New Year gives clubs chance to hope
The New Year is upon us, and with it, hope for all teams, regardless of where they sit in the table. It is a time for football amnesia.
The previous nineteen games? Turn the page on those thirteen losses, Fulham and Palace fans, and look forward to taking 24 points over the next few months to ensure your survival. Tired of being mired at the bottom, Sunderland? It can only get better from here, especially with Fulham, West Ham and Cardiff all doing their best to join you in the cellar. Worried about making a European place, United fans? Good news: you’re only a game behind Everton and with Liverpool on the slide, perhaps you can even pass your auld enemy.
Wednesday afternoon is the first day of a new season for everyone, with a handful of genuinely marquee games that have the potential to define the next months. Manchester United square off against Tottenham in what might be called the Transition Bowl while Liverpool, Arsenal, City and Chelsea all face teams they are expected to beat. There are three genuine six-pointers: Fulham hosts West Ham in a London stragglers’ derby while Norwich travels across the Big Smoke to Selhurst Park, where they face a rising Crystal Palace side. And then there’s Sunderland, where a staggering Aston Villa can either draw a line under a miserable 2013 – or provide a lift out of the dungeon for the Black Cats.
What happens next is anyone’s guess, such is the topsy-turvy nature of this Premier League season. Yet it must be noted that little of that is due to what is happening on the field. While the race at the top is genuinely exciting, it is due in part to the fact that by and large, many of the teams in England are average at best. Unfortunately, 2013 proved to be exciting in the abstract but not in fact.
Managerial changes – eleven, if you count the off-season – have played havoc with some of the established powers. (Two teams don’t even have managers right now, and after this week, two more managers may well be turning to the want ads.) Financial fair play laws are also starting to take effect – though not to the ends that UEFA intended. Instead, what those regulations appear to have done is allowed the giants to put more distance between themselves and the pack. And you do see that this season in the table: there is a clear dividing line between the haves, all clustered between first and sixth, with only the loan-buoyed Everton bobbing up. Then there are the rest.
That’s why the table lies this year: Many would argue that Hull are about the same caliber of club as Cardiff. Yet one is necking the relegation zone while the other is in 10th. Just five points separate the two. Candidly, it is a crapshoot for these ten teams, and with only an exception or two, the relegated bunch will be no better or worse than the survivors. Is Sunderland any better than Queens Park Rangers? I think not.
Furthermore, while the players are paid a great deal more in Stoke, is that team really any better than, say, the Seattle Sounders? I’d argue no. This means that some of the games – take this past weekend’s Cardiff-Sunderland draw – hold up well when viewed through the lens of “decent for what it is,” but not when seen as an alleged representation of the so-called “best league in the world.”
The same is true at the other end, where north London pride is apparently divided by only eight points. Yet, Tottenham, a team that has already sacked one manager and looks to be employing at best a frantic style, is demonstrably poorer than their rivals Arsenal. Were the Gunners able to be judged on calendar years and not seasons, they would run away with the crown: they collected 82 points, more than any other, in 2013. And yet: Arsenal are hardly favorites in a year where key rivals City, Chelsea and Liverpool all appear to be at least their equals, and perhaps deeper. It’s confounding.
Now, given the massive amounts of money now sloshing about this league, some of these games – yes, even the grim-sounding match at Craven Cottage – begin to take on a greater urgency. I do long for the days when teams wanted to stay up for pride’s sake rather than for their owner’s bank balances – perhaps this is why I have begun rooting for tiny Leyton Orient, a small London club at risk of being overwhelmed by West Ham’s move to the former Olympic Stadium nearby – but the fans at Selhurst Park or the Stadium Of Light aren’t responsible for that, are they?
And there have been grand moments: the first half of Sunday’s Chelsea-Liverpool match was as entertaining as any you’ll see; Pajtim Kasami’s goal for Fulham this October (albeit against lowly Palace) was sublime. When Cardiff Stadium rose as one to salute their former star, Aaron Ramsey, as he led Arsenal’s rout, only a Grinch could fail to crack a smile.
So, as the calendar turns, let’s hope that the games improve and that the race goes down to the wire. And if any of the glitz is absent on Wednesday, plunging you into a despair that forces you to recall 2013, there is one thing I can offer that never fails to give hope to even the most jaded of fans:
The transfer window opens at midnight.