Monday, January 25, 2010

The Passion of Lovers (Part 5)

Time for another stroll into the world of professional football...

Despite a round up before Christmas, it's been a couple of months since I took a long hard look at the footballing world and had Liverpool not arrested the tide against my own club recently I probably would have been spending this entry harping on about how crap they are this season and how Rafa must never be sacked, because while he is in charge the Red Shite will win nothing.

But, even with over a third of the season remaining, they are sitting just 1pt behind my beloved Spurs, who currently hold the 4th Champions League spot, but only by the skin of their teeth and by virtue of the other clubs around them dropping points.

And that is the real excitement in this season's Premier League; you really don't know what is going to happen next. I'm still of the opinion that Chelsea will win the league, but with Arsenal and Manchester United both keeping pace, this could be one of the most exciting finishes we've seen for a long time. With the added incentive of 4th being the new Play Off final in terms of money it potentially generates for whoever plays the best out of the rest.

Currently Spurs hold that cherished position and intelligent pundits will look at the 6pts dropped to Stoke and Wolves at home, the 2pts dropped to Hull at home and the 2pts dropped at Goodison after holding a 2 goal lead against a team that until the 83rd minute didn't look as though they could muster an effort, let alone a goal. I know that ifs and buts are the bread and butter of fans who can excuse their team for the continued failings, but if my team hadn't dropped those points they would currently have 48pts and would be 4th still, but only 2pts behind the leaders.

Obviously, Villa and City fans could argue the same, too many drawn games, too many stupid defeats; it's what makes the difference between the top 3 and the rest and until the rest manage to arrest that one consistency about their game, that's how the balance of power will remain. It is these two teams, along with my own and two others that could all, realistically, claim that coveted 4th spot.

Birmingham City have been the surprise package of the season. Written off as relegation candidates at the start of the year, Alex McLeish has somehow managed a Martin O'Neill and turned Brum into a team that can grind out results regardless of the opposition and have now got so much confidence running through them that they will be difficult to beat. But, when they finally lose this 14 game unbeaten league run, expect them to end up closer to the chasing pack than the 4 teams that will fight it out for 4th.

That leaves the Red Shite; a team that really is only in contention on the strength of their ability to get results against teams that have been arguably much better than them this season. It has been a woeful year for them and yet with a few not so difficult games coming up, they could find themselves back in their old position by virtue of the fact the teams around them all have tough games and will drop points. Once they are there they will be difficult to dislodge and my big worry is that despite an exciting season, it'll be no change at the end of it.

As for Spurs; well, they haven't conceded many goals recently, but they haven't scored many either. The free flowing football is still there, as evidenced against Leeds in the FA Cup. but the luck and the ability to hit the onion bag has deserted them. They have a number of tough games to come in the following weeks - Fulham, Birmingham, Aston Villa and a tricky cup replay at Elland Road against a lower league Leeds that don't know this fact when they're playing Premiership opposition. I'll state it here, we could go out of that competition. It's a make or break next 6 weeks for my team, because then they face Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea at regular intervals and if they haven't picked up enough points to stay in the race then Harry might have to settle for 5th or 6th and a fun excursion into Mickey Mouse European territory next season.

The rest of the table looks like its shaping up nicely. Everton will probably have 9th place all sewn up by the end of March and will then be hoping that Birmingham (or maybe Spurs) have a really bad run in so they can get a few extra quid by finishing in 7th or 8th.

The battle for relegation is a humdinger; it's almost as good as the battle at the top, but because that's so finely balanced, the bottom has lost a little of its urgency. Portsmouth look as though they need to get some points on the board and fast because the gap between them and safety might just grow too wide. Bolton, who currently look dead and buried, do have two games in hand and an FA Cup 5th round match that could prove to be a distraction (they play Spurs or Leeds and whoever they get will make it tough for them and it could be a game they need to lose by the time its played). I do think that they way they're playing they can scrape away from the mire. Owen Coyle probably deserves a relegation for deserting Burnley, but he might see his new side overtake his old one in the run in.

Hull also look, for most of the time, like they don't belong in the league and I struggle to see them surviving this season. I think they will struggle to get points on the board in the run in and if they lose to teams they should beat it'll be curtains by the middle of April. Wolves are another team that I feel will be lucky to avoid the drop, but they are picking up points that are unexpected; Mick McCarthy is taking a big risk the way he's playing things, but if it pays off and they finish 17th then it will feel like they've won a cup.

I still think West Ham are too good to drop and I think things will pick up as more players return from injury; the same can't be said for Burnley or Wigan, who will both be in the shake up at the end of term on current form. They make up a group of teams that have such disparity with other teams in the league, in regard to finance, that unless a rich uncle comes along they will never do more than struggle for 17th.

With Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United out of the FA Cup and Spurs clinging on by the skin of their teeth against a League One giant that could still upset the odds on February 2nd, its looking like a Chelsea v Man Citeh final providing the two can avoid each other. If this happens it will at least give the neutrals something to get excited about. Citeh, of course, could be in another final this year, the League Cup against Villa. If they overcome Man U at old Trafford then I think Roberto Mancini will add some silverware to Mark Hughes' CV.

It will not be an English year in Europe either. I don't expect to see an English club in the final of the Champions League and I expect there will be no English interest in the Europa League after the QFs. I don't think the Red Shite will win that trophy; they'll struggle in their first knockout game against the Romanian champions.

There'll be plenty more controversy and things to talk about next time...

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