A new Premier League season gets underway on Saturday, with experts’ previews and predictions for the campaign out in force.
With the top sides in the league becoming more and more evenly matched, it’s more difficult to make predictions with any sense of certainty.
Each season brings its own shocks and surprises, rarely going to plan. How many neutrals would have imagined that defending-champions Man United would slide far enough down the league table to miss out on European football altogether? Or that Roberto Martinez would be so close to steering Everton into the Champions League, with city rivals Liverpool still in contention for the title on the final day?
In the Premier League era, the one position in the table that has never been a complete shock is first place; Never have the eventual winners been a team who weren’t equipped to mount a title challenge when the season began.
It’s probably safe to assume that neither Tottenham nor Everton are likely to break that trend this season, which leaves five teams who will go into the new season with realistic hopes of competing for the title.
Liverpool have shown signs of progression throughout the ownership of John Henry’s Fenway Sports Group, though it took until last season before the Reds were finally able to break back into the top four again, and ensure Champions League football returns to Anfield after a five-year absence.
Liverpool’s second-placed finish would have seemed highly unlikely to most neutrals at the start of the season, but the reality is that there was nothing fortunate about a second-place finish that was earned on merit.
Key victories at home to the teams around them in the table, and a fine run of 13 wins from the last 15 games was ultimately enough to finish well clear of Arsenal and Everton, but repeating that kind of form with the additional matches in Europe is likely to be difficult, and to consolidate a place amongst the top four at the same time as competing for domestic or European silverware would represent another good season.
While there will be lots of eyes focussed on Brendan Rodgers’ team, with observers eager to see if last season’s league performance can be matched (or even bettered) without Luis Suarez, it is certain that Man United will attract more attention than their rivals as they look to recover from a nightmare year that saw the 2013 champions finish in seventh place.
Louis van Gaal will inherit a team far more capable than the results of 2013/14 suggested, no doubt supplemented by some key arrivals. The Dutchman will certainly not be overwhelmed by the task of reviving the club, and it would be no surprise to see United back in the mix for honours.
Still, questions remain over whether last year’s top four them have strengthened enough to keep United out of the top four places for a second consecutive season.
If Man United are to be back in the top four, then Arsenal may be the most likely contenders to drop out, with the Gunners possessing a team who can match anyone on their day, but who also have more of a tendency that any other top team to self-destruct.
Arsenal did finally lift some silverware last season following a dramatic turnaround against Hull in the FA Cup Final, but also led the Premier League for the majority of the season up until February, before suffering a slump in form that at one stage saw Everton move into pole position for the much-coveted fourth place.
Arsene Wenger’s team have now qualified for the Champions League during each of the last 17 years, but last season wasn’t the first time that they have been close to missing out, and with the group of top teams getting stronger each year, there surely cannot be many more times that Arsenal snatch a top four place so late in the season.
And besides, with big investment in players such as Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, there will be growing expectations amongst Arsenal fans that their team can still be challenging for the title itself in April and May.
Just as there are set to be many questions asked over whether Liverpool are capable of matching last year’s league showing that led to them finishing above Arsenal and Man United, so too will there be an element of doubt over whether Arsenal are capable of repeating the feat of placing higher than United – something that they achieved last season for the first time in a decade.
If it’s one of those three teams who would start as the most likely to be under threat of not making the top four at all, then the same shouldn’t be said of Chelsea or Man City. Both have spent big sums of money adding to already strong – and successful – squads during the past 2-3 years, and this summer has been no different.
Jose Mourinho’s complaints of not having a goalscorer was a weak excuse for his team’s failings given the quality of the attacking players at his disposal (and the fact that both Di Matteo and Benitez had been successful with an inferior squad to that which Mourinho had to work with), but it has nevertheless been addressed not only by the arrival of Diego Costa, but also Cesc Fabregas, who comes with an impressive goalscoring record of his own.
Given the sort of games in which Chelsea dropped points at the end of the season, it could be argued that they were even more guilty than Arsenal of Premier League underachievement – and more guilty than Liverpool of missing a golden opportunity to pip Man City to the title.
Anything less than a season-long title challenge will represent another below-par showing for a club that has all of the ingredients for being successful on multiple fronts, and it would be unthinkable for Chelsea not to be part of the top four.
And finally to Man City, whose expectations will be on a par with those of Chelsea. Manuel Pellegrini’s team were deserved champions last season, but equally deserving was the fact that they were pushed right to the wire by Liverpool and Chelsea.
For as much as City spent much of the year looking like the team to beat, they also failed too many times to get the results needed in order to build a clear advantage over their title rivals. As a result, City ultimately needed to add steel to the swagger that was so often displayed, and in doing so in order to see the job through, they proved worthy winners.
The tough job is now to win back-to-back titles, and cement their status as the country’s number one club. Achieving domestic success while also remaining in the Champions League until Spring is nothing more than what would be expected of the club in order to make a step up to the next level.
