With a little over ten games to go in this Premier League season, every point now counts that little bit more and every week, the league table shapes up with a little bit more clarity.
Thankfully, the title race remains gloriously open; any of the top four could clinch the trophy come the final day. Liverpool’s ability to score and complete lack of distraction means that the top three must now look over their shoulders. Manchester City and Arsenal both rebounded with wins after disappointing Champions League results, and unless they are able to turn over two excellent teams away, could also find the league their primary focus.
It’s a situation that must surely be giving Mourinho a few sleepless nights. The Special One’s Chelsea side should progress fairly comfortably through the Champions League and may soon face the prospect of struggling to maintain their top spot against sides without European commitments. Much attention has been on Arsenal in recent weeks with many predicting a Gunner collapse, but with a stuttering strike force and a manager whose recent public comments have been doing more harm than good, it could well be Chelsea who suffer a slip.
Whilst the fight for the Premier League title looks set to be a four horse race right down to the wire, the chances of any of that top four losing their grip on those Champions League places is much less likely. Manchester United finally put out the sort of attacking side that fans have been begging for against Crystal Palace on Saturday, but the performance whilst improved, is to be expected against a side battling relegation. If this weekend does mark a resurgence by United, it still seems a little too late for the reigning champions who are eleven points off a Liverpool that just don’t look like losing at the moment, never mind the sort of collapse that would be needed to let their bitter Manchester rivals in.
Tottenham do not have to make up quite as much ground as United, the six point gap requiring at least a two game swing in their favour. With Adebayor scoring freely again it is still a possibility that Spurs could snatch fourth, but a job made all the more difficult by their weekend slump against Norwich. Despite dominating possession, Spurs let the Canaries enjoy far too many chances and it is hard to argue that Houghton’s men didn’t deserve their late goal courtesy of Robert Snodgrass. It was a match with repercussions at the bottom as well as the top. The win arrested an alarming run of results by Norwich, and will no doubt have earned Houghton a reprieve from the pressure heaped on him in recent weeks.
No team from West Ham down will feel safe just yet, but one would expect that the London team should have enough to see them safe. Aston Villa, Swansea, Hull and Norwich all now must also be favourites to limp over the line. Having earned a fantastic draw against Napoli at home, one would nether the less expect that the Swan’s European adventure will soon be over. Without those extra fixtures, the Welsh side’s strike force and improved form under Gary Monk should see them pull clear. Hull meanwhile have their recruitment team to thank if they do find themselves still a Premier League side come the season’s close. The purchases of outcasts of Long and Jelavic was risky, but has certainly paid off thus far, with the latter grabbing two in Hull’s crucial 0-4 smashing of Cardiff City.
The Bluebirds look adrift now. Caulker and Medel have been solid, but the fact is Cardiff overspent on players that weren’t good enough in the summer, this combined with the very public fallout between owner Tan and former manager Mackay has made an immediate return to the Championship very likely. Solskjær has bought young and comes to Wales with an excellent record, but it may just be that the baby faced assassin won’t have enough time to arrest the decline. Tainted in the fans’ eyes, and quite possibly the players’ also, as Tan’s man, one hopes that Solskjær will be given the opportunity to build something at Cardiff, even if that does mean a temporary return to England’s second division. If there is one thing that Cardiff don’t need right now is further disruption and unsettling change.
Fulham are the other side seemingly destined for the drop. Despite a decent squad on paper, age and inconsistency have the traditionally stable Premier League club in serious disarray. A new owner and two sackings in a season is never a recipe for success, and Fulham now need new boss Magath to work the kind of miracles he performed at Wolfsburg if they are to have any survival hopes. That leaves Stoke, Crystal Palace, Sunderland and West Brom as the leading candidates for the other relegation spot.
Poyet and Pulis have orchestrated amazing revivals at Sunderland and Palace respectively, with the latter in particular having spent well in January. Despite having both lost this weekend, survival rarely hinges on beating the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United, and if Sunderland and Palace can scrap to keep their upward trajectory going, they should be safe. Stoke and West Brom on the other hand are both on alarming slides down the table, with the latter having not won now in eight matches. Stoke are an incredibly inconsistent unit under Mark Hughes, but have shown signs of life in matches such as the victory against Manchester United. The Baggies have successfully frustrated Mourinho this season, but have still been dragged slowly but surely to within a point of the relegation zone.
West Brom manager Pep Mel, having been fired from La Liga relegation fodder Real Betis earlier this term, must feel as if he has swapped one sinking ship for another. The Baggies look a shadow of the team which performed so well last year, and having brought in only Thievy Bifouma on loan, West Brom could soon regret their lack of January transfer activity. Mel is a quality manager, and for all of Betis’ struggles this term performed magnificently in this time there, not only getting the Seville side promoted back to La Liga, but guiding Betis away from relegation and into Europe last year. Mel can be a success at West Brom, but may first have to spend some time in the Championship.