Don’t worry, all RetainPossession.com writers are tested on their mental health, I can’t guarantee they all pass however, so articles like this will surface once in a while.
As we approach January’s conclusion and we are well under way in the second half of the Football League season, by now we have a general idea of where each team are likely to finish the season and what their primary objectives are – be it champions, promotion, play-offs, top four or survival. But what exactly can we expect, or not expect, from this calendar year?
So without further ado, let’s begin…
General talking points
Who’s going to lift the Premier League in May?
Well, if Chelsea weren’t in such scintillating form, there could be up to six sides with one eye on top spot. However, Jose Mourinho’s side don’t look like dropping all too many points for the sides below them to make-up ground. Man City are their closest rivals in terms of positioning, but they don’t look 100% capable of knocking Chelsea off the top. Below City are overachievers Southampton, who have been written off far too many times when it comes to achieving a top four place. It appears that sides below Chelsea, particularly those behind fourth placed Manchester United, will have to ensure that they drop no more than 15 points to have a realistic chance of clinching the title.
Which three teams will fall in to the relegation trap door?
Let’s be honest, the three sides promoted from the Championship last season were automatically deemed top flight fodder and tipped to head straight back down, especially Burnley and Leicester City. In a way, those predictions appear half correct. QPR, Leicester and Hull City currently occupy the bottom three positions in a league, although the bottom nine sides aren’t safe just yet. Despite the money that QPR spent over the summer, they find themselves once again massively underachieving and deep in trouble, having not picked up a single point away from Loftus Road so far. They also found themselves dumped out of the FA Cup after a 3-0 home defeat to cup romantics Sheffield United earlier this month.
Burnley, on the other hand, have spent very little, yet, for the moment at least, they thoroughly deserve to survive, given their inspiring performances on the pitch and their incredible ability to remain composed and calm, even when things aren’t going well for them. Sean Dyche has consistently appeared a confident man at the Turf Moor helm and even after Burnley’s slow start to the season he kept the enthusiasm filtering among the team. So far it has paid dividends and they sit in 17th place. Burnley was the first name on many pundits’ minds when discussing who could become relegation victims, and although the Clarets haven’t spent anywhere near as much as their rivals, they are still picking up essential points here and there. Although last week’s demoralising defeat to Crystal Palace will be a setback for Burnley, there couldn’t be a better manager in charge to get you through gutting defeats. Burnley are likely to have used their free weekend to put in some hard work on the training ground.
Leicester City walked the Championship last season but a common theme seems to occur with teams who win the Championship comfortably – they simply fail to cope with life in the Premier League. Cardiff last season and Reading in 2012 both lifted the Championship title, only to be relegated on their debut season in the top division. Leicester have a decent team on paper and the signings of Leonardo Ulloa, Esteban Cambiasso and Danny Simpson have certainly added some strength. However, just two victories in their last sixteen matches has unhelpfully left the Foxes rock bottom of the league and three points adrift of safety despite a promising start to the season. A life-line has surfaced for Leicester though, with boss Nigel Pearson spending a recent record £9 million on Croatian International Andrej Kramaric in a last-ditch effort to keep Leicester up, despite Pearson being tipped for the sack in recent months. It’s nice to see a club showing faith in their manager, but Pearson needs to turn matters around swiftly or face losing his job.
Try not to take this section too seriously. While the odds of these predictions actually occurring are very, very slim, who knows, maybe one could actually become a huge possibility, so tin hat on.
Could Everton could go down?
I had the misfortune of watching Everton take on West Brom last Monday in a game where, given their next few fixtures, they were presented an opportunity to elevate themselves away from the bottom three and gain some breathing space. They failed miserably and I can’t help but think that there’s a lot of concern around Goodison Park right now. Before the season began, if someone looked at Everton’s team sheet for their opening fixture at Leicester, their thoughts would have been far from relegation. If anyone suggested it, chances are they would have laughed it off. However, Ross Barkley, Gareth Barry, Romelu Lukaku and Steven Naismith haven’t overly impressed. They look as if they are lacking inspiration and confidence.
