Despite what has seemed to be bizarre first six months of the season, it finally appears that normalcy is returning to England’s top flight.
Manchester United sits five points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand over their city rivals following their impressive comeback against Blackpool, while Arsene Wenger’s dynamic crew have resparked their title ambitions by climbing to a comfortable second. The three ‘W’s of Wigan, Wolves, and West Ham occupy the relegation zone – something not entirely out of the ordinary for this time of year (expect at least two of those three to change before May), while solid performances from the likes of Birmingham, Everton, and Fulham belie their table position. Kenny Dalgish’s efforts at Anfield have helped them find their scoring touch – Fernando Torres is finally showing signs of that exciting striker we’ve all missed watching – Raul Meireles has found the freedom and confidence to dictate Liverpool’s flowing movement from the middle of the park – Dalgish even found a solution to their left-back problems: Glen Johnson, who has been replaced on the right by the increasingly impressive Martin Kelly. Their last three games have helped lift them to seventh (and upsettingly, miles above Everton).
There are still some irregularities, however. Sunderland sit comfortable in sixth (compared to their usual mid-table outings); Blackburn and Newcastle sit in the top half with Stoke closely behind. The teams sitting in the bottom third of the table, topped by Everton and floored with West Ham is intriguing. Having watched West Ham’s last two games (against Everton and then against Birmingham in the Carling Cup), they should not be sitting on the bottom. Their team consists of the likes of Robert Green, Scott Parker, Mark Noble, Freddie Piquionne, Carlton Cole, and Kieran Dyer and have shown signs they are able to compete with top teams (their recent 5-0 drubbing at Newcastle aside). The same applies to Aston Villa, though their latest signing Darren Bent seems to have invigorated the side with back-to-back wins. Young and Downing have been given the space to grow, and Houllier will no doubt want to hold onto them, building his new and young team around those two in combination with Albrighton, Agbonlahor, Bent, and Larsson if he can sign the Swede.
I think refreshing is the word that comes to mind when I look at the table. Chelsea sit in fourth and look very much like the aging squad I alluded to over the summer. Rumours are rumbling of Alex leaving (to AC Milan?) as Benfica’s David Luiz comes to London. Luiz would be an expensive albeit much-needed addition to Ancelotti’s starting 11. Tottenham’s title challenge seems to have cooled slightly as their recent games have shown that they are not immortal (Newcastle were unfortunate to win last weekend), though I do expect another surge once they find rhythm again. With key players returning to fitness, chiefly van der Vaart, Defoe, Dawson, and Woodgate (he’s training with the first team now and had a behind-closed-doors runout last week), expect Spurs to come guns-ablazing once their Champions League campaign resumes. Sunderland’s excellent performances this season have warranted their 37 points and a current European spot. Whether they can sustain this level is the big question, though one suspects that Steve Bruce deserves more credit than most might give him – he is bound to have a couple more tricks up his sleeve.
Usually this space is reserved for Everton, but their story is starting to get repetitive: they lack a clinical finisher. Louis Saha will bag us goals, but he doesn’t get them nearly as often as we would like (principally because he may not always be available for selection). It was good to see Fellaini and Bilyaletdinov get goals over the weekend, with the latter aptly proving himself a viable replacement for the London-bound Pienaar. Having Jagielka back in the side will provide the calm and balance that I think they’ve been missing in the last two games that he’s been out. The imminent return of Tim Cahill will also be greatly anticipated when he returns from the Middle East (hopefully with a winner’s medal!). However, this time I am going to give Alan Pardew’s men some column inches. They have been my pick of the year this year. Some may argue that Charlie Adam-inspired Blackpool or Mick McCarthy’s much-praised Wolves team should be given credit, and don’t get me wrong – they more than deserve it. Others, however, have done that. What those two lack, unlike their Toon counterpart, is a top-half position. Impressive as the former two have been, one sits in relegation while the other sits in 12th. Newcastle, contrastingly, sit two points and a game in hand from a European spot.
From front to back, they have been solid. At the back, Danny Simpson seems to have grown into himself, supported no doubt by the trio of Mike Williamson, Fabricio Coloccini, and Steven Taylor at centre-back. Coloccini and Williamson, when together, appear simply impregnable, especially Coloccini, who has been in superb form over the last two months. On the left is the consistent Enrique, who looks much more comfortable competing in the Premier League than he did in his last season in the top flight. Perhaps it is Newcastle’s midfield that is behind their success in this campaign; held together by skipper Kevin Nolan and the much-improved Joey Barton, who so often this year has been the orchestrator of Newcastle’s best moves, and joined by the dynamic Cheick Tiete and Jonas ‘Spiderman’ Gutierrez, the midfield has both supported big man Andy Carroll up front and protected its back four in impeccable fashion. Despite dropping four points against Sunderland and Tottenham, Newcastle have no need to panic yet. Alan Pardew has inherited a very spirited, disciplined, and organised side that have learnt to play for each other and for their thousands of supporters who fill the rafters of St James’ Park every weekend. While there is some cause for concern, Danny Guthrie’s return to form, Nile Ranger’s maturity, and rumours about Hatem Ben Arfa’s imminent return to the first team fold is something for all Geordie fans, supporters, and sympathisers to smile about.