Premier League mid-season review: Chelsea look good to win title
CHELSEA 42 points
The team of the season so far. The summer signings Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas settled straight away, bringing added potency and purpose to a team that already boasted the best back four in the Premier League while others, such as Oscar and Eden Hazard, have also contributed creatively. Jose Mourinho prefers to lead from the front in title races and his team have done that. They have negotiated many of the tougher away tests and have a 100 per cent home record so, assuming they do not lose form, they ought to maintain their position at the summit.
Star manForecastMANCHESTER CITY 39
Go back to early November and there was talk of crisis. Not now. City have reeled off eight straight wins to surge back into title contention and many of the players who were out of form, such as Yaya Toure, Fernandinho and Gael Clichy, have returned to their best while Eliaquim Mangala, after teething troubles, has shown welcome signs of improvement. Sergio Aguero’s predatory brilliance has helped compensate for others’ flaws while David Silva, James Milner and Frank Lampard have provided other highlights. But the 12 points they dropped in the first 11 games may yet prove costly.
Star manForecastMANCHESTER UNITED 32
A terrible 2014 is ending on a comparative high. A return of seven wins in eight unbeaten games has catapulted United from mid-table, after their worst start to a Premier League campaign, into the comparative comfort of third place. They remain a work in progress, but David de Gea’s outstanding form and a group of goalscorers has proved enough. United’s record £152 million (Dh558.2m) spending spree is yet to fully pay dividends and, amid dozens of injuries, Louis van Gaal has swapped both shape and personnel in his search for his ideal line-up but there will be no repeat of last season’s slump to seventh.
Star manForecastWEST HAM UNITED 31
The season’s real surprise package. A few months ago, many a West Ham fan wanted Sam Allardyce fired. Now they sit fourth and are on course for their best Premier League season, even if it probably will not bring Champions League football. Stewart Downing has been a revelation after being reinvented as a No 10 while Allardyce has bought – and, in the cases of Alex Song and Carl Jenkinson, loaned – brilliantly. Aaron Cresswell, Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho have added pace, power and penetration. They stand an excellent chance of disrupting the cartel that last year’s top seven became.
Star manForecastSOUTHAMPTON 29
A season that has already included two wildly different runs, one of eight wins in 10 games and the other of four straight defeats, nonetheless qualifies as a triumph, given the summer that saw Southampton lose five crucial players and their manager. Ronald Koeman made an instant impact; his challenge is sustaining that. The positive start made by new arrivals Graziano Pelle, Dusan Tadic and Toby Alderweireld, a cornerstone of a frugal defence, helped Saints into second place. Recent results have suggested that they will do well to better last season’s eighth-place finish. Yet, given the upheaval in the summer, that would definitely be a success.
Star manForecastARSENAL 27
Rarely at their best, often infuriating their supporters and yet capable of securing a result when they need one, especially against inferior opposition. In short, it has been a typical Arsenal campaign. Their defending has been rightly criticised and Arsene Wenger erred in his transfer dealings by leaving himself short of specialists in the back four. Their midfield has been disrupted by injuries. But for Alexis Sanchez, the biggest summer signing who has become a talismanic top scorer, they could be floundering. Instead, without convincing everyone, they are positioned to maintain their remarkable record under Wenger.
Star manForecastTOTTENHAM HOTSPUR 27
Results have been better than performances, but Tottenham Hotspur can be encouraged that they sit seventh when they have rarely resembled a Mauricio Pochettino team. Their home form has been unusually poor, but their habit of scoring away winners in the final few minutes has proved crucial. Some of the expensive recruits have been jettisoned in favour of the energetic locals, and fan favourite Harry Kane has been especially influential. But they need to show more quality if they are to break into the top four.
Star manForecastSWANSEA CITY 25
A magnificent August, but rather mixed since then. Garry Monk was the first manager of the month this season when Swansea took nine points from nine and beat Manchester United at Old Trafford, but wins have been rather more elusive since then. A capacity to lose leads is looking costly. On the plus side, the creative Gylfi Sigurdsson has been outstanding on his return to Wales and Jefferson Montero looks another inspired acquisition. Wilfried Bony keeps on scoring and Swansea could record their best Premier League finish. Yet they would be faring still better if they stopped squandering promising positions.
Star man Gylfi Sigurdsson
Forecast Should be a top-10 hit.
NEWCASTLE UNITED 23
They have veered between extremes. Newcastle went from propping up the table to being the Premier League’s in-form side. Now they have lost their past three games, conceding nine goals, and recorded an unprecedented fourth successive defeat in the Tyne-Wear derby. Alan Pardew survived when most expected to see him fired, and his switch to a more youthful, counter-attacking side worked for a while. Ayoze Perez has proved an astute buy, Moussa Sissoko has brought power in midfield and Papiss Cisse has scored as a substitute. They will stay up, but a few more defeats and the natives will grow restless again.
Star manForecastLIVERPOOL 22
A wretched campaign. Liverpool have fallen as swiftly as they rose. Having gone from seventh to second in 12 months, they threaten to make the return journey equally quickly. Luis Suarez has been missed even more than anticipated, especially with Daniel Sturridge being ruled out since August. Mario Balotelli has still not scored a league goal and Liverpool’s £117m summer spending spree has produced few benefits. Crucially, their defending has not improved, with goalkeeper Simon Mignolet paying the price by losing his place and, with goals at a premium especially at Anfield, they have had problems all over the pitch.