Like many other sides have done in the past, if a club starts to perform poorly on the pitch then the manager is usually made the scapegoat – a similar occurrence has happened at Everton in recent weeks. Roberto Martinez has taken a lot of flak for managing the second poorest defence in the league and being in the low position that they are, but the fact that he guided them to a convincing fifth placed finish last season raises a few too many doubts about whether the finger should be pointed at the Spaniard just yet. Evertonians will heavily disagree, but I can’t help but think that the team has been over-valued and they are starting to feel the pressure, made even worse by the poor efforts that they’ve been putting in each week. Belgian Romelu Lukaku was bought in on a permanent deal from Chelsea for £28 million, England International Ross Barkley has had a £20 million price tag slapped on his head and Kevin Mirallas has reportedly attracted interest from other Premier League sides. All three have been relatively disappointing this season and even summer signing Sameul Eto’o is on the verge of departing for Italy, having fallen out of favour at Goodison.
I’m relatively confident the Toffees will survive fairly comfortably, but they face Crystal Palace (A), Liverpool (H) and Chelsea (A) next and, personally, I can’t see them picking up more than two draws in those fixtures, so last Monday’s 0-0 draw with West Brom is a huge opportunity spurned and does the side no favours.
Could Liverpool win the title?
Try not to laugh. You laughed didn’t you? I don’t think their odds are favourable, but one defeat in their last 16 in all competitions is both title and cup winning form. However, dropping unnecessary points to Leicester, Everton and Hull at Anfield and defeats to Man United, Crystal Palace and West Ham on their travels appear to have handicapped the reds far too much to be in with a realistic shout of the title. With seventeen points separating leaders Chelsea and themselves, Liverpool would possibly have to pull-off a near-perfect campaign from now until May and hope Chelsea and Man City drop a fair few points themselves.
Back down on earth, it seems Brendan Rodgers’ men will be focusing their efforts on cup competitions. To conclude the season without any silverware would be nothing short of a disaster, considering the money that they spent over the summer. Although they exted the Champions League with their tail between their legs, the Europa League is certainly a respectable competition that they are capable of winning – plus it’s a one way ticket to next season’s Champions League group stage. Liverpool played with conviction against Chelsea last Tuesday in the League Cup semi-final first leg and will go into the reverse fixture with a lot of confidence and belief. I think that whichever side wins the tie at Stamford Bridge will win the cup in March, regardless of who progresses out of Sheffield United or Tottenham. Sorry folks.
Will Gary Rowett guide Birmingham City to the Premier League?
Three months ago, this was a near impossibility when Lee Clark was in his final days. 20th of October, on reflection, is a date Birmingham fans will cherish as it saw the relieving cut-off point of Lee Clark’s reign following a miserable two years at St. Andrews, only for him to inflict his misery on already miserable Championship rivals Blackpool ten days later – but that’s another story.
Gary Rowett was employed after leaving Burton Albion to try to add a slice of stability on the pitch and divert efforts to keep things afloat as events off the pitch once again made headlines. Mid-table, two months ago, would have been a dream for Birmingham fans, with an attempt at the play-offs next season, but a lot can happen in just a few months. What Gary Rowett has done so far during his time at the West Midlands club has been nothing short of miraculous and inspiring. In the league, Brum currently sit in an admirable eleventh place – nine points off of the play-off spots. The reason I’ve described Birmingham reaching the Premier League as ‘unlikely’ is down to the fact that three months ago it looked practically impossible. AFC Bournemouth had just embarrassed the former League Cup winners 8-0 at St. Andrews in October, which was another atrocious weekend to add to the list, before Lee Clark was belatedly dismissed from his position, but that was just one piece of a rather large puzzle.
Rowett was brought in a days after Clark’s dismissal and Birmingham have never looked back. Results have improved dramatically and the crowds have started to increase, bringing St. Andrews to life once again. The Championship promotion spots will be hotly contested, with up to 12 sides in with a chance come late April. I expect Birmingham to be one of them. Even with Mark Warburton at Brentford and Eddie Howe at Bournemouth, who are both likely to be in the top six, if Rowett does guide Birmingham to the top flight this season, he would deserve the manager of the season award for the next ten consecutive years.
Could Southampton finish in the top four?
This has been by a country mile one of the most frequently discussed talking points in the top flight so far and as each week passes, Southampton are always written off amid claims that it ‘wont last’. There seems to be a reluctance to accept the fact that a side with very few European credentials could finish in one of England’s glamorous top four spots.
As we approach February, Southampton have endured the dreaded schedule that they faced over the Christmas period. To be fair, they did suffer five defeats in a row, which almost affirmed previous predictions that the good run would come to an end. Losses at Arsenal, Burnley, Sheffield United and at home to the two Manchester clubs appeared to draw the curtain on an excellent start to Ronald Koeman’s first season at St. Mary’s.
