Eight points currently separate top and ninth, in what has been the tightest title race for years. Few could have predicted that things would be this tight at the top; Arsenal were all but written off in preseason and Liverpool were seen as outsiders for a top four spot. Before the season started, the Premier League had been billed as a top up between Manchester City and Chelsea, but both have been incredibly inconsistent, the holders Manchester United have floundered, and Southampton have gate-crashed the party. Currently there is a genuine six-way battle raging for the title, and that’s not counting Southampton, who sitting third ahead of City and Spurs, cannot be dismissed. Surely this wonderfully competitive situation cannot last, but that has been said for eleven weeks, and if anything, it is only getting tighter at the top.
Newcastle United this weekend cast off any prospect that they would spend the season battling it out at the bottom with a victory against Tottenham. With a host of internationals throughout the team, Newcastle should never have spent the last year fighting it out at the bottom. In the 2011-12 season, the Tyneside club narrowly missed out on the Champions League, a competition they last graced in 2002-3 under Bobby Robson. It is where their fans expect the club to be, and although Newcastle are certainly outsiders, they mustn’t be dismissed. In Cabaye, Tiote and Sissoko, they have a midfield up there with any other Premier League, and the loan signing of the Thierry Henry-esque Loic Remy has been nothing short of inspired, the Frenchman hitting his seventh league goal of the season against Spurs. It is at the back that Newcastle came unstuck last season, but the Toon side proved that they are a much more solid proposition this term by weathering a 31 shot barrage against Spurs. When injury free, Newcastle have a decent back four, and after an extended dip in form, Tim Krul is back to his world-class best to the frustration of Andre Villas-Boas.
The other surprise package this season has been Southampton. It is easy to forget just how far Southampton have come in the last few years. Southampton’s performances since their return to the Premier League have been nothing short of remarkable. Having been a top flight side for 27 years before their 2005 relegation, and having handled the step up from the Championship with consummate ease, it is easy to forget that Southampton’s time in English football’s lower divisions. In just eight short years, Southampton have been through relegations to the Championship and then League One, administration, a takeover, numerous managerial changes and ecured back to back promotion, which all makes it even more extraordinary that Southampton now find themselves sitting third in the Premier League. It is no fluke either. The Saints really hit form against Fulham this weekend, smashing four past the usually solid Hull City. It is the first time this season that the Saints’ attackers had really hit form in the Premier League, but they had proved their quality last term and Lambert, Lallana and Rodriguez have all earned England call ups this week. Joined by the mercurial Pablo Osvaldo who struck 17 times for Roma last term, Southampton were always going to get goals. Key to their success this term has been the Saints’ frugality at the back; new signings Lovren and Wanyama have added steel to Southampton’s backline, but more important has been Pochettino’s adaption of the German tactic of gegenpressing. This high pressing line and high tempo defending from the front has been crucial to Southampton’s success, and has been ingrained in their young English stars such as Ward-Prowse and Luke Shaw; the future looks bright, especially if Southampton can continue to surprise everyone and snatch a European place.
Amongst the favourites, it has been unpredictability galore, and their thoroughly enjoyable lack of consistency continued this weekend. Chelsea narrowly avoided a first home Premier League loss for Mourinho with a controversial penalty to snatch a 2-2 draw with West Brom. Ramires took a rather dramatic tumble to rob the Baggies of a thoroughly deserved victory, but even so Steven Clarke will have been delighted at the nature of West Brom’s performance, who have now put a slow start very much behind them. Other than a disastrous first match in charge, Sunderland have undergone a genuine revival under Poyet, first beating Newcastle on the Tyne-Weir derby, and then firmly establishing themselves as Manchester City’s bogey team with a victory over the Citizens on Sunday. The Stadium of Light has been a barren ground for City in recent seasons, and despite dominating the match, City were unable to come back against Sunderland after falling behind to a Phil Bardsley goal, which although excellently finished owed much to some poor defending and uninspiring goal keeping. It gave Manchester United the opportunity to climb above their City rivals on Sunday, and the Reds now find themselves in fifth and very much back in the mix for the title, having now cobbled together enough form to see out front runners Arsenal in a resilient 1-0 display. Sunderland’s victory owed much to two United alumni; Wes Brown and John O’Shea, who were both excellent at the back against City and will be key for the Black Cats if they are to have any hope of scrapping their way to survival this term.
Sunderland were not the only relegation threatened team to show some life at the bottom either. The relegation candidates had all been in danger of being cut adrift, but Crystal Palace, Stoke City and Norwich were all able to earn points over the weekend. Stoke played out a lively draw with Swansea and are showing signs of improvement. Norwich were able to go one step further, with a win against West Ham, and the Canaries will hope that they can now look up the table rather than over their shoulders for the rest of the season. Despite a draw against Everton, it is hard to see the still manager-less Palace climbing out of trouble, and they look to be joined in free-fall by the hapless Fulham. Liverpool were able to capitalise on Arsenal’s defeat to narrow the gap between second and first to just two points, heaping pressure on Martin Jol in the process, as Suarez inspired Liverpool to a 4-0 victory. It may be agonising for fans of those teams at the top who have been so inconsistent, but no one can deny it makes great entertainment, and long may it continue.