As the Premier League moves into the second half of the season, the impromptu winter break has allowed managers, pundits and fans a chance to step back and assess how their club has done so far. Each carries an opinion on what has gone well, what has gone badly and most importantly, what needs to be done to improve fortunes in the second half of the season. Whilst this season may not be best ever in terms of sheer quality and ruthless brilliance, the inability of any side to seize control of the title race, the distortion of ‘the big four’ and the unpredictability of results is making it one of the most exciting seasons in recent times. As I put my cards on the table with predictions for the second half of the season, I don’t hold out much hope of being entirely correct on the last day. The beauty of the Premier League in 2010 is that nobody knows what is waiting around the corner.
If somebody had told Arsene Wenger in August that following defeats against Manchester United and Chelsea, the acknowledgement of a point away at Burnley as a ‘good result’ and the loss of Robin Van Persie to long-term injury, that his side would still be an integral part of the title race, he would have been delighted, if not a little surprised. Arsenal’s ‘youngsters’ are finally maturing into a side that are capable of putting together a campaign that will leave them challenging for trophies come the business end of the season. In Cesc Fabregas, Wenger has a world-class midfielder at his disposal. The apparent ease with which he scythed through Aston Villa at the Emirates highlights how valuable he is to the side. Whilst, Abou Diaby is quickly developing into a force to be reckoned with at the top level, his performance level is aided greatly when Fabregas is alongside him. Although criticism remains about their of ruthlessness when in front of goal, Arsenal have scored more than any other side thus far and play some football that is terrific to watch. In order to mount a strong challenge for the title, Wenger needs to find a physical replacement for Robin Van Persie. Whilst Andrei Arshavin possesses the ability to change a game with one moment of magic, this moment is often all he contributes away from home. With a natural centre forward, Arsenal will be able to hold the ball up at the top of the field and allow the likes of Arshavin, Fabregas, Rosicky and Diaby to do what they do best, attack at pace from deep where they are almost impossible to pick up. All too often at the moment, Arshavin is struggling to get into the game as a striker and his talent is wasted. If Wenger can find a replacement and instil a greater toughness into his side, something that was horribly exposed as Chelsea muscled them out of the game at the Emirates, then there is no reason why Arsenal can’t mount a challenge for the title.
Prediction: 2nd place finishers, narrowly above Manchester United. Potential F.A. Cup Winners.
Following seasons of progress, Martin O’Neill’s side are once more threatening the Champions League places. Victories over Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea have underlined their undoubted ability in the first half of the season. Refreshingly, much of Villa’s success can be put down to the form of young English talents such as Ashley Young, James Milner and Gabby Agbonlahor. The raw pace and creativity provided by the trio of England internationals has been the foundation of Villa’s impressive form. Their willingness to attack opposition weakness at Anfield and Old Trafford gained praise from those within the game and outlined Villa as serious contenders for a top four place come May. O’Neill’s record in the transfer market is excellent and the acquisition of Richard Dunne has proved to be an inspired choice, one that Manchester City are living to regret. The problem for Villa from this point onwards is their lack of experience when it comes to challenging at the top of the league. Suggestions that their young players lacked any fear were damaged slightly by the defeat to Liverpool at Villa Park. At times in the match, Villa had the visitors on the edge but failed to sustain pressure throughout the game. Each time they looked as if they would score, they seemed to sit back and allow Liverpool a foothold in the game once more. If Villa are to break into the top four, they must continue doing what has served them so well. With Agbonlahor, Young and Milner attacking players at pace and support arriving in the box, Villa are a difficult team to stop. For O’Neill, the priority has to be implanting a mentality that believes they can achieve their aims.
Prediction: 7th place, fading away in the last 2 months of the season.
A surprise package. At the time of writing, Birmingham have broken their club record for games unbeaten having held Manchester United to a 1-1 draw at St. Andrew’s. In Alex McLeish, Birmingham have an excellent manager who knows exactly what he wants from his side. Their outstanding form has been built upon impeccable organisation in defence and an ability to take their opportunity when it arises. With Carson Yeung’s investment, there is a real belief that Birmingham City can push on to the next level and challenge for a European place, if not this year, then certainly the next. Reassuringly, McLeish is a manager with an eye for a bargain. Signings such a Roger Johnson, Scott Dann and Stephen Carr have provided the side with a strong foundation from which to build and have been signed for reasonable money in today’s market. In Carr, McLeish may have found the bargain of the season and an experienced man to lead his side. Birmingham’s strength lies in defence, a unit strongly supported by Lee Bowyer and Barry Ferguson, two players who have reignited their careers in the Midlands. When the City backline has been breached, Joe Hart has been in sensational form. If he carries on like this, it will be impossible for Fabio Capello to leave him off the plane to South Africa. Up top, Cameron Jerome and Chucho Benitez have been a revelation, both possessing blistering pace and in Benitez, the unpredictability that keeps opposition defences on their toes. Whilst he still has to add an end product to his flair, Benitez is quickly becoming a cult hero at St. Andrew’s. News that McLeish is chasing the signature of Ryan Babel indicates a willingness to spend the funds available and fans should have no worries about his ability to use the budget wisely. Although the second half of the season will be a new experience for many of the squad, City have shown no fear thus far. If they can keep the squad together whilst strengthening in a few areas, Birmingham will remain in the top half come the end of the season.
