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.
Four months into the football season, and West Brom last night became the fourth club in the Premier League to enforce a managerial change with the sacking of Steve Clarke.
A run of four successive defeats and six games without a win has resulted in a slide down the table that sees West Brom currently in 16th position.
Such is the ruthless nature of many Premier League owners that there shouldn’t be too many surprises that the West Brom board made the decision they did.
But in the statement issued following the sacking, there was reference to the fact that the club “have not had the rub of the green” in some of their recent fixtures. In other words, they’ve been unlucky. Quite how any manager is expected to work in an environment in which he has to take responsibility for controversial decisions taken by match officials that directly affect the outcome of games is a mystery.
West Brom have won at Old Trafford in the league this season, for the first time in decades. They were seconds away from doing the same at Stamford Bridge – denied only by a highly disputed last minute injury time penalty.
In the run of four defeats, they’ve lost – narrowly – to Manchester City, and also away to in-form Newcastle. The results may have been disappointing, but performances over the season have had enough positives to justify sticking with Clarke. Surely some perspective is needed.
Perhaps West Brom have been influenced by the resurgence of Crystal Palace following the appointment of Tony Pulis, or the recent improvement in Fulham’s performances under new man Rene Meulensteen.
But maybe they should look at the example of Dave Whelan at Wigan, who stuck with Roberto Martinez regarless of how dire the situation looked at this stage of the season.
Martinez did wonders with Wigan and kept the team in the Premier League against all the odds on a number of occasions. There was trust in the manager by the chairman, and after 38 games of each season, Martinez had generally achieved something with his team that few others would have been capable of. Even more impressive was that it was done without compromising any of his footballing principles.
Six games without a win is of course enough to cause any chairman to get more than a little nervous. There’s no guarantee that a new man will bring an improvement to the results though, and for every Premier League managerial change which has worked out for the better, there have been many which simply haven’t made much of a difference at all.
West Brom aren’t in the relegation zone, and have generally looked a much stronger side than many of the other clubs in the bottom half. Perhaps giving Steve Clarke and his staff a little longer to see things turned around wouldn’t have unreasonable.
But in a world of Premier League management in which Brendan Rodgers is now the 4th longest serving manager at his current club, maybe that’s just a little too much to ask for the modern chairman.
Rafa Benitez is not having much luck in the Champions League.
Last year, his first game in the competition after taking over at Chelsea was also his only Champions League game with the club. The result was a 6-1 victory over Rosenborg, but such was the position that Chelsea found themselves in under Roberto Di Matteo, it wasn’t enough.
Shakhtar Donetsk, already through to the last 16, lost at home to Juventus. That Benitez’s team won by a margin not bettered by any other side in the competition over the whole season became irrelevant. Delivering the only other European trophy to compete for was the most he was able to achieve during a difficult time at the club – and the former Liverpool manager faces more of the same this season after Napoli became the first team in Champions League history to be eliminated with 12 points.
Billed as this season’s “group of death”, it was always set to be a fierce battle between Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli. The strength of the group is highlighted by the fact that Marseille, runners-up to PSG in last season’s Ligue 1, were not considered by many to even be contenders for a place in the next round.
In contrast, Zenit St Petersburg became the first team ever to make it past the first round with only 6 points from their group stage games. A heavy defeat in their final game against bottom-of-the-table Austria Vienna and a solitary win – by a 1-0 scoreline – left Zenit with a record that is unlikely to concern any of their potential opponents in the next round.
Champions League history was also made by Man City, whose tally of 15 points is the highest possible for a side finishing as runners-up, and the first time it has been achieved.
Of the four English sides to make it into the second round, it’s City who look most likely to mount a challenge for the trophy, and although they go into the draw with the certainty of facing tough opponents, they’ll fancy their chances against anyone. From the perspective of the group winners, Man City will be the team to avoid in the draw.
Chelsea and Man United may not go all they way but both sides should reach the quarter finals having topped relatively straightforward groups. Both will start as strong favourites in their last 16 ties, and regardless of Jose Mourinho’s comments about the strength of potential opponents, Chelsea and Man United each have the quality and experience to overcome any of the teams they could face.
La Liga’s contingent of sides left in the competition is typically strong, and although Real Sociedad failed to make an impression on group A, their Spanish counterparts all cruised through and will be difficult to stop.
Barcelona are always amongst many people’s favourites, but their best chance to add to their recent collection of European trophies may have disappeared by in their semi final defeat to Chelsea two seasons ago. Last season’s run to the semi final ended with a 7-0 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich, and it’s difficult to imagine that Barcelona would be strong enough to achieve a different outcome this time around, should the sides meet again. A more experience PSG also pose a greater threat, while the two Madrid clubs have to be considered genuine contenders for winning the competition.
Usually taking place on the final Friday before Christmas, fans of the teams involved will have less time to wait this year with the draw set for Monday. It’s the next step of what promises to be an exciting road to Lisbon in 2014.
What a difference 12 months makes.