Following last year being described by the press as a three-horse race for the title (at a time when Arsenal were closely followed by Man City and Chelsea), Jose Mourinho attempted to dampen any expectation surrounding Chelsea’s title credentials by referring to his side as a small horse. Some weeks later, with Liverpool having replaced Arsenal as serious challengers, Brendan Rodgers responded with a similar analogy of Liverpool, labelling his inexperienced team as a chihuahua running between the legs of the horses.
With five strong teams battling it out, there’ll be no need for such talk this season, although if Chelsea and Man City each perform to their potential, it’s hard to imagine that the eventual champion wouldn’t be one of those two teams.
But it’s even harder to think that it won’t be another thrilling Premier League season, and I’m sure that I’m not alone in saying that I cannot wait for it to get started.
If there’s one thing that English participation at a major tournament will guarantee, it’s that most of the football-supporting population of the nation will find themselves getting carried away rather easily.
Whether for positive or negative reasons, the extreme reactions that follow almost every match are as predictable as the outcome to penalty shoot-outs that the players themselves are invariably involved in at this stage of almost every other calendar year.
And there’s no sign of that pattern changing, based on the aftermath of both matches played so far in the 2014 FIFA World Cup that, based on results between other teams, have ultimately led to England’s early elimination.
Going into the competition with relatively modest expectations was some progress on the usual hype and overly optimistic predictions, but that soon changed after a display against Italy which, despite an eventual 2-1 loss, offered plenty of signs to suggest that England were well-equipped to recover – and progress.
Such newly found optimism even led to England being considered favourites to win their second fixture against Uruguay, which was originally deemed to be the toughest challenge facing Roy Hodgson’s men.
The fact that Uruguay had been convincingly beaten by Costa Rica in their opening group game didn’t help to keep English expectations in check, and instead only caused more certainty that England would triumph over their South American opponents.
However, as was the case in the opening game against Italy, things didn’t go exactly to plan, and England came out second best after a game which they might not only have drawn, but possibly won.
As expected, the post-mortem was instant, and utterly damning of the players and tactics.
Though despite the predictable nature of the reaction in phone-ins and forums, it was difficult not to be a little shocked by a tone of almost sheer anger at the way in which England’s World Cup bid was on the brink of being over, only a week after the tournament kicked-off.
Disappointment of two straight defeats is understandable, as is a degree of frustration that so many players were unable to replicate their club form – even if the assumption that footballers will perform exactly the same for their country as they do in the Premier League is always easier in theory than in practice.
The most disappointing thing about England’s performance against Uruguay was that they were clearly capable of making life difficult for their opponents, but despite enjoying periods of controlling the game, there were too many other occasions when England didn’t look to be showing any urgency in going for the win.
At the risk of looking at somewhere else to place blame, there was also a couple of refereeing decisions which could have changed the whole nature of the game that went against England. Both involved offences by Uruguayan defender Diego Godin which should have resulted in his sending off, having collected an early caution in the game for a handball.
How different the game could have been if Godin, Uruguay’s captain and defensive rock, had been dismissed in the first half for halting Daniel Sturridge’s run towards goal with an unpleasant forearm swing that caught the England striker’s throat. The fact that the decision went against England shouldn’t be used as any sort of excuse, but it was a straightforward decision that the referee chose not to make and, with the score still 0-0, would certainly have changed the game.
But now for some perspective. England have lost narrowly against two of the tournament’s better teams, and in matches that neither opponent truly dominated. Each game was a relatively close contest.
Compare that to England’s last two major competitions. In being knocked out of the last two international tournaments when facing a similar calibre of opponent, England have been thoroughly outclassed. Germany’s 4-1 over England during the 2010 World Cup was in no way flattering, while Italy’s performance in the 2012 European Championship quarter final was almost as one-sided.
If there’s to be any consolation from Brazil, it is that England have competed far better against two sides who have both achieved recent success at international level, and the almost unprecedented standard of teams competing in the same first round group stage always left the possibility of a swift exit from the competition for one of the teams involved.
Never before have three former winners been drawn in the same first round group, with all three countries currently in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings. Of the other seven groups at the 2014 World Cup, five have only one top 10 team, and Group H doesn’t even manage that.
If flaws in the system which produces the ranking are such that it isn’t a reliable measure of a national team’s strength, then a simple look at the actual recent achievements of Italy (2006 World Cup winners, 2012 European Championship finalists) and Uruguay (2010 World Cup semi-finalists; Copa America holders) paints a clearer picture.
During the last World Cup, England were grouped with USA, Algeria and Slovenia It was a group in which qualification was expected to be comfortable, but in which England failed to win either of their first two games and ultimately had to grind out a scrappy 1-0 win over Slovenia in order to claim second place in the group.
Whatever disappointment there is concerning England’s early exit from Brazil, there’s certainly more positives that can be taken than the performances and results from South Africa four years earlier – and far fewer reasons for criticism.
It was interesting yesterday to read some of the responses to Rafael Nadal’s ninth French Open triumph.
Whilst there was obviously a large amount of admiration for a man who continues to achieve things that have never before been done in his sport, I also read some comments about how boring it was for a the same player to win an event so many times.
As has always been the case, sporting legends can provoke very different responses, depending on which angle you take.