Prediction: 8th place finish. An excellent season upon which to build for the future.
Wherever Sam Allardyce goes, it seems that he will never be held in the same esteem that he was by Bolton Wanderers. Working on a small budget, Big Sam has not had the same success that McLeish or Hodgson have in a similar situation at their respective clubs. Without attracting big crowds and with little prospect of investment, it seems that Allardyce is going to have to work with what he already has at his disposal. In Paul Robinson, Rovers still have a reliable goalkeeper. Sadly, it is the former England number one’s excellent form that is all too often the saviour. Whilst Blackburn have a squad littered with solid Premier League players, they lack the creativity and flair that is needed to take a team into the top half of the league. Morten Gamst Pedersen and Benni McCarthy are a shadow of their former selves and Chelsea loanee Franco Di Santo has failed to provide the firepower that Allardyce was hoping for. Although I don’t see them being relegated, they are in serious need of a shake up if they are to challenge for the top half in the near future. Due to Blackburn’s budget, it may not be such a risk to have a look at talent outside the Premier League in an attempt to put a little excitement into Rovers’ play. The Beckford saga at Leeds opened the door for Premier League sides to acquire a goalscorer for a couple of million pounds. Despite his decision to remain at Leeds until the summer, he should remain on Allardyce’s radar. In today’s market, he might just be a punt worth taking. However limited Beckford’s game is aside from his goals, he keeps a defence honest and would contribute more than McCarthy does on the bench. There is talent available outside the Premier League that could excite Rovers fans. It would be a gamble, but I think Rovers’ supporters would prefer to take the risk than remain as they are. Despite a spirited effort, defeat to Villa in the Carling Cup leaves them with little to dream of this year. Making progress in the second half of the season is a must.
Prediction: 15th place. Rovers fans will demand progress and this might not be enough to satisfy.
Having said that nobody treasures Sam Allardyce as much as Bolton, it is also true to say that nobody has managed to fill his role at the Reebok Stadium. Despite Megson’s style of football not being too dissimilar to the one that served Big Sam so well, it was never quite able to produce the same results. However, the appointment of Owen Coyle makes the next few months very interesting for Bolton fans. Having worked wonders at Turf Moor, there will be high expectations of success with a higher budget. Coyle must work fast to change the style of football at Bolton to the one that he implemented so successfully with his players at Burnley. Although it may come as a shock to the players, they have the technical ability to cope with such a change. Strangely, many of the players may be better suited to this style of play. As a squad, Bolton are a long way from fulfilling their potential and a return to a more flowing type of football may suit them well. A priority for Coyle will be to make the Reebok a fortress in the way that it used to be under Allardyce. A strong mentality made Burnley a very difficult side to beat at home in the first half of the season. If Coyle can instil the same mental toughness in his new job, he will have made Bolton a better team. The support of the same backroom staff that he worked with previously will make this job easier than it looks. Although Bolton possess some quality, Coyle will want to bring in his own players to make the squad feel more like his own. The Bolton job is a big one for him and the decision to leave a successful Burnley side for one in the bottom three will not have been taken lightly. The priority must be to avoid a relegation scrap at the very end of the season and build over the summer to achieve a mid-table finish next year.
Prediction: 16th. Enough for the Bolton fans to accept Coyle but progress must be made if they remain a Premier League side next year.
The challenge for Burnley starts now. Under Owen Coyle they have been excellent at home, playing nice football and achieving results. The victory over Manchester United at the start of the season was a surprise but has set standards that the players have rarely dropped below when running out at Turf Moor. Whilst the away form has been little short of pitiful, those in claret and blue will be quick to remind you that a good home record alone can maintain Premier League status. The challenge confronting Brian Laws is considerable. Replacing a manager who is held in such high regard by the fans is never easy, just ask Reading and Charlton. The key to Burnley’s season will be whether Laws is able to maintain the spirit and fight that has served Burnley so well. In addition to this, if he were able to improve their organisation away from home then they would stand a fantastic chance of staying in the Premier League. The players at the disposal of the new manager are good players who have shown that they are not overawed by life at the top level. Although Laws will be keen to stamp his authority upon the squad with his own signings, if he can keep the majority of his squad together (and away from Bolton Wanderers) then he will feel that his side can avoid the drop.
Prediction: 14th place. An excellent first season for Burnley. Laws has a challenge on his hands but the raw materials and importantly, the mentality is there. Whereas Coyle can only take things up at Bolton, Laws is there to be shot at. Maintaining current form will be the aim.
