Now, ladies and gentlemen, is where the season gets good. Every game seems to amplify the importance of the next result. Let us put aside the Champions League action for just a moment and focus on the brewing drama of the race to the Premier League Top 3.
Manchester United is flying away with the title at this point, while the rest of the top clubs are left to do battle for the ever-sacred Champions League places. Interestingly enough, while the trophy seems decided already, the rest of the league has no idea where they will end up. And with the way the season has gone up to this point, a few managers will most likely end up surprised at where they ended up. It should not be difficult to fathom a Manchester City collapse, or Everton capitalizing on their Cinderella-story season (starring Fellaini as the Prince who escaped the royal groomer).
Here is a quick look at some clubs at the top right now and some things to watch while we quickly approach May.
Manchester City (2nd – 53 points – 15-8-3)
You are a dirty liar if you say that you are not a little disappointed Balotelli has been shipped away from the Premier League. The rambunctious striker was a lighting rod for the media and he loved every minute of it. Mancini was under the impression that his departure would bury the distractions and they could again rise up the table. But… well… it has not really worked.
In fact, Mancini has yet to win without him and suddenly some problems disguised as Balotelli are revealing their true faces.
David Silva, Mancini’s choice playmaker, has not been the same player this season for whatever reason. Vincent Kompany’s absence away with a calf injury has had far too large an impact and highlighted the squad’s lack of leadership beyond the Belgian captain. Nasri has been a bystander at best and Javi Garcia seems to be taking his time to settle in after his move to the Etihad.
Their performance against Southampton was pitiful and Gareth Barry’s own goal just about summed up the night. When you are trying to pry back a lead from United, Mancini will know he cannot have games like that. But let’s not forget that they proved their mettle to comeback and snatch the crown from under Fergie’s nose last year. Their squad is brimming with talent and just as Kompany’s absence has affected them so much, so too can his return. Manchester City may still save some face and make a run to the title, but it is going to take a brilliant run of form.
Chelsea (3rd – 49 points – 14-7-5)
Chelsea have to feel a bit disappointed at this point. After the marquee signing of Belgian starlet Eden Hazard, the Blues started red-hot. It seemed every run Hazard made into the box would result in a penalty for a point in the season. But a deflating drop out of the Champions League and some shaky second-half performances at home have pegged them back considerably.
Rafa Benitez has not exactly had the most comfortable return to the Premier League. He did not really get a preseason or a proper start, but if things do not start getting better soon, Abramovich may well see to it that he does not get one next year either.
With the likes of Mata, Oscar, and Lampard making things happen in the midfield, there is a lot of firepower and scoring prowess coming from all over the field. And if you look at the goal tally from the defenders (21 in all competitions) you realize that Chelsea has a lot to work with. Benitez must find a way to shore up his defence and the team needs to maintain its focus to the end of every game lest it drop further down the table.
Chelsea fans will long for the return of Mourinho and mourn the loss of Di Matteo, but the truth is they have a good manager in Benitez. He has proven himself more than capable of being a top-flight manager and needs to be given a chance. Under the scrutinizing eye of Abramovich, however, he may find his breathing space rather cramped. He needs to find a way to save his skin.
A roster like Chelsea’s needs to be performing the way they started the season. Chelsea secured their Champions League place last year by winning it. They do not even have that option this year. Lampard and Terry are going to have to find a way to muster their troops (one last time?) and get his team back to their best if they want to hope to overtake Manchester City.
Crucial fixtures : Manchester City (A) Feb 24, Tottenham (H) April 14, Liverpool (a) April 21, Manchester United (A) May 4, Everton (H) May 19
Tottenham (4th – 48 points 14-6-6)
You cannot talk about Tottenham’s season without mentioning Gareth Bale. Villas-Boas had the courage to take his development to the next level by giving him more freedom to maraud forward and the move has more than paid off.
The Welshman is getting compared to Cristiano Ronaldo now, apparently. Yes, Cristiano. But while Bale may have some work to do to earn the Baloon d’Or that Ronaldo won at his age of 23, it does say something about how he is playing that people are even discussing the two being of the same class.