For example, Michael Schumacher’s utter dominance of Formula 1 was enjoyed by some, but also contributed to others switching off (a situation that the FIA attempted to address through a number of regulation changes that were intended in part to make the sport more exciting).
When such dominance occurs, it’s usually a combination of a tremendously gifted competitor performing in an era where there are no opponents capable of reaching the same level. And it’s easy to understand how it can be boring – particularly for casual fans who may not follow a sport with too deep an interest.
In the case of men’s tennis, it was deemed by some to be boring when Pete Sampras was untouchable at the top, although fewer people voiced complaints about Roger Federer’s position of superiority during the last decade, whether because of his style of play, or because of the fact that he wasn’t in a league of his own for quite as long.
For the latter, Nadal must take enormous credit. Until his emergence in the game, which inevitably started with major successes on clay at a young age, there was no one else on the tour capable of rising to Federer, or going on to achieve close to the same level of success.
Nadal twice denied Federer from holding all four Grand Slams at the same time, by overcoming him in the final of the French Open. But he also took the fight to Federer at Wimbledon and – after two successive defeats in the final – claimed the one title that no other player had threatened to take away from the Swiss.
Rising to the challenge of toppling Federer at an event he had made his own was almost the ultimate success for Nadal, during an era in the sport that frequently saw the two men battling each other for honours on every surface.
The rise of Djokovic and, to a lesser extent, Andy Murray, expanded the group of potential major winners further, and added even more intrigue.
Djokovic’s domination of 2011 forced a response not only from Federer, but also from Nadal, and the way in which each player responded to the challenge laid down by Djokovic only further strengthened their reputations as two of the all time greats.
A glance at the winners’ list at Roland Garros would give an impression of predictability for any outsider to the sport of tennis. It would look as if the tournament ending with Nadal’s name being etched once more onto the famous list was little more than an inevitability.
Any such view would fail to tell the whole story, particularly when taking into account Djokovic’s efforts to get his hands on the only grand slam that has eluded him. The Serb’s absolute determination to win at Roland Garros has been ended only by a fiercely resolute Nadal during each of the last three years – and each of those encounters could quite easily have had a different outcome, such was the part played by Djokovic.
That Nadal continues to come out on top when it really matters only reinforces his status as the finest clay court player in history.
But as long as there are players like Djokovic performing at the same, near-superhuman level, and forcing the very best out of one of the greatest of champions, there’ll be no danger of a Nadal win in Paris ever becoming boring.
The obituaries may have been written of Liverpool’s title hopes, but the Reds’ challenge isn’t over – yet.
Even after a disastrous night at Selhurst Park on Monday night that saw a 3-0 lead wiped out in the last 12 minutes of the game, Liverpool would still go into the final day of the season with a chance of winning the Premier League, and that in itself is a position that they haven’t been in since their last Championship win back in 1990.
Man City’s win against Aston Villa tonight has left them needing only a draw to claim their second league win in three seasons, but if events of this season aren’t evidence enough of how quickly and dramatically things can turn, then a look back at Man City’s first Premier League title offers even more proof of why this season’s race is far from over.
Having comfortably led the 2011/12 table at various stages of the season, Man City fell eight points adrift of Man United with only six games to play.
It would ordinarily have been a gap too big to bridge, but despite the vast experience in the Man United team, they too threw away their advantage, with a defeat to Wigan amongst the points that the defending champions dropped during April.
Going into the last day of the season, both Manchester clubs were level on points and separated only by Man City’s superior goal difference. To overturn that, Man United would need to have won at Sunderland by a margin of at least ten goals.
There was always the possibility that Man City wouldn’t win at all, but home advantage against relegation-threatened QPR, and boasting a record of 17 wins and a draw from 18 previous matches in front of their own fans made anything other than a Man City win seem highly unlikely.
QPR had other ideas though, and even after being reduced to ten men, they were able to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead during the second half.
As the season’s final round of matches entered injury time, Man United had done everything expected, having achieved a 2-0 win at Sunderland and secure the points that looked likely to hand Sir Alex Ferguson’s team a dramatic title win.
Yet there was still time for the most dramatic of twists, and goals from Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero – in the third and fifth minutes of injury time – earned a 3-2 win for Man City and saw them claim the title on goal difference.
The 2013/14 season has one more afternoon of matches before any silverware is handed out, and at this stage of the season, with the pressure firmly on every team involved in the chase for honours, unpredictable results appear more possible than at any other time.
That is why there’s no reason to suggest that it’s a foregone conclusion that Man City will win on Sunday. Another strong season at home again suggests that gaining the required result should be a foregone conclusion, but the nature of the Premier League – as well as recent history – means that Man City simply cannot take anything for granted.
If the conclusion to the 2011/12 season is anything to go by, then there still enough time for one last dramatic twist to a season that has already provided more surprises than most.
It’s no surprise that Luis Suarez has been named the 2013/14 PFA Player of the Year. The Liverpool striker has both scored and created more goals than anyone else in the Premier League this season – despite not starting the season until the middle of September due to a suspension.
