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic are beginning to come into their own, and Emre Can looks set to finally make a difference for Liverpool in his natural position in midfield. Yes, the team has lost three of its core players in the last 13 months in Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling. And yes, last season was an unmitigated disaster with Mario Balotelli proving perhaps the transfer blunder of the season and Daniel Sturridge finding the net just four times as he missed three quarters of the season through injury.

But the Reds still managed to finish sixth for Rodgers and the Anfield faithful, and another summer of spending has again highlighted Rodgers’ smart mentality. Joe Gomez is a top defender of the future, and while he’s unlikely to make a big difference now, Nathaniel Clyne is a top fullback and his addition to the back line will make an immediate impact, both at the back and going forward. Roberto Firmino will partner well with Philippe Countinho in the attacking midfield, and young Jordan Ibe will feature a lot in the side after making some breakthrough performances in the preseason. But the move of the summer was the addition of Christian Benteke, a man whose numbers at Aston Villa nearly mirrored those of Luis Suarez in his time with Liverpool and whose strong attacking presence will surely help the Reds with their biggest problem from last term: goals.

They aren’t title contenders. They simply aren’t that quality a side yet. But this is a predominantly young team, one of the youngest in the league, and the talent and creativity is undeniable. Of all the teams that failed to finish in the top four last year, I rate Liverpool as most likely to do it this season.

Stay tuned to The Starting Point for more of Greg’s preseason thoughts as he looks at teams who will be fighting for their Premier League futures in the upcoming campaign – and who might just make it out alive.

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Premier League Pick ‘Em

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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.

Top-Four Contenders

Arsenal

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.

Liverpool

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.

Top-Four Failures

Southampton

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.

 

Manchester United

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

Hull City

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.

Burnley

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.

Aston Villa

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.

3 Points With Aaron Hampton

By Aaron Hampton

Three thoughts from the past weekend of EPL action that saw Chelsea impress, Manchester United earn a hard fought three points, and Southampton continue to improve their top four credentials:

Chelsea Impress, City Search for Answers

The two clubs at the summit of the Premier League put in two contrasting performances over the weekend as Chelsea cruised to 5-0 victory over Swansea, while Manchester City struggled in their 2-0 defeat to Arsenal. After a 5-3 defeat to Tottenham to start the new year, Chelsea now seem poised to put their recent lackluster run of form behind them, having now kept back-to-back clean sheets in the Premier League and netting a combined 7 goals against Newcastle and Swansea City respectively. Saturday’s win over Swansea was everything we’ve come to expect from Jose Mourinho’s side on both sides of the ball, as they took the lead just 48 seconds in behind a goal from Oscar and rode a sublime performance from Diego Costa en route to victory.

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Saturday’s win over Swansea took the Blues five points clear of Manchester City, who themselves could not muster a result against an Arsenal team that has quietly won 5 of their last 7 Premier League matches. The return of Vincent Kompany was thought to give City a boost going into the match-up, but the Belgium international showed rust throughout and personified an unimpressive day for the City defense.  With Arsenal striking for goals on either side of the half, City were unable to find a breakthrough despite enjoying a healthy amount of possession.  With their unbeaten streak of 12 snapped, and their midfield engine Yaya Toure away on international duty, all eyes will be focused on a January 31st clash with league leaders Chelsea, which has the potential to see Chelsea move eight points clear of their nearest threat to the Premier League crown.

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Manchester United Survive

Louis Van Gaal has long admitted that Manchester United remain a work in progress despite sitting fourth in the Premier League, and Saturday’s 2-0 win over QPR showed his squad still have much smoothing over to do before they are a finished product.  For a majority of the first half, QPR looked much the more threatening side in carving out better chances of the two squads. United, who rolled out a 3-4-1-2 formation to start the match, showed they still have yet to achieve a comfort level using three at the back and looked much better once Van Gaal went to a more orthodox back four in the second half.

Goals by Marouane Fellaini and James Wilson were enough to allow Manchester United to pick up the three points, but they have still yet to click going forward with all of their expensively assembled attacking options. Radamel Falcao put in decent shift against QPR, but his scoring touch has yet to make its way to Old Trafford as he could not find the back of the net despite having at least two clear-cut chances at goal.

Falcao was partnered up top with Angel Di Maria, who Van Gaal continues to experiment with up front as a forward to mixed results at best.  Di Maria works best centrally or out wide were he can take advantage of his blistering pace to move past defenders to go either on goal or set-up teammates.  When you pay close to $100 million dollars to bring in Di Maria you have to maximize his strengths, and playing with his back to goal or dropping deep just doesn’t allow him to impact the game in ways we’ve become accustomed to seeing.