Without looking certain that they are ready to win the Premier League once more, Chelsea still find themselves competing at the top as we head into the business end of the season. After the first 10 games of the season, the Stamford Bridge side looked to be the overwhelming favourites for the title. With Didier Drogba almost unplayable as the focal point of the team, his partnership with Nicolas Anelka flourishing and experienced players providing stability behind them, few doubted the title credentials of Ancelotti’s men. However, in recent times the back four, usually one of Chelsea’s great strengths, has become fallible. Once regarded as the best goalkeeper in the world, Petr Cech’s fluctuating form has thrown a rearguard that is fearsome upon paper into disarray. The number of balls being launched into Chelsea’s box that are being dealt with by John Terry as Cech calls for the catch as a clear sign that the captain has lost faith in his keeper. By pushing his defence higher up the field at opposition set-pieces on the halfway line, Ancelotti has removed a vast number of the 50/50 challenges that Cech was struggling with. The only thing stopping Chelsea running away with the league is their liability at the back. If they can address this, I don’t see anybody being able to challenge them in the run in. Whilst some have suggested that the African Cup of Nations will throw Chelsea’s season up in the air, the winter weather has acted as an aid to the table-toppers. Although Drogba and Essien in particular will be missed, there is enough high quality cover at the Bridge to maintain their position, at the very least. If anything, their absence may give the likes of Sturridge, Borini and in particular, Gael Kakuta the chance to shine. In his appearances so far, the youngster has looked to be full of both ability and that vital ingredient, confidence. When the African players return, Ancelotti will be confident of holding off any of the challengers. Without performing at their consistent best, Chelsea look to be the contenders with the greatest strength in depth, the most at ease with their style of play and interestingly, the fewest complaints. Ancelotti is quietly going about his business, studying only his team’s performance rather than that of referees, linesmen and fourth officials. Such humility can do his team favours as they aim to bring the title back to London.
Prediction: Champions. In a season where the league will be won by the team who makes the fewest mistakes, Chelsea are the team who seem to have the most confidence in their own ability.
Neither team on Merseyside will be satisfied with their season so far. However, Everton are the team with the better excuse for their modest league position. At a club where money is made available to support a talented manager, but not present in abundance, the injuries that have thrown David Moyes’ season into disarray have been a cruel blow. The long-term absence of the outstanding Mikel Arteta and Phil Jagielka perhaps meant that this season was greeted with less expectation by the Toffees faithful than previous success would suggest appropriate. When you consider that Everton have been missing Leon Osman, Steven Pienaar, Jack Rodwell, Tony Hibbert, Victor Anichebe, Louis Saha, Sylvain Distan and Joseph Yobo (amongst others) at various points of the season so far, Moyes has done well to prevent his side from being sucked into the relegation mix. As Birmingham have proved, being able to select a consistent side is a significant advantage. It allows a team to instinctively act as a unit due to their familiarity with each player’s strengths and weaknesses. For everybody at Goodison, it would be great to have this opportunity. Moyes has done well to avoid the temptation of panic buying whilst confronted with a treatment room that is anybody manager’s nightmare. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov has proven to be a sound acquisition whilst Lucas Neill provided solid, if unspectacular, cover whilst Everton were short at the back. Furthermore, his sale has brought in a tidy profit to aid Moyes budget, as and when he needs it. The most interesting signing must be that of Landon Donovan. Although he is similar in his build and style of play to Osman, Bilyaletdinov, Pienaar and to an extent, Cahill, the LA Galaxy loanee will provide Moyes’ side with flair and if his debut at the Emirates is anything to go by, honest endeavour. The deal is financially viable for Everton and could be one of the bargains of the season if Donovan can propel his new side towards the top half of the table. The key for the rest of the season is nurturing players back to full fitness whilst hoping to avoid further setbacks. Everton will only get stronger as the season moves on and the treatment room becomes less cluttered. Moyes knows where he is taking this team in the long-term and next season could be an exciting one for Everton fans.
Prediction: 9th. Movement up the table is to be expected and a run in either of the cup competitions would be an additional bonus in what has been a difficult season thus far.
When Roy Hodgson was appointed as Fulham manager, there was not unanimous support for the club’s decision. Those critics have been silenced in style. Since Hodgson’s arrival, the progress at Craven Cottage has been remarkable. Without making a host of big money signings, he has turned a team that was simply battling to remain in the Premier League each year into a side that are capable of challenging for a European place on a regular basis. Whilst the form of Bobby Zamora has shocked many, and is testament to Hodgson’s excellent man management, the outstanding presence within the Fulham side is towering centre back Brede Hangeland. Having done well to hang on to the Norwegian in the summer, he has led by example once more. However, one of the greatest traits in Roy Hodgson’s side is the fact that there are no big egos that aren’t willing to give their all for the team. Whilst performances such as the recent 3-2 defeat in Stoke, despite rare, aren’t welcomed, the work ethic exhibited in the second half is a feature of Fulham’s play and is the reason for their success. Hodgson buys well and his signings take little time to integrate with the rest of the squad. For example, the signing of Damien Duff was concluded quickly, for a reasonable fee and caused little damage to the team’s ethic at the start of the season. In the 3-0 victory over Manchester United at Craven Cottage, Fulham were comfortable winners. Whilst their quality is not in doubt, they need to add consistency to their game. Beating Liverpool and Manchester United is no use if you drop sloppy points on the road.