For most of the season, it’s safe to say that Suarez has not only stood out as an obvious contender for the award, but has performed at such a high standard that there simply hasn’t been another footballer in the English league who would pose a genuine threat to the Uruguayan collecting the honour.
However, despite the goals, the assists and the huge influence of a positive nature that Suarez has had on Liverpool’s title-chasing season, there have still been many voices of doubt that he deserves to be voted as the best in the league – concerns that have been voiced since the shortlist of players up for contention was announced on Good Friday.
Most objections centre around Suarez’s behaviour – in particular his tendency to go to ground easily – and for this reason alone, there has been some opposition to the prospect of Suarez being recognized as this season’s standout player in the Premier League.
It doesn’t take a long memory to recall that Suarez’s claim for being named as last year’s winner was almost as strong and only a superb post-Christmas run of form by Gareth Bale offered any realistic alternative candidate.
Bale’s chances of success were further strengthened following the controversial biting incident involving Suarez and Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic. After all, it would be a bad advert for the Premier League to award the PFA award to a player with an ever-increasing record of such serious indiscipline.
Not surprisingly, Suarez has been much better behaved on the pitch this season. It’s hardly a surprise considering the likely sanctions that would follow any repeat of the type of behaviour that he has been punished for during his time in England so far.
But one thing continues to stop many rival fans from accepting him as a worthy Footballer of the Year: the diving.
On the face of things, it’s a reasonable request that our country’s footballing heroes should also take seriously their responsibility as role models, and not engage in anything deemed contrary to fair play. But that view is not only naive but, based on previous winners, extremely hypocritical.
It’s a naive view because even the footballers who have earned the most respect, not only within the footballing world but also the wider general public, are not perfectly behaved all of the time. Players like Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and David Beckham have often crossed the line of fair play, whether by diving to gain from penalties, or lashing out and succumbing to moments of petulance.
The three aforementioned footballers are held up as national heroes, and the positive qualities of each of those men are, quite rightly in most cases, portrayed as characteristics that youngsters should look to follow.
However, football fans who have closely followed the careers of any of those players would be able to point back to a host of unsavoury or unsporting incidents that each have been involved in, yet those incidents will rarely be used to blacken the overall character of any of the respective players beyond any short-lived back page headlines.
The same is true of last year’s winner, Gareth Bale. While Suarez was being pulled up on every misdemeanor, and even criticized over incidents where he wasn’t even particularly guilty of doing wrong (the handball against Mansfield Town in last season’s FA Cup tie, for example), Bale was championed as a mild-mannered and honest superstar, worthy of any accolade coming his way.
For anyone holding onto that view of the man who cost Real Madrid £85m last summer, it wouldn’t take long at all to discover a long list of controversies that Bale has been the subject of.
During his award-winning season last year, Bale accumulated a record of four bookings for diving, which cemented his place at the top of the list of players with the most cautions for simulation.
And with barely six months having passed since he made his debut in Spain, there has already been more than one incident following a similar theme, in particular an incident during Real Madrid’s league win over Sevilla in October which involved a comical attempt by Bale to win a penalty that was waved away by the referee. Even in a league that is more accepting of such on-the-pitch antics, there was widespread criticism of the Welshman.
Almost a year ago, Suarez picked the worst time to make known his complaints over what he perceived to be the victimization of him by the British media. Having just accepted a lengthy ban for biting an opposing player, there was never going to be any other reaction than complete condemnation.
But if other footballers are going to be judged only on their sporting abilities, with a blind eye turned to some of their supposedly more mild misdemeanors, then Suarez, too, deserves to be judged purely on his footballing contribution to Liverpool’s season.
On that basis, the outcome was never in doubt and for Liverpool’s number seven, as it did for Bale last season, the Football Writers Award will surely follow once the season is over.
The 2013/14 UEFA Champions League was reduced to its last four contenders this week with the conclusion of the quarter final ties.
And the list of teams on course for a place in next season’s competition is growing, as leagues around Europe head into the final few weeks.
In terms of finishing positions, the Italian, German and French leagues are are the most clear cut, but it’s La Liga and the Premier League where most of the drama is still set to come. Here’s a rundown of the clubs competing for Champions League qualification across Europe’s top leagues.
Bayern Munich are now twenty points clear of second placed Borussia Dortmund, and defeat last week to end their record-breaking 53 match unbeaten run was irrelevant in terms of a title race which was wrapped up long before the end of March.
Pep Guardiola’s men can still equal or break further Bundesliga records should they win all five remaining games, but it will be the performance in this season’s Champions League which will truly determine how successful the campaign has been. Only by becoming the first club to successfully defend the trophy will Bayern’s ambitions be fully met, though whatever the outcome of Bayern’s involvement this season, the pressure will be equally strong when they take their place in the competition next season.
Joining them will almost certainly be Borussia Dortmund, who suffered a serious slump in form during the winter but have recovered sufficiently enough to claim a top three place, with Ruhr rivals Schalke also looking strong for securing qualification.