Their aim was nothing more that mid-table stability following a summer in which they lost a number of key figures, but Southampton have exceeded expectations so far. Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren? Who are they?! Introducing Dusan Tadic, Graziano Pelle, Ryan Bertrand and Fraser Forster. Despite making a lot of income from the previous four, the Saints have never looked back and have brought in the latter four, who’ve proved to be just as exceptional. They have guided Southampton through an excellent recovery of their mini-slump in December. The Saints are now unbeaten in their last eight matches in all competitions – beating Arsenal, Manchester United, Newcastle and Everton along the way and now sit pretty in third, tailing Chelsea by 10 points.
So, why don’t people believe that Southampton have a serious chance of finishing in a Champions League spot? It’s understandable that we all expect to see Chelsea, Man City, Man United, Arsenal or Liverpool making up the top four, leaving no room for the likes of Southampton, whose recent success barely matches to the Premier League heavyweights. However, Southampton have proved they can beat the big teams and pull-off a consistent string of positive results. A promising performance at United and a brace the following week at Newcastle has only added to Koeman’s portfolio of strokes of genius at Southampton. Having now recruited Eljero Elia on loan from Werder Bremen, adding to their attacking options, this could be a big season for the Saints.
Is life under Louis van Gaal really as bright as it’s made out to be?
It’s a tad too early to judge just yet, but Friday evening’s coverage of the Reds’ FA Cup tie away at Cambridge United highlighted that there is still a lot of tinkering to be done at Old Trafford. One thought came to mind after seeing them draw 0-0 against the lowest ranked side left in the cup was that if David Moyes was in charge for that tie, the criticism that he would have received would be insurmountable. United approached the second-half of Friday’s game with a bit more adventure, but still never really looked like threatening the League Two side’s defence all too much, even with Falcao, Robin Van Persie and Angel Di Maria getting plenty of game time. If David Moyes’ Manchester United side had put in a similar performance, radio talk shows would have had an endless stream of phone-ins from United fans complaining, while social media would have gone into meltdown. However, there are a few disgruntled Reds who are aware that Van Gaal isn’t living up to expectations. Although, just because the Dutchman has such an excellent CV, should his experience alone excuse him from criticism?
Manchester United sit relatively comfortably in fourth, but a title challenge seems to be off the cards for this season, so it was intriguing to see them play with such little conviction and plenty of hesitation at the Abbey Stadium on Friday. Of course, the stalemate results in an unwanted replay next week, putting more pressure on their league campaign. There have been very few occasions this season where United have won a game convincingly. Newcastle in December springs to mind, but based on performances, how van Gaal’s side sit fourth, given the teams below them, is beyond me.
Van Gaal has unquestionably experimented with his side aplenty this season – especially with team formations. The infamous 3-5-2 system has had United fans pulling their hair out and it seems that in both the attacking and defensive departments not a whole lot has been positively altered since Van Gaal took charge. They are still conceding poor goals and aren’t scoring enough. Van Gaal has always expressed his disappointment in this, yet praised United’s grit to get the points that they require. The game against Liverpool stands out, as on another day Liverpool could have won that game comfortably, had Raheem Sterling not missed some glorious opportunities, yet United managed to take advantage of some poor defending from their arch-rivals and secure the victory.
It begs the question, are the Red Devils going about this season professionally, or has this campaign been even poorer than the last?
Second: Man City
Europa League: Man United, Arsenal and Spurs (FA Cup depending)
Relegation: Aston Villa, QPR, Sunderland (in any order)
Champions: AFC Bournemouth
Second: Derby County
Play-offs: Ipswich Town (winners), Brentford, Birmingham City, Middlesbrough
Relegation: Millwall, Rotherham, Blackpool
Champions: Swindon Town
Second: Bristol City
Play-offs: MK Dons (winners), Preston North End, Rochdale, Sheffield United
Relegation: Yeovil, Peterborough United, Colchester United, Leyton Orient
Champions: Shrewsbury Town
Second and Third: Wycombe and Luton Town
Play-offs: Newport County, Burton Albion, Cambridge United, Stevenage
Relegation: Hartlepool United and Dagenham and Redbridge
Capital One Cup Winners: Whoever wins on Tuesday night (Chelsea or Liverpool)
FA Cup Winners: Arsenal