Prediction: 10th. Another good season for Roy Hodgson’s team. A cup run would not be a surprise and their ability to trouble the top sides could have an effect upon the title race.
Very rarely does one player have such an impact upon the fortunes of his side. Ronaldo was important to Manchester United, Gerrard is to Liverpool, Drogba is to Chelsea. However, none of these players’ presence seems to act as a catalyst to their club’s performance to the same extent that the appearance of Jimmy Bullard in a Hull City shirt does. In the three games that Bullard played before his desperately unfortunate injury at Villa Park, Hull were undefeated, picking up 5 points in the process against tough opposition. As well as possessing outstanding natural ability on the football field, Bullard holds the rare quality of being charismatic without being annoying. The celebration at Eastlands highlighted his popularity and the impact that he has upon the team. His presence is reassuring to his team mates and gives them the belief that they can pick up a result whoever they play. Bullard’s quick recovery from injury will be key to Hull’s fortunes in the second half of the season. Without him, they are a team that struggle for creativity, leadership and confidence. Boaz Myhill’s performance at White Hart Lane was nothing short of sensational but did little to mask the vulnerability of the Hull backline. What they lack in skill, they will certainly compensate for in determination. However, they lack the quality to move away from the drop zone. Bullard must return quickly and maintain his fitness. He has already proven that he can regain his form instantly; picking up the Player of the Month award for November following his return from a 9 month lay off. Without him, Stephen Hunt has an important role to play in injecting some life into the Hull attack. Although Altidore and Fagan have their strengths, Hunt is the one player who is able to take a game by the scruff of the next. Bullard’s importance to Hull City is no secret and Phil Brown will be praying that his talismanic midfielder can avoid injuries as his side battle to retain their Premier League status.
Prediction: 19th. Without Bullard, Hull are a weak team. I fear that they don’t have enough quality to avoid the drop. Whether a player of Jimmy Bullard’s quality could justify playing in the Championship is debatable and highlights the importance of the second half of the season to everybody involved at Hull City.
What can you say about Liverpool this year? Despite possessing three of the best players in the world in their positions in the form of Pepe Reina, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, the problems at Anfield have been there for all to see. Whilst the disharmony that emanates from the continued ownership of Hicks and Gillett is evident, the problems on the pitch are also there in abundance. The loss of a player with Xabi Alonso’s quality would hit any side hard but it has had a significant effect upon Liverpool’s play. The much-maligned Lucas Leiva has been asked to take on Alonso’s creative role whilst Alberto Aquilani has been used sporadically by Benitez and despite improvements in the young Brazilian’s game, he is not able to provide the same platform for Gerrard and Torres that the Spaniard could. Like their Merseyside rivals, Liverpool have also had their fair share of injury trouble. Rarely have Torres and Gerrard played together and when they have, it is questionable whether they have been fully fit. Remarkably, Liverpool have not become detached from the group of teams chasing fourth spot and as such, the season can still be salvaged to some extent. The success of last year led most to believe that Liverpool could mount a serious push for the title once more. However, victories over Manchester United, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur have been paired with points being dropped frequently. The embarrassing exits from the Champions League and F.A. Cup put great pressure upon Benitez but it seems that he will be here until the end of the season at least. The most important thing for Liverpool’s players now is to look ahead and the victory over Spurs suggests that they will do this. The first half of the season was catastrophic. If Liverpool mull over their failures then the second half of the season will see only further deterioration. The most important thing for Liverpool now is to secure fourth place in the league, thus enabling them to attract players of a high quality next summer. Whether Benitez will be the manager to attract them and whether the money will be presented by the owners remains to be seen. Each time Liverpool seem to have turned the corner, they let themselves down once more. The victory over Spurs had the feeling of something more symbolic than just three points. From the determined pre-match huddle onwards, the work rate clearly showed that these players want to play for this manager and this football club. In particular, Jamie Carragher put everything into getting three points for his team. Too often this year Liverpool have faded away following setbacks and their work rate has dipped, suggesting a resignation to defeat. If the players follow Carragher’s lead, there is real potential for the second half of the season to be a successful one. The next two matches provide an opportunity for the players to gain confidence with further victories. Although Benitez has strengthened his squad with the bargain acquisition of Maxi Rodriguez and continues to pursue Kenwyne Jones, the vast majority of the squad will remain the same until the end of the season. In the Spurs game the Kop were noticeably behind all of their players. Rather than scrutinizing their quality now, it is vital for everybody connected with Liverpool to unite in their efforts to capture top level European football next season and assess the situation at the end of the season. This is not how Liverpool hoped the season would go but it is now crucial that they accept their situation and graft to get out of it.