Assuming that only the fourth and final Bundesliga place is still up for grabs, the qualifier will most likely come from either Borussia Moenchengladbach, Bayer Leverkusen or Wolfsburg, who are currently separated in the table by just a single point.
Leverkusen appear to have slightly more favourable fixtures, but have suffered six defeats from their previous nine Bundesliga games and will need a complete reversal of that form in order to climb back into the top four.
Borussia Moenchengladbach are the current occupiers of fourth place, and are also the most in-form team of the three. Results in the away fixture against Schalke, and the potential decider against Wolfsburg on the last day of the season will be the most crucial games.
In Serie A, Juventus are also closing in on an early title win in a season which, like Bayern, could see multiple records being broken.
Juve lead Roma by eight points and have a 100% home record, with a recent loss to Napoli only their second of the season. Roma face Juventus in their last home game of the season, but it’s unlikely that the Scudetto will still be up for grabs by that point.
In third place, Napoli are comfortably ahead of Fiorentina in the race for Italy’s final Champions League qualifying place, and although the two teams will face each other for silverware in the final of the Coppa Italia, the gap of nine points looks too great to be overturned at such a late stage of the season.
Paris St-Germain are just two wins away from a second successive league title under the ownership of big-spending Qatar Sports Investments. Only the equally big-spenders of Monaco have posed any genuine threat to PSG retaining the Ligue 1 crown, but Monaco have gradually fallen further away from the league leaders and since the turn of the year have rarely looked like realistically overhauling Laurent Blanc’s side. Both teams are still involved in domestic cup competitions, but with the league title having looked a formality for some time, PSG may still look back at the season with some disappointment after suffering another quarter final elimination from the Champions League on the away goals rule.
Monaco should wrap up second place, whilst Lille are in pole position for third place and a return to the Champions League, having missed out on European football entirely last season. St Etienne may only be five points adrift with six matches still to play, but look too inconsistent to overturn the points deficit that exists.
In fifth place, nine points outside the top three, are Lyon. After 12 consecutive seasons in the group stage of the competition, Lyon missed out in 2012/13 and failed this season to progress beyond the qualifying round. A third season in a row outside of European football’s premier competition would have been unimaginable only a couple of years ago, but that is now the situation facing the 2010 semi-finalists.
In Spain, fans of La liga are being treated to a rare title race involving not two, but three teams. Barcelona led for most of the first half of the season, before being overtaken in January by a Real Madrid team who, from the end of October to mid-March, looked unstoppable. However, two defeats in a row for Real saw them slip to third, and city rivals Atletico now lead the way.
In what could be a quite remarkable conclusion to the Spanish season, Atletico travel to Barcelona on the final day of the season in a game that is shaping up to be a title decider. That will follow a Spanish cup final contested between Barcelona and Real Madrid, and the Champions League semi final draw has opened up the possibility of a Madrid derby in the final.
In comparison to such a fierce battle between Spain’s three best teams for domestic and European silverware, the final team from La Liga to qualify for next season’s Champions League seems almost entirely insignificant. But it will be of huge significance in the Basque region where Athletic Bilbao are in a strong position to take up their seat amongst Europe’s elite once again – just a year after seeing their Basque Country rivals achieve a similar feat. Real Sociedad are nine points adrift this time around, while Sevilla are six points behind Athletic Club, and no doubt with one eye on achieving a record-equalling third Europa League triumph.
So, finally to the English Premier League. As in La Liga, it’s been some time since a title race was being fought out so closely between three sides at this stage of the season.
Liverpool lead the way, knowing that five wins from the last five games will secure a first league title since the Premier League was formed. However, those five remaining fixtures involve playing both of their title rivals, and it’s not impossible that the season could go down to the final day with Liverpool, Chelsea and Man City all in with a chance of finishing on top.
What is likely to be confirmed long before May is that all three of those clubs will cement a place in next seasons Champions League, leaving just one spot still to play for. Arsenal currently occupy fourth place and, when looking at the remaining fixtures, will fancy their chances of finishing the league season strongly.
But only a point behind – and with a game in hand – are Everton. Roberto Martinez has already given fans on the blue half of Merseyside plenty of cause for optimism, and Champions League qualification would be a fitting end to a fine debut season under the Spaniard. A challenging set of fixtures must first be overcome in order for that to be a reality, but momentum is with the Blues and there’s no reason to believe that Everton can’t be the team celebrating in May.
One team who are not yet mathematically out of contention, but who will need a footballing miracle to qualify, is Manchester United. Not since 1995 have the 20-time league champions failed to qualify for European football’s premier club competition, but a disastrous Premier League campaign has left Man United with ever-fading hopes of earning qualification for a 19th season in a row.
New manager David Moyes will hope that it is only a one-off, but given the strength of competition in England, there’ll be no guarantees of an instant return at the end of next season.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Liverpool’s season is the minimal amount of attention that it has attracted. Despite having led the table for a number of weeks before Christmas – eventually surrending the summit only after back-to-back festive fixtures away to the two title favourites – and having been as consistent as any team since New Year, there has remained a reluctance from some sections of the media to even acknowledge that Brendan Rodgers and his team are in the midst of a very serious title challenge.