In the end, it’s hard to argue after a club takes home three points, but if this result is any indication Van Gaal will remain the mad scientist tinkering for answers, while United remain a work in progress.

Southampton Continues to Impress

A recent run of 16 points out of a possible 18 have Southampton sitting third in the Premier League table and bunkering in for what will be a season-long push for Champions League football at St. Mary’s Stadium come next season.  Recent loan signing Eljero Elia repaired the Saints gratitude as he scored his first two goals for the club to help take them past Newcastle 2-1. Despite missing both Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama from their starting 11, Southampton never seemed as though they were ever truly threatened in the match by Newcastle, who themselves suffered their third defeat in four games.
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It seems like only yesterday questions surrounded Southampton and their ambitions to field a competitive club after selling off the likes of Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, and a host of others, and yet week in and week out they continue to defy expectations and make us all of wonder if they have yet to even played their best football this season.  Whether or not Southampton can this up and see out the season in one of the four Champions League spots remains anybody’s guess, but with matches against Crystal Palace, Swansea City, and QPR all looming on the horizon, one has to fancy their chances to at least ride this wave of incredible form for the foreseeable future.

Who’s Hot ? Whose Not ?

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By Greg Hudson

The 2014/15 Barclay’s Premier League season is one-third complete, and some clubs are emerging as potential contenders while others falter in the hunt for supremacy. Here’s a list of who’s hot, who’s not, and which side remains a mystery:

WHO’S HOT:

Chelsea: Jose Mourinho’s men have gotten off to one of the hottest starts in Premier League history, winning ten of their first 13 contests and going unbeaten. Their free-flowing and creative attack has belied Mourinho’s reputation as a defensive-minded manager, but the defense has been almost unbreakable all season. They sit atop the league by six points over champions Manchester City and frankly don’t look like they can be caught at this point. It’s a foolish thing to say at such an early point in the season, with so much time remaining for players to lose their form or suffer the injury bug, but all signs point to a reality that anyone wanting to win the title this season will have to do so over Chelsea’s dead bodies.

Southampton: The Saints were almost everyone’s – including my own – favorites for relegation after Liverpool and other top clubs raided the club of its best talent during the summer transfer window. But Southampton have not only replaced them, they look like an improved side for it, with new striker Graziano Pelle benefitting from excellent link-up play from new winger Susan Tadiç. Saints currently sit third in the table and based on current form, could put up a good fight for a spot in the Champions’ League next year.

WHO’S NOT

Manchester City: Last year’s champions won’t be pleased with their performance so far this season. It’s almost unfair to say that the team which sits second isn’t hot but they simply haven’t lived up to expectations as the most talented group of players in England. They’ve been too reliant on Sergio Agüero for goals and their once-solid defense has at times looked porous. They’re only six points behind Chelsea but based on current form they might as well be 12 points back because they have their work cut out.

Liverpool: Like City, the Reds came down hard off a great season. They lost superstar striker Luis Suarez to Barcelona and invested in several good players but they simply haven’t meshed yet, and with star striker Daniel Sturbridge out since the end of August, things have looked dire for Liverpool who have just 17 points and sit 11th. It is very reminiscent of Tottenham Hotspur last season, when they lost Gareth Bale and struggled to find chemistry with the seven new players they signed. The good news for the Reds is that Spurs look strong a year later, and so while this season isn’t set to amount to much, improved form next season could see them again return to a fight at the top.

MYSTERY:

Manchester United: I say United are a mystery because they are a very inconsistent and unbalanced side with four world class attackers but a defense which remains a shambles. Somehow they sit in fourth but how they’ve gotten there is indeed quite a mystery. A team which loses 5-3 to bottom side Leicester but beats Arsenal 2-0 away from home is without question an unknown quantity which we’ll need to watch more closely to learn more about, to see if they’re contenders or pretenders

Premier League Preview

TOPIC Barclays Premiership trophy at the JJB Stadium

By Greg Hudson 

Saturday marks the Opening Day of the 2014-15 Barclay’s Premier League season, and the world’s premier league has added some of the world’s premier players to its ranks as the 20 clubs made moves looking to strengthen their squads. But whether a club is fighting for Premier League glory or simply for its Premier League survival, it looks to be an explosive and exciting season in England. The Starting Point’s Greg Hudson takes a look at the 20 clubs and looks at how each one should fare this season.

