The Premier League has battles throughout, and the inability of any team to mount a consistent title challenge has sustained the excitement at the top, writes Ciarán Ó Braonáin
Pre-season consensus saw Chelsea earmarked as favourites for the Premiership with Carlo Ancelotti taking up the reigns of the most formidable squad in the league. The Italian’s main rival appeared to be Liverpool, last year’s runners-up who had come so close only to gift Manchester United the title with some unprecedented slip ups. The Champions seemed to be written off before a ball had been kicked, having lost both their talisman and crowd favourite in Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez respectively. The arrival of the pricey Antonio Valencia and the shock signing of Michael Owen did little to dispel the pundits’ doubts.
Arsenal were also deemed out of the running, as the side that finished fourth had failed to add the requisite ‘big names’ to their ranks. The arrival of big money and big names at Eastlands saw Manchester City supporters dare to dream of a title, but few commentators believed they would achieve such immediate success.
A little over halfway in, and the closing season of the decade has proved to be the most exciting and unpredictable of them all. As soon as one team looks set to pull away and continue on a string of impressive performances, an unexpected spanner is thrown in the works and everything seems to fall to pieces. Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal – all far from their best – are locked in a three-way tussle for top spot, with Liverpool so far out of the running that even European football is not guaranteed.
Liverpool’s dramatic downward spiral has seen them lose seven games already, compared to just two last year. The Merseysiders’ shocking performances have seen Benitez’s transfer dealings come under scrutiny, with the team looking decidedly ordinary in the absence of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard – the latter appearing to be a mere shadow of his former self when fit.
Despite unimpressive returns from both Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen, Manchester United have managed to somewhat fill the void left by Cristiano Ronaldo through the coming of age of Wayne Rooney. With the born-to-be star topping the goal scoring charts United have managed to stay in the running in spite of uncharacteristic defensive frailties.
Arsene Wenger has once again confounded his critics and guided his youngsters towards contention, while maintaining his dedication to attractive attacking football. Ancelotti’s Chelsea have on occasion looked like running away with the title only to suffer shock defeats to Wigan, Aston Villa and Manchester City.
Liverpool’s collapse coupled with the rise of Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City sees the most realistic challenge to the dominance of the ‘top four’ of recent years. Martin O’Neill’s exciting Villa side look like finally realising their potential, with the impressive James Milner embodying the manager’s focus on team work and attacking football. The arrival of Harry Redknapp to White Hart Lane has seen Tottenham finally swap mid-table mediocrity for genuine European ambitions, aided significantly by the resurgence of Jermain Defoe’s career.
The final club in the shake-up for a Champions League spot is Manchester City. Despite the scandalous sacking of Mark Hughes mid-season, the Citizens have continued to push forward. Like their closest neighbours, City have not been as solid at the back as they would have liked, but the immense Shay Given has proved a key signing and with Carlos Tevez in the form that he is, anything is possible.
Birmingham City have been the surprise package of the season and surprised critics with their recent fifteen game unbeaten run stretching back to the end of October. Their impressive run saw them pull away from the long list of relegation candidates, some of whom look doomed for the drop.
Things look bleak for the like of Portsmouth, and though Hull City have shown the ability to grind out draws in the odd fixture, they still cannot muster up a three point worthy performance and will probably join Portsmouth in relegation. The Premier League may have suffered a decline in overall talent from the top down, but no one can argue that it doesn’t make for a more exciting league.