Only two games ago, the BBC’s front page headline to Liverpool’s win against Swansea stated that the result had merely kept alive Liverpool’s hopes of finishing fourth. That it did, but the win not only stretched Liverpool’s lead over Tottenham to six points, but reduced the gap between them and the leaders, Chelsea, to just four points – and only one point behind Man City.
Yet the reporting of Manchester United’s win at Crystal Palace the day before included reference to how David Moyes’ team were still in the race for Champions League qualification having moved “to just eight points off the top four”. Liverpool, at the time, were the team occupying fourth place, and not only had a game in hand in addition to the eight point advantage, but also a vastly superior goal difference. United, therefore, ended the weekend with effectively a 12 point difference to make up.
It is a mystery how a Man United revival was considered realistic, while Liverpool were not even being mentioned as a contender for the title – particularly when taking into account the two clubs’ performances over the season, as well as remaining fixtures.
It’s fully understandable that critics have reservations of mentioning Liverpool in the same breath as Chelsea, Man City – or even Man United, despite a disastrous season for the defending champions. After all, Liverpool have finished the last four seasons in an average position of 7th, and an average of more than 27 points behind the winners.
There’s nothing undeserved about where Liverpool find themselves in the table however and, more significantly, there is no evidence that it’s a one-off.
The strike partnership of Suarez and Sturridge has been in place for around 14 months and seen the two players net more than 60 league goals in that space of time. Both players have missed half a dozen games this season, yet are the country’s two leading goalscorers.
Behind the front two, Philippe Coutinho is another of Rodgers’ signings from January 2013 who settled quickly and has played a key part in the club’s success, while Raheem Sterling has made further progress and built on the promise he showed during the first half of last season. Jordan Henderson, too, has made big strides in his game this season, and is likely to be rewarded with a place in England’s world cup squad.
Even in Liverpool’s frequently criticised defence there is plenty of quality and experience, but injuries have led to a host of varying defensive line-ups during the season, and the unsettled back four has too often looked shaky.
The biggest obvious weakness is in the quality of players in reserve, but for that to be addressed, it’s essential that Liverpool achieve regular qualification for the Champions League. Only then can the club even attempt to compete with the top clubs from London and Manchester in the transfer market.
Five years ago this month, Liverpool handed Real Madrid a record European defeat, during a season which also saw the Reds’ strongest domestic campaign since the last title win in 1990. Rather than continuing to improve, as clubs like Chelsea and Man United would do, even after a successful season, there followed two years of profit-making transfer windows at Anfield, under an ownership of George Gillett and Tom Hicks that also involved public infighting and even a battle to avoid administration, such was the scale of the financial problems caused by the American duo.
It was simply Liverpool’s bad luck that a dramatic change in fortunes came at the same time as an unprecedented level of player investment was being undertaken at Manchester City by Sheikh Mansour, and a strong Tottenham team were finally beginning to live up to their potential.
Both sides took full advantage of Liverpool’s vulnerability, and although each subsequent season has started with Liverpool having hopes of finishing in the top four, each campaign has ended with the painful reality that the Reds have simply not been in the same class as the teams above them.
Earning their way back into contention for a place amongst Europe’s finest has seemed a long road, and in light of the quality of the other six teams who have consistently finished above Liverpool over the past three seasons, there’s been no certainty of avoiding an even more lengthy absence from challenging for titles or achieving Champions League qualification.
The progress and hard work shown by everyone at the club since ownership changed hands for a second time in three years is clearly reaping rewards though, and a top four finish – at the very least – is within reach, barring a catastrophic conclusion to the season.
Should Liverpool see out the challenge, the next aim will be to consolidate their position amongst the country’s top teams, and ensure that a top four finish isn’t restricted to a single season. It’s a task which for Liverpool will be every bit as demanding as breaking into the top four in the first place. Spurs and Everton are likely to remain a threat, and Man United are certain to embark on an expensive overhaul of an underachieving squad in order to quickly put David Moyes’ disappointing first year behind them.
But with the right additions, and the continuation of a strong work ethic, there’s no reason to believe that progress under Brendan Rodgers is to come to a halt at any time soon, and for fans of Liverpool there is finally a genuine feeling again that exciting times lie ahead.
The Premier League returns today, after a short break due to FA Cup action. With most teams having only a dozen games left to play, it’s set up for a thrilling finale to what has so far been one of the most fascinating campaigns to date.
Chelsea currently lead, but after a potentially tricky home fixture against Everton this weekend, they face a challenging schedule during March which involves a derby visit to local rivals Fulham, and fixtures against Arsenal and Tottenham.
Should Mourinho’s men remain top at the start of April, they’ll feel confident of seeing off their rivals, thanks to a run-in which looks slightly more favourable than those of their fellow title contenders. There is also a wealth experience throughout a squad which includes a number of players who have won titles with the club, and know exactly what it takes to handle the pressure.
