Merseyside adding spice to tasty title mix
Pretenders step up to plate as champions struggle in transition, writes Paul Wilson
This weekend's games mark the halfway point of the English Premier League, the first edition not to feature a puce-faced, gum-chewing clockwatcher supervising at Old Trafford, and an initial reflection -- a slightly uncharitable one given the season -- is what a favour Alex Ferguson did English football by taking Manchester United out of the title equation.
United surrendering their champion status is not quite an acknowledged fact yet, since a kind run of Christmas games has allowed David Moyes to steady the ship and reach hailing distance of the leading places, though the top four without them has been everything one would wish it to be. Lively, competitive and unpredictable, with only a few points separating the title contenders and no obvious favourite emerging from the pack.
Manchester City's imperious home form might have made them the team to watch, but Liverpool matched them last Thursday, created more clear chances and with better finishing could have overtaken them to go top. While one could understand Brendan Rodgers' frustration with the offside flag that incorrectly ruled out Raheem Sterling's legitimate goal, when the difference between first and fourth place in the Premier League is a mere foot or two between a spring-heeled winger and the last defender then the title race is a more open contest than most of its counterparts around Europe.
The question for the second half of the season is how long it will stay that way, which in turn leads to the consideration of how long Manchester United will stay uninvolved. No one is seriously arguing United will be able to make up enough ground to win the league. They would have to play with much more conviction than they have been doing and it is hard to see all the teams above them slipping up to such an extent. But experience suggests Moyes' players have the application and ability to pull themselves back into the top four. That would be an acceptable, honourable outcome to a season of transition, and in most Premier League seasons before this one it would have been easily within United's grasp.
Yet the story of 2013-14 so far has not just been one of Old Trafford decline, whether temporary or permanent. The new ingredient that Moyes could have done without is a resurgence on Merseyside, not just at his old club, where Roberto Martinez has quickly turned Everton into fringe, though plausible, top-four contenders but also at Liverpool, now reinvented as a slick-passing free-scoring side with most people's idea of the player of the season in Luis Suarez.
Liverpool face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge today and since Jose Mourinho's side so far have been anything but slick-passing and free-scoring, Chelsea will be worried. United should be worried too, for apart from the incomparable Suarez, Liverpool hold another huge advantage between now and the end of the season. They are not in Europe, they do not face arduous trips or intimidating opponents when the Champions League starts up again in February and, as Manuel Pellegrini so succinctly puts it, they only have one game per week to worry about.
Whether that is enough of a luxury to revive Anfield's interest in the title after a gap of 24 years remains to be seen -- today's game might give an indication -- though it could be the crucial factor in keeping Moyes and his players shut out. For United, or Everton or Newcastle for that matter, to crack the top four this season either Liverpool or one of the Champions League clubs will have to drop back.
It is hard to envisage City finishing lower than fourth, and equally difficult to see Arsenal or Chelsea, with all their experience, ceding too much ground in the second part of the season.
On paper, Liverpool look the weakest link. In reality they look a good bet to begin shifting back the balance of power that moved so conclusively towards Manchester during the Ferguson years. Another wholly unexpected but welcome development can be seen at the opposite end of the table, where Championship escapees Hull, Cardiff and Crystal Palace are all currently outside the relegation positions.
The margins are incredibly tight at the bottom, and Cardiff in particular look vulnerable to any sort of revival by the clubs below them. But as Tony Pulis has proved at seemingly moribund Palace, anything is still possible.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the bottom half of the table is not that Sunderland and Fulham changed managers or that West Ham find themselves in trouble, but that West Brom also felt the need to press the panic button and Aston Villa appear to be close to doing the same.
At the start of the season, particularly in light of Villa's sensational opening-day result at Arsenal, those two sides appeared to be steady, well-managed operations destined for a comfortable mid-table berth, if not better. Instead it appears football in the English midlands is heading for another of its periodic slumps. Football in the west midlands, at any rate. A few miles further east, Leicester, Derby and Nottingham Forest are building up a head of steam in the Championship.
Back in August, pre-Mesut özil at Arsenal, the predicted top four was City, Chelsea, United and Spurs, in that order, and the bottom three Cardiff, Palace and Fulham, with Norwich, Southampton, Sunderland and West Ham also tipped to face relegation scares. Southampton apart, not too bad, though it seems to be easier to identify likely strugglers than high-fliers.
Liverpool and Arsenal confounded the calculations, perhaps more specifically özil and Suarez. It is only half-time, and there is still an outside chance that an astronomical sum of money could give Suarez a short cut to the Champions League sooner than anyone thinks, but with the Uruguayan in his present form Liverpool have the capacity to carry on confounding expectations.