 
ARSENAL F.C.
Nickname: The Gunners
Kit Colors: Red/White; Blue/Yellow
Home: The Emirates Stadium
 
Arsenal come into this season on the heels of a 4th place finish last campaign, and while they’ll be disappointed to have fallen short of a series title challenge after sitting atop the league for more than half of the season, they’ll take comfort in securing another season of Champions’ League football with their 4th place finish, and claiming their first piece of silverware in nearly a decade by winning the F.A. Cup, and they’ll look to mount a series challenge this term.
 
They have the exciting addition of Alexis Sanchez to assist in that effort, having signed the Chilean forward from Barcelona after he lead his country to the quarterfinals of the World Cup in Brazil. This will bolster an attack that at times seemed to lack grit last season. Conversely, Arsenal’s rock-solid defense last term looks to be slightly less impenetrable this season after the departures of fullback Bacary Sagna to Manchester City and captain Thomas Vermaelen to Barcelona. This isn’t to say they’ll struggle defensively, but teams may look at Arsenal and go in with more of a belief that they can come out and score goals against the Gunners.
 
Predicted Finish: 5th
 
ASTON VILLA F.C.
Nickname: The Villans
Kit Colors: Claret/Sky; White
Home: Villa Park
 
The Villans were a top-half side just a few years ago, but the almost-mighty have fallen into the clutches of relegation fights each of the past two seasons, with the West Midlands side salvaging a 15th place finish last season, five points above the drop. But while some of their more notable players in the past five seasons are long gone, namely Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, the gap they left has been filled by younger players eager to prove themselves, and this explains their dip in performance.
 
But in 2014-15, look for their younger players like Christian Benteke and Andy Weimann to really step up their play. They’ve both got two full seasons of Premiership football underneath them now, and they’re developing the maturity that fully-fledged footballers need. That being said, they’ve also looked to add experience to the side by adding Joe Cole and Kieran Richardson.
 
But this team is not full of the kind of talent that will lead them to the top of the table, or, in fairness, even the top half of the table. Look for them to settle into a comfortable spot in the bottom half of the table, well clear of the drop zone.
 
Predicted Finish: 12th
 
BURNLEY F.C.
Nickname: The Clarets
Kit Colors: Claret/Blue; Black
Home: Turf Moor
 
The Clarets make their return to top-flight football for the first time in four years, but a successful season in the Championship is no sure sign of success in the Premiership a year later, because the level of competition is so much higher in this league. For many teams, a stay in Premier League often lasts one season, a lesson Crystal Palace took several attempts to learn.
 
Burnley have dipped into the transfer market to add proven Permier-League-calibre players to the squad, and among the signings are Michael Kightly and Matty Taylor, Premiership veterans both. But the blunt truth is that this is not a Premier League team, and they won’t be here for very long.
 
Predicted Finish: 20th
 
CHELSEA F.C.
Nickname: The Blues
Kit Colors: Blue; Yellow/Blue
Home: Stamford Bridge
 
Chelsea were title favourites last season after the return of Jose Mourinho and the addition of several major signings, but they often failed to live up to the potential they have, especially from an attacking perspective. Mourinho’s defense-first mentality limited the action of world-class attackers like Juan Mata, who left in January for Manchester United, but his tactics proved effective, if not infuriating. Their 2-0 defeat of Liverpool at Anfield in April was the Reds’ ultimate undoing, and while Chelsea can hardly be adjudged to have played football on that day, when they do come out to play football, there are few teams that do it better.
 
To add to their chances, standout midfielder Cesc Fabregas joined the ranks from Barcelona, and La Liga superstar Diego Costa signed on from Atletico Madrid. Costa will likely prove the more essential to their success, as Chelsea strikers scored just nine goals all season last term.
 
But it was Chelsea’s defense that saw them to their 3rd place finish last season, and that defensive unit has been weakened, somewhat significantly, by the departures of David Luiz and Ashley Cole. So it will be interesting to see how the Blues fare this season with what will almost certainly require a re-working of tactics. But don’t expect it to mean a drop in their finish.
 
Predicted Finish: 2nd
 
CRYSTAL PALACE F.C.
Nickname: The Eagles
Kit Colors: Blue/Red; Yellow
Home: Selhurst Park
 
Palace were last season’s shockers. After tallying just four points by the beginning of November and sitting at the bottom of the table, Tony Pulis was appointed manager and the club’s fortunes reversed. The Eagles not only surprised fans by beating the drop for the first time in the club’s history, but they finished an incredible 11th, gaining wins against high-fliers Chelsea, Everton, and Arsenal, and rallying from 3-0 to take a point from Liverpool in May. 
 