Arsenal occupy second place, only a point behind Chelsea, but will be wary of a brutal run in the second half of March and early April that includes having to face Tottenham, Chelsea, Man City and Everton in successive games. Apart from Man City, all of those matches are away from home and follow immediately after returning from Germany and the second leg of the round of 16 Champions League tie against Bayern Munich.
FA Cup action will also disrupt Arsenal’s Premier League schedule and the Gunners will need to be at their very best in order to maintain their involvement in the title race. Heavy defeats to Man City and, more recently, Liverpool will be a worry with so many big games ahead, and the ability of the squad to cope with competing on multiple fronts will stretch Arsene Wenger’s men to their limits.
However, Arsenal deservedly led the table for much of the first half of the season, and their ability to produce a consistent run of form ensures that despite a difficult fixture list, they remain a threat.
Man City are the other of the four title contenders whose involvement in domestic cup competition could lead to fixture congestion later in the season. Aside from FA Cup, Man City still have to play Sunderland in the final of the League cup, and are already behind schedule after a recent postponement due to bad weather.
Under Manuel Pellegrini, the club has appeared much more stable than in past years, but even the club’s recent history offers evidence of how Man City can still self-destruct more spectacularly than most.
When considering that most of City’s league problems have come away from home, their remaining games look to include a number of potential slip-ups, not least in the fixtures away to Merseyside clubs, Arsenal, and a journey across the city to face Man United in what is certain to be a hotly contested Manchester derby.
With all of the top sides having visited the Etihad, it’s clear that the fixture list so far has been kind to Man City, and perhaps should have seen them in a more commanding position in relation to their rivals.
There’s still a lot to be proved by the league’s strongest squad, and despite looking invincible for periods of the season, much hard work is to be done if the Premier League title is to return.
For Liverpool and their 26 games so far, it’s fair to say that the reverse is true: with the exception of Man United and Southampton, Liverpool had already travelled away to every other club in the top ten before New Year.
Defeat to Arsenal in the FA Cup last weekend leaves Liverpool with only the league to focus on and that could give the Reds a slight advantage, though much will depend on their ability to maintain their impressive home form, particularly when the likes of Chelsea, Man City and Tottenham are welcomed to Anfield.
Though whilst a lack of domestic and European cup competitions could be a positive in terms of helping to keep the players fresh, it’s also true that a good cup run can also be beneficial in generating momentum that can benefit league form, something which the likes of Chelsea or Man City could use to their advantage.
Just below Liverpool are Spurs, and with the gap between the sides only three points, there’s been some calls made by certain TV pundits to include them as title contenders
But with Man City able to join Chelsea on 57 points should they win their game in hand, that would leave Spurs with seven points to make up on both of those teams. And with a massively inferior goal difference, Spurs couldn’t hope to draw level on points and then use goal difference as a deciding factor in their favour.
It’s therefore almost impossible to imagine that Spurs have the time left in the season to leapfrog all four sides currently occupying the top four positions – although they may yet break into the top four.
And so to the predictions on who will come out on top.
Having lost their lead at the top at such a crucial stage, and with a tough schedule to come, I have doubts over whether Arsenal can recover sufficiently to hold off the challenge of all three teams around them. That, for me, leaves the title race as being between Chelsea, Man City and Liverpool.
Of those three, Liverpool will be considered most people’s outsiders, if for no reason other than the fact that they have a squad with little experience of being in such a position, challenging right up to the wire. Although the same can be said of new recruits at Chelsea or Man City, both teams have a core of players who have been instrumental in helping to achieve prior Premier League successes.
That’s not to rule out Liverpool entirely, with the Reds having demonstrated an ability to compete with the top clubs once again, which represents huge progress. The title is still within reach, but the first priority must still be to hold on to a qualifying place for next season’s Champions League.
So having narrowed down the overall champion to either Man City or Chelsea, I’d have to stick to my pre-season prediction that Manuel Pellegrini’s arrival would bring enough stability to see the trophy heading back to the blue half of Manchester – though perhaps without more twists in what has been a gripping title race.
For the first time since Juan Martin Del Potro’s victory over Roger Federer in the 2009 US Open Final, men’s tennis finally has a Grand Slam champion from outside of the group of four players who have dominated the sport for so long.
There was no shortage of drama in Melbourne, but also perhaps some regret that Stanislaw Wawrinka’s victory over Rafa Nadal may be remembered as much for Nadal’s injury problems as it will for the fact that Wawrinka earned a first Grand Slam title in the 36 tournaments that he has qualified for.
Nadal was quick to pay tribute to his opponent and was typically reluctant to use injury as an excuse for defeat, but having been reduced almost to tears during a second set in which he was virtually unable to compete whilst waiting for his medication to take effect, it was clear that the Spaniard was unable to reach the standard he’s capable of.
Not that there would have been any certainty of a different result even if Nadal had been able to give his all, for the first set saw him thoroughly outplayed for large periods by a man who has made huge progress in the last year.
As of this time last year, Wawrinka had only two quarter-final appearances to show for his Grand Slam career, though his displays at the 2013 Australian Open provided plenty of evidence of the high standard of tennis that he is capable of producing.
