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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Premier League Home Stretch: Assessing the Title Race, the Relegation Battle, and the Supposed Downfall of Manchester United

Title Race

In front of you stand three managers all attempting to snatch the Premier League Title in the final two months of the season: first, the always arrogant, always entertaining Jose Mourinho, who recently declared that his Chelsea squad have no hope of winning the league following a 1-0 defeat to lowly Crystal Palace; in the middle stands Brendan Rodgers, who with the help of a deadly striking duo has surprised everyone by taking Liverpool to the top of the table; and lastly Manuel Pellegrini, who in his first season in the BPL has led Manchester City to a current position of third place, though with two fewer matches played than their rivals, the Sky Blues can overtake both Chelsea and Liverpool should they win their games in hand.

The question on everybody's mind now is, of course, which club will finish the season in first? My answer, in short, is that I can't say for sure. If I had to guess, which I kind of have to otherwise this would be a pointless post, I'd say Manchester City will be named champions in a very tight race. They sit four points below league leaders Liverpool with two games in hand, therefore, if they win both of those matches, they will be at least two points ahead of second place. They only have one particularly difficult fixture left to play, and that's an away contest against Liverpool. Everton might frustrate them at Goodison, where they have only lost once all season, but the game at Anfield is still the toughest task left for Pellegrini's side. The return of top forward Sergio Aguero will be a big boost to the Manchester Club as well. Should Liverpool beat City in that game, they will have a pretty good shot at the title themselves. Chelsea also have to travel to Anfield, have no games in hand, and still have European play to worry about, so I think Mourinho's prognosis is a correct one. That's also another big game for Liverpool, who otherwise have an extremely tame fixture list. Their three remaining away games have them pitted against Norwich, West Ham, and Crystal Palace, though as Chelsea proved yesterday, Tony Pulis' men aren't always a pushover at Selhurst park. I expect the race to be settled in the second-to-last week of the year, and if not, all three should claim victory on the final matchday against manageable opponents, resulting in no shake-up atop the table.

Fight for Fourth Place & Champions League

Of course, the battle for the fourth & final champions league slot in England will be a pugnacious one as well. Spurs proved themselves today to be totally incompetent of beating any strong opponent, and are all but guaranteed to finish outside the top four. That leaves two clubs legitimately contending for the position; one-time title contenders Arsenal, who spent much of the season in first before recently suffering a dip in form and effectively dropping out of the title race, and Everton, the scrappy rivals to Liverpool who year after year punch above their financial weight by finishing near clubs with significantly larger bank accounts. Like the City-Chelsea-Liverpool situation, the team currently sitting in the desired standing, Arsenal, has played one more match than the team chasing the spot. Everton lie four points behind Arsenal with one game in hand, though they have the tougher remaining schedule. This race will more than likely be determined next Saturday, when the two squads face each other at Everton's home stadium, Goodison Park, where they have stood sturdy in almost every game this season. Their one home loss came only after a misplaced back pass led to goalkeeper Tim Howard's red card and their opponent's subsequent conversion of the penalty shot. Arsenal and Everton have clashed twice already this year, both times at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium. The league match ended one-one after Everton loanee Gerard Deulofeu's stunning equalizer, while the FA cup match saw the injury-plagued Blues lose 4-0. Though Everton may blow their chances with fixtures against the two Manchester clubs on the horizon (though both are home games), I still feel that whichever squad triumphs on Saturday will claim the final champions league spot. Should they draw, I'll give the advantage to Arsenal, whose toughest opponent left after Everton is the nothing-to-play-for, currently-faltering Newcastle.

The Plight of David Moyes & Manchester United

The banner seen above was flown over Old Trafford during Manchester United's 4-1 drubbing of Aston Villa yesterday, indicating the frustration of a small but vocal minority of fans of the Red Devils. David Moyes was given the nearly insurmountable task of succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson as manager of the title defenders, and it's safe to say his first season hasn't been a huge success, with the club sitting in seventh place with Europa League the best possibility left for them to fight for. However, the level of outrage towards Moyes this year, coupled with the exaggerative media, has made this campaign out to be more of a disaster than it is and Moyes to be more incompetent than he is. Let's break it down, shall we? The Manchester United squad that won the title last season was kept pretty much 100% intact this year, with the additions of the big-haired Belgian Marouane Fellaini, the rise of young winger Adnan Januzaj, and the January addition of tricky attacking mid Juan Mata from Chelsea. Logically, many expected them to at least be in the conversation for potential league champions for most if not all of the season. However, when you look more closely, there are several major factors beyond Moyes's control that have helped cause United's slide down the BPL table. First, and most tangibly, his team is aging and has suffered its share of injuries this season. Defenders Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand are now 32 and 35, respectively, and both have seen a regression in overall skill as well as a number of injuries plaguing them this year. Backup center backs Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling haven't exactly been the embodiments of health either. Linchpin midfielder Michael Carrick has been injured as well, and even when healthy has played nowhere near the level he was at last season. Fellaini missed time as well, along with role players such as Phil Jones, Patrice Evra, and Antonio Valencia. The biggest injury loss this season for United has been star striker Robin Van Persie, who led the league in goals last year. His absence has been crucial, with backup striker Javier Hernandez playing badly, leaving the young Danny Welbeck to accompany club veteran Wayne Rooney in attack. In truth, Rooney, Welbeck, goalie David De Gea, and winger Ashley Young have been the only consistently good players at the club. Part of this is clearly down to Moyes, but part is just natural regression, which is to be expected when a manager of Ferguson's stature departs.