Prediction: 4th – Until the Spurs game, I couldn’t see Liverpool challenging for the top four. However, the improved performance and changed attitude in Anfield suggest a newly discovered determination to salvage their season. The weaknesses of Spurs, Villa and Manchester City will be crucial in Liverpool making the top four as it won’t be plain sailing from now on. However, Liverpool have the experience of challenging for the top four, something that may prove crucial at a time when Villa and Spurs in particular are highlighting their lack of nerve on the big occasion.
Manchester City have proven that a bottomless pit of money doesn’t necessarily mean instant Premier League glory. However, the premature sacking of Mark Hughes clearly indicates that the owners have their eyes on the big prizes sooner rather than later. Despite all the big money signings, City’s shining light thus far has undoubtedly been Craig Bellamy. Although he was disheartened by Hughes’ exit, he has continued to produce outstanding performances for his new manager. Mancini has certainly not inherited a squad of duff players, he simply needs to create a greater team spirit and understanding than Hughes had managed. At centre half, Joleon Lescott and Kolo Toure have not become awful players overnight. Their form for City since signing has been nothing short of dreadful. The authoritative influence in their previous club’s defence, together they look like players that are unsure of their job within the new partnership. When Lescott returns from injury, and if Mancini believes he merits a starting place, it is vital that this partnership becomes a formidable one. No team will win the Premier League with a defence as generous as Manchester City’s looks at times. The acquisitions of Nigel De Jong and Gareth Barry have provided solidity to the City midfield and this will now be supported by new arrival, Patrick Vieira. Vieira understands the game and his experience of winning the title will be a valuable tool to Mancini and his team. Whilst they have strength in the middle of the park, it will be disappointing if talents such as Stephen Ireland and Michael Johnson are overlooked in the long-term. City’s owners have the right idea with the large sums of money that they plan to invest in the academy and the acquisition of Europe’s leading youngsters. However, if City become preoccupied with big name signings, there is a chance that talent from within will be overlooked. In Shay Given and Carlos Tevez, City has players at each end of the pitch from whom you are guaranteed a performance each week. Whilst Given remains one of the league’s finest goalkeepers, Tevez’s sheer endeavour makes him a favourite with the fans of whichever team he turns out for. A man who could learn a lot from Tevez’s attitude is Robinho. Despite initial promise, the Brazilian international has looked disinterested. If he believes that he is on a totally different level to the current City players then he would be correct; they each contribute a lot more than he does. Mancini’s decision to substitute Robinho after he came on as a substitute indicates that he will not be willing to accept a substandard performance. If Robinho doesn’t buck up his ideas, he is likely to be the first high profile casualty of Mancini’s reign. Although the sacking of Hughes was poorly handled, the appointment of an experienced manager was an intelligent one. Although City must become reliable on their travels, there s enormous potential at Eastlands if Mancini can build a tightly knit team that can control the egos that accompany a big money move.
Prediction: 5th. Whilst the potential for the future is enormous, this season may well be a year too early for them. Defeat to Everton highlighted their weaknesses and these will take time, rather than money, to address. Following victory in the first leg, a Carling Cup final appearance remains a possibility and a trophy, coupled with European football next year, would be a satisfactory start for the new owners.
The nicest thing that you can say about Manchester United in the first half of the season is that they are still in the title race and clearly, can only get better. Replacing Ronaldo was always going to be an impossible task and with all due respect, Antonio Valencia has done well on the wing and is improving all the time. His performances against the weaker teams in the league have been excellent. When he is able to consistently beat a top class full-back then United have an excellent player on their hands. Considering the improvements in the finer details of his game since his arrival at Old Trafford, it is not unthinkable. The cause of the vast majority of United’s problem has been their injury crisis at the back. However, this should not disguise the fact that many of the team are wallowing in mediocrity. The foundation of United’s recent success has been based upon the partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in front of the evergreen Edwin Van der Sar. With all three missing at various points of the season, it is no surprise that the backline has proved far less resistant than in previous seasons. Although Jonny Evans still has time to develop into an excellent defender, the cover in the back four has proven to be weak. Wes Brown and Gary Neville are both noticeably past their best. Although Brown is only 30, the manner in which his performances have dropped is alarming. With John O’Shea out for the rest of the season with a nasty leg injury, United are going to have to place a lot of faith in the likes of Brown, Neville and the young Brazilian Rafael. The importance of keeping Ferdinand and Vidic fit is considerable. The defeat to Leeds and the Champions League defeat to Besiktas have illustrated that United do not hold the strength in depth that they have had in previous years. The rest of the United team should not escape criticism either. All too often, there has been a failure to take initiative in the game. Regularly, the spark for United’s success has been the irresistible