A gruelling five-set classic against Novak Djokovic – the defending champion and world number one – was one of the best matches of the calendar year. For over five hours, Wawrinka matched his opponent with some stunning tennis, eventually losing 12-10 in the fifth set to fall just short of what would have been a big upset.
A career-best performance at Roland Garros was ended only by Nadal, and Wawrinka’s first Grand Slam semi-final was to follow later in the year at the US Open, and was ended in similar circumstances to his defeat in Melbourne earlier in the season – a five-set defeat to Djokovic.
After the heroics in his matches with Djokovic during 2013, there was much more interest in this year’s draw, especially when the two players made it through to the quarter-final stage, and a third Grand Slam meeting in just over a year.
The Swiss would have been a thoroughly deserving winner during either of the titanic encounters during last year, but did finally end a run of 14 successive defeats to Djokovic stretching back to 2006, battling back from a set down to lead the match, before having the courage to see out the final set after Djokovic had levelled the match at two sets apiece.
Wawrinka has shown over the past 12-18 months that his increasingly frequent appearances in the latter stages of big tournaments is not down to fluke, and the way in which he responded against Djokovic proved that he’s a player not only with the talent to win the odd best-of-three-set match against the very best players – but that of a player with a belief that he can win such matches on the very biggest of stages.
In an era which for years has been dominated by a group of four players, at least two of whom are considered to be amongst the greatest of all time, there has to be an extremely strong mentality shown by those ranked just below the top 4 or 5 if they’re to have any chance of competing for the sport’s top prizes.
Where the likes of Berdych and Tsonga continue to fall short, despite having shown repeatedly a talent to compete with the sport’s top stars, Wawrinka has now stepped in and shown that when ability is combined with an unshakeable determination, it’s not impossible to reach the top.
With the newly crowned Swiss number one due to turn 29 in March, there’s clearly a question mark over just how long Wawrinka can remain at the level he has now reached, or whether he will go on to add more majors titles to the Grand Slam so dramatically won in Melbourne.
But having overcome the two best players in the world and cemented his place amongst the elite, Wawrinka is certainly going to be around for the time being time at least. A new champion makes for a perfect start to a season promising plenty of drama, and if Wawrinka can continue his growing momentum, there may yet be more surprises during the 2014 ATP Tour.
Away from the pitch, the week’s big football story was the awarding of the FIFA Ballon d’Or to Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo.
It’s been a long time in coming, but Ronaldo finally has his second Ballon d’Or and it is an award that is richly deserved – not only for a calendar year of performances for club and country in which no other individual came close to equalling, but for a level of consistency spanning many years during which he has reached a level of performance not matched by too many other footballers.
Since being named European and World footballer of the year in 2008, Ronaldo has gone on to become an even more outstanding footballer than he was under Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, although his own heroics have continually been overshadowed by those of Lionel Messi at Barcelona, who has been voted as the world’s best player during each of the previous four years.
What the two players have achieved is remarkable, but when looking at Ronaldo’s achievements at Real Madrid in particular, it’s difficult not to have some sympathy for him that his form has rarely seen individual honours come his way.
In less than five years at the Santiago Bernabeu, Ronaldo has already broken a number of the club’s all-time goalscoring records, including some of those which were previously in the name of Raul, a Real Madrid legend and a first-team regular for 16 seasons.
Raul was one of the most deadly strikers in the world for much of his time at Real Madrid where he burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old, but many of his records have either been beaten already, or will surely be under threat in the next couple of seasons should Ronaldo remain with Los Blancos.
Ronaldo topped 200 club goals for Real Madrid in under four seasons, and to reach that tally at any top-level club would ordinarily be a feat achieved only once in a generation. To do it for Real Madrid is even more special, particularly for a player with the pressure of a world record tranfer fee on his shoulders, and playing for his dream club.
Yet whatever Ronaldo has done, Messi has matched – or bettered. When Ronaldo became the first player to score 40 La Liga goals in a single season in 2010/11, Messi went on to reach 50 only a year later, during a calendar year in which he netted 91 times for club and country.
Ronaldo has watched on as Messi has won Champions League semi finals with moments of brilliance, inspiring his Barcelona side to two Champions League and four La Liga titles since 2009. Each of those years has ended with a two-way battle to be named the planet’s number one player – and each time, it has been Messi who has come out on top.
But with 2013 ending with a long injury lay-off for Messi, and having “only” ended the year with 42 goals to Ronaldo’s 66, the Barcelona number 10 never quite reached the same superhuman standard that he displayed in years gone by. And with Ronaldo’s form remaining at a consistently high standard throughout 2013, it’s likely that even without an injury interrupting Messi’s season, Ronaldo would still have had the edge in this year’s battle for football’s most prestigious individual honour.
Aside from Ronaldo’s club form, he was also instrumental in leading Portugal to the World Cup finals with a stunning four goal haul over the two-legged play-off tie with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden.
As a result, the two finest players in the world will have a chance on football’s biggest stage of all to stake their claim for next year’s individual honour, and if serious injury can be avoided, it promises to be another fierce battle between two of the sport’s greats.