But while Pulis was able to get the most out of his players, his departure from the club in the summer could be construed as a minor cataclysm. But it isn’t as bad as it might seem. Progress cannot be undone, and the confidence and quality in this side suggests they can continue their mid-table success. Their additions of Brede Hangeland and Martin Kelly will only help to shore up a defense that on occasions looked thoroughly amateur. A solid defense and a confident attack spells a good season for the Eagles.
 
Predicted Finish: 10th

Helping the Cause(s)

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How Fabio Borini’s Big Penalty Kick Helps Both His Clubs
By Greg Hudson
 
With 81 minutes on the clock and the score tied 1-1, Fabio Borini stepped up to the penalty spot Saturday at Stamford Bridge with a big opportunity to help his team.
 
Correction: both his teams.
 
In the only sport where clubs can loan players to other teams for the season and get them back afterwards, a loan spell for a young player at another club can be beneficial for both teams involved. And this weekend’s Premier League fixtures are the perfect illustration.
 
The young Italian forward signed for Liverpool in the summer of 2012, but a lackluster 2012/13 campaign was cut short due to injury, and he was deemed surplus to requirements by Brendan Rodgers during the summer and was snapped up by Sunderland on a season-long loan deal.
 
And it could be a move that pays dividends for both teams involved in seasons of stark contrast. Liverpool sit in first place in the league, in striking distance of their first league title since 1990, while the Black Cats endured a disastrous first half to their league campaign and have been fighting for Premier League survival with every match, trying desperately to avoid relegation.
 
Sunderland have gone lengths to helping that cause in the past week, and have given Borini’s parent club a big boost in the process, collecting a precious point Wednesday against Liverpool’s title rivals Manchester City, and they headed to Stamford Bridge on Saturday with a view of striking a blow to Chelsea in a game of two teams fighting two different battles: Chelsea fighting for Premier League glory, and Sunderland fighting for their lives.
 
After falling 1-0 behind early, Sunderland found a response through Connor Wickham, and when American striker Jozy Altidore went down in the penalty area under Cesar Azpilicueta’s challenge with 10 minutes to go, Borini stepped up with a chance to strike a blow for both his clubs.
 
He calmly slotted home past Petr Cech to clinch a massive victory for Sunderland, and essentially give an extra 3 points to Liverpool in the process. The Reds’ 3-2 win over Sunderland’s fellow relegation-fighters Norwich City, their 11th win on the bounce, gives them a five point lead over the Blues with three matches to play.
 
Liverpool’s last league defeat came in December against the Blues at Stamford Bridge. Since then, they have gone 16 games without a loss, including their current 11-game winning streak, while Chelsea have lost three of their last six, including Saturday’s shock loss to Sunderland.
 
Chelsea travel to Anfield to face Liverpool on Saturday, in a match Chelsea must win if they want to keep their fading title hopes alive, while a win for Liverpool would all but eliminate one of their principle rivals from the title race.

Winner-Take-All?

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Liverpool and Man City clash could well decide the Premier League title.
By Greg Hudson
 
When Liverpool beat Cardiff City in December to sit first in the Barclay’s Premier League at Christmas for the first time in nearly two decades, few pundits or fans believed they’d remain there for long. And two narrow defeats to championship rivals Manchester City and Chelsea in the final week of 2013 left the Reds in fourth place, down but not out.
 
But while other title contenders have stumbled – Chelsea suffered shock defeats to Aston Villa and Crystal Palace; City were held 0-0 by Norwich City; Arsenal lost 6-0 to Chelsea, 5-1 to Liverpool, 3-0 to Everton – Liverpool have emerged in 2014 as legitimate title contenders. They are unbeaten in 2014, a run of 14 matches since their loss to Chelsea. The Reds are currently on a nine-game winning streak, and when they thrashed Tottenham Hotspur 4-0 at Anfield at the end of March, they regained the top spot in the league with just 5 matches to go.
 
Liverpool now have destiny entirely in their hands. If they win their five remaining matches, they will lift the trophy for the 19th time, but on the first occasion since 1990.
 
But Manchester City have seven games remaining, and they too have destiny entirely in their hands: win their remaining games and they win the title. And a 2-1 victory over Liverpool after Christmas will give the Citizens confidence.
 
A win for either side could potentially decide the title, with Liverpool poised to put themselves 1 point clear of City’s maximum remaining points, while City could move past the Reds’ potential by 5 with a win of their own, though that task will be difficult against a Liverpool side that lead the league in goals scored and are on a run of for unrivaled in the league this season.
 
A draw, on the other hand, could prove fatal for both sides, as it would potentially allow Chelsea back into the championship argument. And with a month left in this the season of seasons, truly anything can happen.