Wayne Rooney. Everything that United to well involves Rooney in one form or another. Whether he drops deep to spark life into an attack, makes a selfless run to benefit his team or anticipates the second ball faster than others, Rooney is always having a positive impact for United. It is vital that United (and England) don’t become reliant upon Rooney’s brilliance. The reason for their success in previous years was the fact that alongside Rooney and Ronaldo, the rest of the team were able to contribute in similar measure. The man to dig United out of a hole on many occasions last year was Carlos Tevez. I still believe that it will prove to be a mistake letting him leave the club. The languid Dimitar Berbatov has done little to justify his transfer fee since arriving at Old Trafford and must contribute much more in the second half of the season. Alongside Rooney, much of United’s attacking play is coming through Patrice Evra. If United can get players such as Carrick, Fletcher, Berbatov and Anderson performing at their best, then the threat that they pose to opposition sides will be considerable. All too often at the moment, the midfield is not taking hold of the game, thus exposing the weakened defence whilst Rooney is dropping deep to effect the game, leaving United light up front. Berbatov possesses great technical ability but he is not a player who will run the channels. I can’t help but feel that United need a top class out and out striker who will be a handful up front, allowing Rooney to play a free role. Sir Alex Ferguson will be quick to point out that his teams always become stronger as the season heads towards its climax. This year, there is no option other than improvement for United. If they fail to improve, they will be trophyless. With Ferdinand returning to the team, a greater solidity at the back will benefit United immeasurably. However, greater creativity needs to be discovered at the top of the pitch. United haven’t become a bad team overnight but they don’t look at all comfortable with their style of play at the moment. It seems that Ferguson is happy to stick with the players that he currently has at his disposal until the end of the season. This side are still very much alive in Europe, the Premier League and are hanging on in the Carling Cup. The improvement will come. It is the extent to which United improve that will determine what they win at the end of the season.
Prediction: 3rd. Even bearing in mind the second half of season rally that has become tradition under Sir Alex Ferguson, I don’t think United possess the strength in depth of Chelsea or the raw creativity of Arsenal. Each of these clubs have their flaws but United have been the most disappointing thus far. Both Chelsea and Arsenal have been sensational at times, something that United have failed to do. If they can perform as we know they can then they will be right up there. However, the balance of this team isn’t right and further injuries to Vidic, Ferdinand or heaven forbid, Wayne Rooney will have drastic consequences on their season. Considering the murmerings of financial trouble, this summer will be a huge one for United. The likes of Giggs, Scholes, Neville and Brown are unable to perform at their previous best and although the likes of Rafael, Fabio, Obertan and Anderson may come good, the changing of the guard needs to come sooner rather than later. The younger players have the ability to step up to the plate but if funds allow, you can’t help but feel that United need some proven reinforcements.
In the past, teams in the relegation zone after the Christmas Period have been said to have completed ‘The Great Escape’ if they can maintain their Premier League status. If Pompey can avoid the drop, they will have gone a lot further than a great escape. It will be not far short of a miracle. Regardless of the quality of players at a club, a harmonious changing room and working atmosphere is synonymous with a successful football team. At Portsmouth, the players are working in an environment that is not conducive to creating a team to win football matches. The players will tell you that they are putting worries about where the next pay check is coming from to the back of their mind in order to fully focus upon their next game. The reality of the situation is that this is impossible. However strong minded a player is, the negative vibes around the football club will enter their subconscious sooner or later. With a transfer embargo threatening to prevent any squad tinkering, Avram Grant will have to work wonders within the changing room to turn Portsmouth into a team that can win enough matches to see them safe. The outstanding support that Pompey hold will back them until the very end and ensure that the players have something to work for. However, the squad lacks strength and the club is in a state of turmoil. On the field, it is vital that they pick up points from their remaining home games. In Frederic Piquionne they have a striker who will cause problems for opposition strikers even if his end product is sporadic. The players must take the lead from Michael Brown, a player who will give everything for his side. Despite their clear lack of quality, endeavour can bring results. Encouragingly, since Grant’s arrival Portsmouth have recorded 2 victories and pushed Chelsea all the way at Stamford Bridge, clearly indicating a willingness to do their talking on the pitch. News of financial problems will continue to engulf the club and news of Sol Campbell taking action against his former employees will do nothing to help. The players will need a strong mentality if they are to get close to avoiding the drop. Sadly, since the recent F.A. Cup win Pompey have been on a slippery slope and this looks set to only get worse.
Prediction: 20th. There isn’t a lot you can say about Pompey that encourages belief that they may survive. Whilst the players will keep on fighting and the fans will continue to back them with the ‘Pompey Chimes’, the future looks bleak for Portsmouth Football Club.
