At the start of the season few would have predicted that a match between Manchester United and Southampton in January could be key in determining which sides qualify for the Champions League. In other live TV matches the two North London giants have pivotal fixtures in the context of playing in the Holy Grail of European football next season. Sunderland will be trying to win at home in the league for just the second time when they host Liverpool in front of a live television audience.
At the midway point of the season the league table has a predictable look about it with the first three teams in the betting in August occupying the first three places in the standings. Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United were seen as the teams most likely to win the league this season but few would have predicted that Southampton would be fourth at this time of the year.
At one point Chelsea were being backed to not lose a match in the league. However, they have now lost away to Newcastle and Tottenham in the last five weeks. The Newcastle result was not a major issue but Jose Mourinho will be concerned with how poorly Chelsea defended in losing 5-3 to Spurs. Harry Kane was virtually unplayable but Gary Cahill and John Terry looked ordinary together for the first time as a pair.
Last season promised to deliver much more than it did for Chelsea. They played some great stuff up until April when Mourinho decided to become over negative. That eventually cost the club the Premier League and Champions League. This season the Special One has learnt that the psychological stuff doesn’t have the effect it used to and has concentrated more on playing good football utilising all the quality at his disposal.
It is now a well known fact that Mourinho wins the domestic title at least in his second full season at a club. Despite the recent losses Chelsea are still the best team in the league now that Mourinho has fashioned the squad to his liking. Signing a proven goal scorer was key and Diego Costa is a perfect fit for English football. Cesc Fabragas and Nemnaja Matic has also been important signings and becoming England’s top dogs is well within Chelsea’s capabilities.
At the start of the second part of the season Manchester City are level on points with Chelsea and only in second place because M comes after C in the alphabet. Both sides have scored and conceded the same number of goals which means this is the tightest season at the top at this stage of a Premier League season. City have stayed in contention despite the absence of Sergio Aguero and injuries now mean they are short up front.
Last season was a huge success for City and to win the Premier League and the League Cup in his first season in English football was an impressive achievement by Manuel Pellegrini. The manner in which these trophies were won was pleasing for supporters with their team playing attractive, attacking football and breaking a number of goal scoring records. Retaining the title will be difficult as other sides have strengthened, particularly Chelsea.
Aguero is now one of the best five players in the world but it is a concern that he is susceptible to injury. He wasn’t fully fit at the World Cup and did not score for Argentina during the tournament. At his best Aguero could have been the difference between his country winning the trophy and finishing as runners-up. Edin Dzeko has been an adequate replacement in the past but his injury means James Milner has been playing as a single striker in recent matches. David Silva has added goals to his overall contribution during City’s injury crisis.
There is a subplot to the match between Manchester United and Southampton at Old Trafford. Louis Van Gaal and Ronald Koeman have clashed in the past but both seemed to have moved on at the corresponding fixture at Southampton in December. At third and fourth in the league and only one point apart this fixture is significant for both sides in their efforts to qualify for the Champions League. Old Trafford has now become the fortress it was during the Alex Ferguson era and home advantage should see them pick up three points from this fixture.
The United fans believed last season was rubbish and the turnaround in fortunes was savage. The erasing of the Moyers era makes supporters wonder if it actually happened, like the Bobby Ewing dream sequence in Dallas. Van Gaal is establishing some stability and United look nailed on to play in the Champions League next season. They are unbeaten in 15 matches in all competitions and that record can be maintained at the weekend with a win over the Saints.
If Southampton finish fourth surely Koeman will be the manager of the year. Some pundits even predicted they were relegation fodder at the start of the season after selling what appeared to be their best players. Koeman promoted some fringe players to the first team and made several shrewd signings. His side have recovered from a run of four defeats in as many matches and are now in the mix for fourth place and Champions League football next season.
Arsenal and Tottenham will have a say in the outcome of the team to qualify in fourth place. Arsenal are not as consistent as in the past and have defensive frailties. Spurs are the emerging force especially with Kane playing well and scoring goals. Mauricio Pochettino seems to be getting the best out of a group of players while the club is still in transition following the departure of Gareth Bale and arrival of seven new signings to replace him.
Liverpool have gone down the same route by replacing one world class player with a number of alternatives. The strategy is flawed as not even half the side has contributed more than Luis Suarez did last season. The injury to Daniel Sturridge is unfortunate but for last season read Suarez and Sturridge and not Lambert and Balotelli. Brendan Rodgers seems to have led his side out of a trough of confidence but even a win at Sunderland will not get them in contention for fourth place which is destined for Tottenham.