With an out-of-sorts and unpredictable Manchester United clinging to their slender advantage at the top of the Premier League, Martin Scanlon previews the climax of one of the most exciting title races in years.
The 2008/2009 Premier League season has been one of the most competitive in recent years. Battles have been fought throughout the table, whether it be the chase for the title, the Aston Villa-Arsenal scrap for the final Champions League spot, or the, at times, ten or eleven teams struggling to avoid relegation. Much of this has now settled down, with Arsenal guaranteed fourth place and many of the teams seemingly safe in the top division for another season.
The resulting increased competitiveness has also partially been a product of drop in standards among the established sides. United’s lead at the top is based on their 14 game winter run without conceding. Though the record will stand for many years, it was facilitated by the abject lack of ambition by many of the teams they faced in that period. Nail-biting 1-0 victories featured prominently. Recent defensive woes are more honest reflection of the quality of their backline.
Liverpool’s problem has been their inability to capitalise against the weaker teams, suffering too many draws against inferior opposition, especially at home. Although they have beaten both United and Chelsea twice, they have been unable to replicate this form against poorer opposition.
This can be to some extent attributed to Benitez’s strange selection policy in some of these games. The inability of others to capitalise, especially Chelsea, shows how inconsistent they had become under Phil Scolari.
Yet much excitement still remains in the battle for title, with the two most successful teams in English football facing off at the top. United, at the time of writing still have a three point advantage and a game in hand over Liverpool, as they attempt to equal the latter’s record of 18 league championships.
Chelsea still lurk on the fringes, a further three points behind, but barring an unexpected collapse by both, Chelsea will have to be content with third.
Momentum usually has a major say in the eventual victors and the history of the league is littered with examples of sides coming from a fair margin behind to take the title. This year, it would seem that Liverpool have that momentum. Ever since, their win over United at Old Trafford, their league form has been on the whole impeccable while United have had to rely on Italian teenager, Kiko Macheda to salvage victories.
“United’s lead at the top is based on their 14 game winter run without conceding”
Teams that have succeeded with late charges typically have one feature in common; they have been close contenders in previous seasons and therefore have the experience of the title run-in. The closest Liverpool under Benitez have been to this situation has been in their battles with Everton for fourth.
The persistent hype from the media tends to exert a pressure under which inexperienced teams crumble. However, Liverpool’s vast European experience should aid them through the media frenzy.
The run-in which each team faces is relatively similar and both teams still have to play Arsenal, who could have a major bearing on the league’s outcome. United’s familiarity or more particularly Ferguson’s would normally be sufficient to carry them through, but attempting to challenge on three fronts after a season of non-stop must-win games will have had an exhausting influence on the team.
United are undoubtedly still the favourites because of their prior experience but a continuation of current form could offer Liverpool the chance to take their first title since 1990. Whether they are mentally strong enough to take such an opportunity is another question.
At the other end of the league, West Brom have been cast adrift. A team, who have been refreshing in their approach of attempting to play quality attacking football, have also been simultaneously naïve in failing to adequately protect their rickety defence. A more traditional defensive mindset and route one football may have been much more successful, as the stylistically inferior Stoke and Hull have continually illustrated.
Otherwise, the three north east representatives, Middlesbrough, Newcastle and Sunderland are in the most perilous position. Their situation highlights their respective managerial struggles; Sunderland with Keane and Sbragia, Newcastle under Keegan, Kinnear, Hughton and now Shearer, and Middlesboro under Southgate, who comes across as the most uninspiring coach in the league.
Although some would be surprised to see either Boro or Sunderland go down, no one would be shocked; Sunderland have been a yo-yo club for years and Boro’s spendthrift ways have resulted in a heavy dependence on average homegrown players and cheap imports. However, the relegation of Newcastle would be of a similar shock and magnitude to the English game as that of Leeds five years ago.
It now falls to club legend and ‘messiah’ Shearer to save the day for Newcastle. His status alone should have had an immediate motivational impact on the club but otherwise, his lack of experience will lend nothing to their survival chances. Conceding goals has been their major downfall and it’s hard to see how Shearer can offer a quick-fix in that area.
Their form since Christmas Day, where they have a solitary league win (against West Brom) tells the story of a team that is desperately short on confidence. The season ending matches also offer limited opportunity to pick up much needed points, with home games against relegation rivals Boro and Portsmouth. Expect to see thousands of disconsolate Geordies come season end with Hull or Middlesbrough being the third team absent from next season’s Premier League.