Not only has United been worse this season, partially due to problems beyond Moyes' influence, but the rest of the league has been better. Samuel Eto'o and Eden Hazard have provided goals for Chelsea this year where they were absent in 2012-2013. Manchester City have strengthened with the additions of Alvaro Negredo and Fernandinho, with Fernandinho's partner in deep midfield, Yaya Toure, having the season of his life. It's not every season a CDM scores seventeen, yes SEVENTEEN, goals. That's more than anybody in the league besides Liverpool's devastating SAS partnership of strikers Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez. Speaking of Liverpool, they have been much stronger this season too, and Arsenal for much of the year seemed to be reborn. Everton, too, is strong, thanks to a new manager, breakout star Ross Barkley, and a dearth of impact-making loan signings. The only team near the top to have regressed (other than United) is Tottenham. Even bottom dwellers like Cardiff, Sunderland, and Fulham have been at least somewhat resistant compared to last year's pitiful performances week in and week out by the likes of Reading and QPR. So, an injury-riddled squad plus a stronger league overall have not made Moyes' job easy this year.

If you're a United supporter and are still in panic mode, consider the following. United are in seventh place, with a new manager, and a large-but-not-massive transfer budget at their disposable. Last season, the club that finished in seventh place also had a first-year coach and a similar financial situation.They ended up with 61 points, which could very well be less than United's total come the end of the season. (They sit at 54 with six games left.) As of today, that same club now leads the league and has a more than legitimate chance at the title. Yes, I'm talking about Liverpool. In Brendan Rodger's first year, the club finished seventh, the exact place United are in now, and just one year later are challenging for first place. One smart January signing in Daniel Sturridge and the rise of a few young stars in Raheem Sterling, Jon Flanagan, and Jordan Henderson have helped an already strong foundation to the top of table. In comparison, United picked up Juan Mata in January, and have rising young stars in Angelo Henriquez, Wilfried Zaha, and Adnan Januzaj. Who's to say that Welbeck, Smalling, or Cleverley don't blossom into fantastic players come next season and United experience the same ascendancy that Liverpool has witnessed this year? Obviously it's not an exact parallel, but it's a pretty close resemblance to my eyes, and definitely a possibility that should make United fans a little more patient with their new man. What happens if you fire him, hire someone else, and he struggles? Does the cycle just repeat over and over again? Moyes may not be up to snuff just yet, but given time he could be just what the Red Devils need.

Relegation Rumble

Rivaling the tight title race this season is the even closer fight to avoid relegation to the second division. Only recently has the gap widened a little, but nobody's out of the woods quite yet. Only eight points separate 11th and 18th place, meaning any teams in that range are in danger of going down, along with, obviously, the two bottom clubs. However, for some teams I see relegation as more likely outcomes than others. For starters, I think Swansea, West Ham, Aston Villa, and Hull are all too resilient and have too much talent to go down, which leaves everybody from Norwich on as bottom-three candidates. I think Fulham are done and dusted, doomed to spend next year in the Championship. The rest, however, gets a little foggy; Sunderland are the next lowest, but have several games in hand and a talented manager in Gus Poyet. With home games against West Ham, West Brom, and Cardiff left to play, I can see them escaping relegation. They play Swansea at home on the final day of the season, and with the Welsh club likely to be safe by then, that fixture could play to their advantage nicely. Next is Cardiff, who I don't have quite as much optimism for. They still have to play Newcastle and Southampton on the road, and a final matchday faceoff with Chelsea doesn't favor them. The lack of strength in their squad is their ultimate undoing; hopefully Jordan Mutch, David Marshall, and Steven Caulker can find homes in the BPL next season, as all three are truly great players in an otherwise weak team. West Bromwich Albion will, in my opinion, be the third and final team to drop down this year, with tough games versus Spurs, Man City, and Arsenal still on the docket. Palace's win over Chelsea showed their resolve, and Norwich have just enough talent that both should avoid the dreaded drop this year.

It's sure going to be an entertaining final weeks to this BPL season, continuing the trend set by the ups and downs of the past few months. Here's to hoping we can come close to matching an ending exciting as Manchester City's last-minute title claim two years ago.

And, for what it's worth, I expect the clubs promoted to the BPL next year to be Leicester City, Burnley, and Derby County.

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