Sandro’s injury had some spelling doom for Tottenham, whose midfield were already working so hard to compensate for Modric’s departure to Spanish giants Real Madrid.
But, with the addition of Lewis Holtby and Dembele getting back to his early-season form, Tottenham may see to it that they finish above Arsenal for the first time since 1995. They were in the same position this time last year, but fell victim to Arsenal’s resurgence spurred by their own 5-2 defeat at the Emirates. It will be interesting to see how AVB chooses to steer his team away from the same fate this season.
Crucial fixtures : Arsenal (H) Mar 3, Liverpool (A) Mar 10, Everton (H) Apr 7, Chelsea (A) Apr 14
Arsenal (5th – 44 points – 12-8-6)
Oh, the Gunners. They could find a way to make one of my Chemistry lectures dramatic. Year in, and year out, they are the enigma of the Premier League. Whether you want to label them as a selling, soft, or unambitious club at this point is up to you. But the facts are there. You cannot get back to title-winning if you sell your captain every season. This season was supposed to be disastrous for the London club after the departure of you-know-who to you-know-where, as well as the less talked about loss of Alex Song to Catalan club Barcelona.
Wenger has had to totally facelift his squad. Additions Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud, and Santi Cazorla are certainly starting to prove their worth.
The team seems to be gelling behind the form of frontman Olivier Giroud who, at the beginning of the season, looked more confused in front of goal than Wenger in front of a chequebook.
Cazorla continues to prove himself one of the buys of the season, but it is the reemergence of young Jack Wilshere that has every Arsenal fan buzzing. He is a concrete hope that everything will be all right. It is a justifiable hope, however. Wilshere’s skills on the ball may be better than anyone else his age at the moment. But it is not his ability to unlock a defense that is his greatest asset. It is his leadership and spirit that really get the team revving and, in big games, take his game to a level above even his skillset.
If Arsenal want to book a few flights through Europe next year, no doubt they will look to Jack Wilshere to spearhead the run. Giroud will have to prove he can be the goalscorer Wenger is chalking him up to be. His goals have been well-taken, and his assists tally is far higher than anyone ever expected of him, so there is definitely potential for the striker to fill the boots of the great Alan Smith. The Gunners won’t let their Champions League qualification record end if they can help it.
Crucial fixtures: Tottenham (A) Mar 3, Everton (H) Mar 9, Manchester United (H) April 28, Newcastle (A) May 19
Everton (6th – 42 points – 10-12-4)
It is difficult to not be happy for Everton. The club is enjoying a fine season and no one can doubt they have the ability to finish in the Top 4. There is not much to say about Fellaini that has not already been said. He has been good, but his deployment in a more attacking role has seen him complete his already well-rounded game. From deep in the midfield (even defender on occasion), to almost a #10, Fellaini is a natural footballer that could fit into any league. A 2-0 defeat to Manchester United should not keep this team down. They have far too critical an opportunity here to not only breach the Champions League, but to take this club to a whole new level.
Tim Howard is going to have to tidy up his defense and begin showing the grit and leadership that got him to where he is today.
David Moyes will need captain Phil Jagielka and defender Phil Neville to keep up their form. And if Leighton Baines continues his raids down the left flank as ferociously as he has been all season, the goals from Mirallas, Fellaini, Jelavic and Co. will come.
It is a crime that Fellaini’s fine form has stolen the attention from Leighton Baines’ fantastic season. He deserves all the plaudits being heaped on him this season. His chances created stand as the best in the league and his errors are rare.
Cheers to Everton, they deserve the recognition for the football they have been playing this season and they look set to become a key player in the race for 4th.
Crucial fixtures: Arsenal (A) Mar 9, Manchester City (H) Mar 16, Tottenham (A) April 7.
What’s your top 4 prediction? Does Man City avoid collapse and lead the pack? Does Everton complete their feel-good story? Or does Arsenal restore the balance and storm back into the top? Comment below!