Star manForecastEVERTON 21
An anti-climax. Everton have been neither as consistent nor as fluent as they were last season. This campaign has been interrupted by injuries and affected by the Europa League. They have conceded too many goals, especially in the opening weeks, won too few home games and are yet to beat any of the division’s superpowers. The club record signing of Romelu Lukaku has not propelled Everton to another level, and the free transfers Steven Naismith and Samuel Eto’o have offered more potency in attack. As some of their senior citizens have showed their age, the importance of the injured James McCarthy has been underlined.
Star manForecastASTON VILLA 20
After four games, they seemed a transformed team. Villa had 10 points and a new-look defence had only been breached once. Then they went six games without a goal, seven without a point and 10 without a win, setting the tone for another relegation battle where Villa’s lack of potency is an issue and supporters’ discontent with manager Paul Lambert is apparent. Certainly, even with the influx of experience and a less naive back four, this is the same old Villa, enjoying too little possession, winning too rarely at home but with the ability to spring the odd shock against the top teams.
Star manForecastSTOKE CITY 19
If only they could be underdogs every week. Stoke have already beaten Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham and run Liverpool and Manchester United close. They have also lost at home to Leicester and Burnley. Long accused of being too predictable, now they are unpredictable. After a slow start, Bojan Krkic has brought some welcome invention and Mame Biram Diouf is another signing with a fondness for the spectacular. The hardy perennials Peter Crouch and Jonathan Walters have illustrated their importance, but Stoke need to improve their home form against the lesser lights, if only because Mark Hughes can cut a frustrated figure.
Star manForecastSUNDERLAND 19
There are two statistics that seem difficult to reconcile. Sunderland were on the end of the heaviest defeat of the season, an 8-0 thrashing at Southampton. They are also the team least likely to be involved in an extreme scoreline, simply because they have had 10 draws. They have won three – even if one was a morale-boosting defeat of Newcastle – and only lost four, although one defeat equalled a club record. Gus Poyet has complained about the lack of potency in his attack and has compensated by making defensive solidity more of a priority. But they could do with more excitement.
Star manForecastWEST BROMWICH ALBION 17
Alan Irvine was the strangest managerial appointment in the division. He certainly was not welcomed with open arms but, whenever dissent was growing, he has secured a result. Initially, they came courtesy of Saido Berahino but, as his goals have dried up, Albion look short of scorers as record buy Brown Ideye’s contribution has been negligible. Irvine’s decision to build his defence around Joleon Lescott, instead of the long-serving Jonas Olsson, has been justified, but many of the summer signings are yet to make an impact and a tough end to the season means they need to get points in the bag before the final few games.
Star manForecastQUEENS PARK RANGERS 17
A strange year. Queens Park Rangers’s succession of early-season defeats suggested this could be another embarrassing relegation. Since then, they have rallied at home, where the striking combination of target man Bobby Zamora and predator Charlie Austin has been effective, but maintained the wrong sort of 100 per cent record away: they have lost all eight fixtures, albeit mainly to teams in the upper half. Rio Ferdinand’s QPR career has proved a fiasco, but other newcomers, such as Eduardo Vargas and Leroy Fer, offer rather more and, unlike the Rangers team that went down in 2012/13, this group is showing some fight.
Star man Charlie Austin
ForecastCRYSTAL PALACE 15
It could have been much worse. The catalytic manager Tony Pulis walked out 48 hours before the season started. Neil Warnock has steadied the ship and, after early season defensive difficulties, has started to add solidity at the back. Despite their flair on the flanks, where Yannick Bolasie has provided a bundle of tricks, the problem has been a lack of goals – explaining why Warnock wants to add a striker in January – and the lack of wins. Draws have kept Palace out of the bottom three, but they require more ruthlessness, especially at Selhurst Park, if they are to stay up.
Star man Yannick Bolasie
Considering many outsiders feared they would not win a game all season, Burnley’s campaign has already been a triumph. Their budget is dwarfed by everyone else’s, but Sean Dyche’s side are showing that spirit, organisation and formidable fitness levels can give them a chance of confounding expectations. Their ability to keep clean sheets gives them a chance, and striker Danny Ings leads the defensive effort from the front. Burnley pose a threat from both flanks and have become hard to beat at Turf Moor, but it is a question of how long they can keep earning results against more talented teams.
Star manForecastHULL CITY 13
It all seemed to start so well. Hull won on the opening day, and their glamorous deadline-day acquisitions of Abel Hernandez, Gaston Ramirez and Hatem Ben Arfa completed the best squad in their history. Yet they have only won once since and encouraging draws – away at Arsenal, Liverpool and Everton – gave way to depressing defeats. Ben Arfa has been a disaster, the vital Michael Dawson is sidelined and last season’s stalwarts, particularly Tom Huddlestone, have struggled to replicate that form. There is no doubt Hull have the talent to survive, but they will need a marked upturn in both performances and results.
Star manForecastLEICESTER CITY 10
It was all going so well when Leicester beat Manchester United 5-3 to go seventh in September. Leonardo Ulloa could not stop scoring and whatever manager Nigel Pearson tried, seemed to work. Now Ulloa has only scored once more and Pearson is under pressure. The Football Association have charged him after a confrontation with a fan and, more worryingly for Leicester, he seems short of solutions on the field. He should have looked to bring in more proven Premier League players in the summer, and Leicester’s lack of quality is starting to tell. A return of two points from 12 games threatens to be disastrous.
Star manForecast Favourites for the drop.
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Published: December 25, 2014 04:00 AM