A year ago today, and with 16 rounds played, Man United were celebrating an away win in the Manchester derby that had moved them six points clear of their city rivals – and defending Champions – at the top of the league.
Chelsea were a further four points behind in third place and Everton occupied fourth place, though shared a points tally of 26 with Tottenham and West Brom.
Futher down the table, Arsenal had jumped three places into 7th, but were still a massive 15 points behind the leaders and well out of the title race.
Liverpool ended that weekend with a 3-2 win at West Ham to leapfrog the Hammers into 10th – albeit only through the narrowest of advantages in the goal difference of the respective clubs.
Southampton were out of the relegation zone on goal difference, and Newcastle only a couple of points clear of the bottom three.
After round 15 of the 2013/14 season last weekend, the current Premier League standings couldn’t look more different for a number of teams.
In terms of points tally, champions Man United are closer to 19th-placed Crystal Palace than to the current leaders Arsenal, who are five clear of second-placed Liverpool.
Newcastle and Liverpool are the big movers, nine points and eight points better off respectively than 12 months ago.
And Southampton have been one of the biggest surprises, thoroughly deserving of their position ahead of Man United in the table.
As most observers have commented, it’s been a thoroughly unpredictable campaign so far, and, due to that fact, one of the most interesting of all Premier League seasons.
Where the title ends up, and who claims the much coveted top-four places may become a little clearer in a month’s time.
Arsenal have dealt well so far with the big games, but face games against Man City, Chelsea and Newcastle before New Year.
Liverpool arguably have an even tougher conclusion to the calendar year, with a trip to Spurs this weekend, before away games at both Man City and Chelsea in the days between Christmas and New Year.
The outcome of those results may give an indication into the likelihood of either Arsenal or Liverpool mounting a serious and lasting title challenge, but equally revealing will be how Man City and Chelsea cope with facing two of the league’s form teams.
I wasn’t brave enough to make any predictions at the start of the season, other than backing Pellegrini to help Man City land their second Premier League title in 3 years.
I’d still be surprised for any other outcome in terms of the winners, but beyond that, anything could happen. My only hope is that the unpredictability continues, and that come May, there’s still plenty to play for.
So, having finally completed his long-awaited transfer to Real Madrid, Gareth Bale on Sunday evening became the most expensive footballer in football history.
It’s a statement which will take some getting used to – not because Gareth Bale isn’t an excellent footballer, but rather because the fee is at a level which shouldn’t be paid for any footballer who isn’t Lionel Messi.
It’s still difficult to determine which of the two clubs involved are most guilty of getting carried away: Real Madrid, for being willing to pay such a fee in the first place; or Tottenham for believing that their player was worth more than the reported £81million offered to them earlier in the summer.
To put the price tag into perspective, only a small handful of players have ever transferred for a fee in excess of £40million. Amongst that small group of players are Zinedine Zidane, Kaka, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo.
It seems absurd to think that Gareth Bale, good though he is, can be valued at almost €35 million more than Real Madrid paid for Kaka, at a time when Kaka was a recent winner of the Ballon D’Or and World Player of the Year awards, and internationally regarded as one finest players of his generation.
It appears equally crazy that Real Madrid value Bale at a fee which is greater than the world-record price paid to land Ronaldo in 2009, who has gone on to break countless records in his four years at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Of course, Real Madrid’s transfer activity has often had an element of how much commercial success a player’s arrival can bring. That was seen during the first era of Galacticos, and also during the second era, brought about by Florentino Perez’s successful re-election as club president.
Kaka and Ronaldo were prime examples of players who were always likely to bring plenty of money into the club through its sale of merchandise.
But even from a commercial point of view, it’s hard to understand how much sense it makes to splash out so much money on Bale. As an international star, he’s simply not in the same league as Ronaldo or Messi, nor of Xavi, Iniesta or even Neymar, Barcelona’s new signing.
The other risk for Real Madrid is that should Bale not be successful in Spain, there would be difficulty recouping much more than a third of the transfer fee. This is always a possibility when a club spends a record amount to sign a new player, but the risk is minimized when the player in question has proven themselves consistently at the highest possible level.
Bale’s quality is much more well-known in Britain than throughout the rest of Europe, and he’ll be under intense scrutiny from football fans across the globe as he sets about the task of showing why Real Madrid paid such a high price for his services.
From Tottenham’s perspective, most of the focus has inevitably centred around the loss of their best player. However, that shouldn’t detract from the fact that they already had a squad with enough quality to make the league’s top four and with the investment of the money raised from Bale’s transfer, Spurs could, or perhaps should, go on to push for the title.
New additions such as Roberto Soldado should help fill the match-winning boots of Gareth Bale, while increased quality in other areas of the squad could drive Tottenham towards the kind of success which cannot be achieved when dependent solely on one man.
It certainly has given Spurs an advantage over rivals such as Arsenal and Liverpool in the battle for Champions League qualification – and should the team from White Hart Lane achieve that, then there may not be long to wait for a reunion of football’s costliest player with that of his former club.