Another encouraging season for The Potters faithful. Following last season’s emergence as the surprise package in the Premier League, Tony Pulis’ side have continued to provide tough opposition for whoever they play. As well as being a physical side, their height advantage over most sides has seen Rory Delap’s long throw once more stand out as the weapon of choice. Reassuringly for all at the Brittania, Pulis is a manager with a clear objective and an ability to transfer this to his team. Teams that enter the top division of English football with one game plan are almost always exposed in the second half of the season. Despite their clear strength in the air, an area of their game that they score from regularly, Stoke’s game isn’t simply long ball. In Matthew Etherington and Liam Lawrence, they have two players with the technical ability to unlock a defence. Etherington in particular has finally found a club at which he can settle and show what a dangerous player he can be. Although his main attribute is blistering pace, he has a trick up his sleeve and encouragingly for Pulis, is always willing to track back to help his team when they lose the ball. Pulis is a manager that exudes calmness. The manner in which he dealt with the ‘bust-up’ with James Beattie is evidence of this. Where their disagreement may have been a cause of discontent in the changing rooms of other clubs, Pulis was swift and efficient in drawing a line under the incident. As a player, you know where you stand when you play for Pulis and in return, the manager knows what he can expect from his players. Whilst it is too early to start talking of Stoke pushing for Europe, the signing of Tuncay indicates an improvement in the quality of player that Stoke are looking to attract. Furthermore, the raw talent of Ricardo Fuller continues to provide unpredictable flair up front. Although he is far from consistent, on his day Fuller is very difficult to defend and will be a weapon for Stoke in the future. With players such as Ryan Shawcross and Abdoulaye Faye providing leadership down the spine of the team, Stoke fans can look to the future with optimism.
Prediction: 12th. Another solid season for Stoke and a final position that allows them to view themselves as a mid-table Premier League club. Making progress next season will not be easy but in Pulis they have a very good manager with an understanding of what is needed.
Considering the talent that Sunderland have at their disposal, Steve Bruce will be disappointed by the inconsistency that has overshadowed them in recent weeks. Despite an excellent start the season, defeats to Villa, Manchester City and a thrashing by Chelsea in the last two months has seen Sunderland drop into the bottom half of the table. In fact, at the time of writing Sunderland’s last victory was recorded over Arsenal on November 21st. With favourable home games in the upcoming weeks, Bruce will be looking for his side to break their duck and return to the form that was evident in the early parts of the season. Sunderland have players with quality in their side and need to show a winning mentality in the near future. The loss of Lee Cattermole to injury understandably hit the side hard. Their victories at the beginning of the season were very much down to the harassing work of Cattermole in the central third of the field. With Darren Bent up front, Sunderland have a goalscorer who will keep putting himself in the right places until he finishes a chance off. Bruce has clearly identified the defence as a week spot having added to the signing of Michael Turner in the summer with the January acquisition of Matthew Kilgallon. If Bruce can construct a steady defence, there is no reason why Sunderland can’t push on in the second half of the season to achieve a respectable finish. Lorik Cana has proved an impressive signing and his example to the team is clear following his appointment as club captain. Although he will take time to settle into life in first team football, 19 year old Jordan Henderson has shown enough already to suggest that he has the potential to be a very good Premier League footballer. He isn’t lacking in confidence and has established himself as a first team starter this year. The extent to which Sunderland progress in the second half of the season depends very much upon their form away from the Stadium of Light. Sunderland have spent money to build upon previous seasons and will be looking for more from the players in the second half of the season.
Prediction: 11th. A solid season for Sunderland but not the progress they would have been hoping for after their recent spending in the transfer market.
Under the new ownership of David Sullivan and David Gold, West Ham fans will be confident of avoiding the drop this season. Despite a lingering debt, the new owners claim to have put an offer of the table to a ‘special’ player with a contract paying ‘£100,000 a week’. Whether this is successful or not, Zola clearly has some money to strengthen his side. The essential ingredient that Zola must add to his side is experience. Other than Scott Parker and Matthew Upson, the side lacks players with an understanding of the Premier League and what is needed to win English football matches. Although Valon Behrami and Radoslav Kovac have experience, at times they lack the ‘nous’ that is required in Premier League football. Parker has provided a terrific example to his teammates with endless endeavour and determination. The loss of the in-form Carlton Cole has had a clear effect upon West Ham. Although Alessandro Diamanti’s flair has been an asset, they are missing an out and out goalscorer to put away chances on a regular basis. Zola has some talented young players at his disposal in the form of Jack Collison, James Tomkins, Zavon Hines, Frank Nouble, Freddy Sears and Junior Stanislas. However, youngsters need to be integrated into a mature environment in which they can develop. In the case of West Ham, there are potentially too few experienced British players from which to learn. Although Diamanti, Franco, Jiminez, Illunga and Behrami contribute to the team, their English may not be extensive enough to nurture the youngsters through the early days of their career. Zola should look for some experienced English players to reinforce the spine of his team with an understanding of what is required to avoid the drop. This would allow the youngsters to develop quickly in a more comfortable environment. Zola is certainly a good manager but he needs to address the balance of his side sooner rather than later. Despite their experience, the likes of Mark Noble and Jonathan Spector are still in their early twenties and are still developing their own game. Although it is easier to say what is needed than to find the player for the right place, it would be counter effective for Zola to pursue further foreign imports in the remaining days of the January transfer window. West Ham have the quality to avoid the drop but the structure of the squad needs to be more balanced for the team to perform at their best.
Prediction: 17th. I expect Zola to make astute signings in January in order to harness the quality that his side certainly have. Much of the West Ham squad is raw potential but with the likes of Scott Parker and Matthew Upson in the team, in addition to new signings, they should have enough to narrowly beat the drop. If they do, then the summer transfer window is a big one for Zola.
Roberto Martinez has tried to instil the same style of play that he used so effectively at Swansea at his new club with varied degrees of success. Following an opening day victory at Villa Park, Martinez would have been confident of another instant success story. However, the months that followed have produced a mixed bag of results in which Wigan have failed to create any sort of momentum. For example, the victory over Villa was followed by a home defeat to Wolves and a hammering at the hands of Manchester United. As a result, in the last few weeks Wigan fans have been casting nervous glances over their shoulder towards the relegation zone. However, their last two games have seen convincing wins over Wolves and Hull, the latter unfortunately coming in the F.A. Cup rather than the league. Martinez will be looking towards two in-form players to push his side further away from the drop zone. Whilst Jason Scotland has struggled to replicate his sensational form in the Championship at the highest level, Hugo Rodallega and Charles N’Zogbia have been shining lights in recent weeks. N’Zogbia has always possessed talent but Martinez appears to have managed to contain his ego in a manner that Newcastle managers struggled to. When he is on his game, the Frenchman is a danger to opposing sides with his pace and trickery. Rodallega’s appetite for the game has been refreshing to see and has seen him become a fans favourite at the DW Stadium. Martinez has maintained a strong spine to his side whilst signing players such as Scott Sinclair and Jordi Gomez to give his side spark in the final third. Another youngster who looks as if he can make an impact in the second half of the season is Scottish-born Irish Under 21 international James McCarthy. Having turned down the advances of Liverpool in 2007, he looks to have the attributes to succeed in the Premier League. Although Martinez has a big job on his hands if he is to turn Wigan Athletic into a consistent mid-table side, they should have enough quality in the second half of the season to avoid the relegation scrap, providing they keep big players such as N’Zogbia, Rodallega and the vastly improved Titus Bramble fit.
Prediction: 13th. An improvement in fortunes in recent weeks has given Wigan fans encouragement that they can push on in the second half of the season. Martinez will look to next summer’s transfer window to make improvements in most areas of his team.
Teetering on the edge of the relegation zone, Mick McCarthy has a job on his hands if Wolves are to avoid the drop at the end of the season. At the beginning of the season the only aim for the season would have been to maintain their Premier League status, in that regard, the season so far has been going fairly well. However, the lack of a constant goalscorer may prove to be their undoing in the second half of the season. Sylvan Ebanks-Blake has failed to transfer his goals from the Championship to the Premier League meaning that Wolves have relied heavily upon goals from elsewhere, notably from captain Jody Craddock. McCarthy desperately needs Ebanks-Blake and Kevin Doyle to increase their goal tallies between now and the end of the season as he will be all too aware that his side cannot keep relying on his defence to score the goals to keep them out of trouble. The loss of Michael Kightly was certainly a blow for Wolves fans. Following his bargain signing from Grays Athletic, Kightly has grown immeasurably as a player and was a constant source of chances for the front men in the Championship. Matt Jarvis’ pace has often caused opposition defences problems and McCarthy will be disappointed to have not had the chance to let Kightly loose on the defences of the Premier League. If Wolves are to survive then much rests upon the shoulders of Nenad Milijas. The Serbian’s craft has provided numerous chances for the Wolves frontline and his recent improvement in form saw him add high quality goals to his game as well. If Milijas can maintain fitness and form then Wolves will create chances. However, there is a distinct possibility of opposing teams placing a man on Milijas to stop Wolves from playing. If this happens then there is a lack of quality to unlock defences and Wolves will have problems scoring goals. The generosity of McCarthy’s defence is also a weak point. Combined with a lack of goals, this casts real doubts upon Wolves ability to beat the drop. If West Ham improve their form in the upcoming weeks then Wolves fans should start to worry. Rather than their own quality, it may be other teams misfortune that keeps them in the Premier League. If West Ham improve as I expect them to, I fear Wolves lack the quality to win enough games to maintain their Premier League status.
Prediction: 17th. If they stop scoring from set-pieces then Wolves will be woefully short of goals. They may be saved by the fact that other teams have similar problems. However, without the ability to strengthen in the January window, Wolves may not have quite enough firepower to survive.
3. Manchester United
5. Manchester City
6. Tottenham Hotspur
7. Aston Villa
8. Birmingham City
12. Stoke City
13. Wigan Athletic
15. Blackburn Rovers
16. Bolton Wanderers
17. West Ham
18. Wolverhampton Wanderers
19. Hull City