Close title race true holiday gift

BY foxsports • December 24, 2013

For some time now, there has been the sense that the outcome of a Premier League season was set in stone well before a ball had rolled or a whistle been blown. The old, aristocratic Manchester United could never be stopped from reigning supreme; nouveaux riches Manchester City and Chelsea would forever be their garish foes. Between those three the championships would be divided, now and forever. The old Big Three had long since been blown up. Arsenal had been left behind by their own frugality. Liverpool was mismanaged and overly dependent on a serial biter of opponents. And Tottenham? Always close, yet no cigar.

What a delight, then, for the English (and Welsh) to unwrap their Christmas presents this Boxing Day and discover that their Premier League is still a league, after all. Bucking all of that conventional wisdom, Liverpool sit on top. Arsenal are second, even on points with the resurgent Reds, but seven goals worse off. And only a few games ago, the Gunners had opened up a five-point gap with the chasing pack. Why, even plucky Everton sit in fifth place, even on points with fourth-placed Chelsea, adrift by a lone goal.

Arsenal’s unsightly 0-0 draw at home with Chelsea on Monday -- it really was an atrocity of a game: physical and negative, sloppy and wet and chance-starved -- made it two points from the last possible nine for Arsenal -- coming on the back of a 1-1 tie with Everton and a 6-3 thumping at the hands of City.

That makes Thursday’s full slate of games, as per England’s Boxing Day tradition, as important to Arsenal as anybody else. Their campaign is now in danger of slipping away far too soon after making such a promising – and, truthfully unexpected – start. They play yet another cross-town rival in West Ham. The Hammers are in a relegation tussle, and should provide a nice respite from all that top-shelf opposition.

If Liverpool are to retain their perch atop the mountain, they will have to travel to Manchester and hold their own against those zippy goal-machines at City. With Daniel Sturridge still out of commission with an injury, Liverpool’s other stud striker Luis Suarez will once again have to shoulder the load. But Suarez can handle such heft, for the red-hot and often red-tempered Uruguayan has now notched 19 goals in a dozen games. Only City’s Sergio Aguero comes close, with 13 (Sturridge and City’s Yaya Toure come next with nine).

If City win however, the 2012 champions take the lead and perhaps go on to prove the theorem atop this column right after all. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine such a scenario. Chelsea trail by a mere point, in spite of being wildly inconsistent and maddeningly prudent at times, but need improve only a tad to give City a run for their money. Jose Mourinho’s men have attacking talent matched only by City’s. And while the Sky Blues have hammered in 51 goals in just 17 games, Chelsea have just 32. Should they rediscover the mojo, they could run away with the second half. That work starts with a visit from Swansea City, whose defensive open-door policy should accommodate such attacking intentions very nicely. If Mourinho will finally embrace a modicum of risk, that is.

Everton host Sunderland, whose last place accurately reflects what is surely the most disappointing season of anybody’s. Under Roberto Martinez, the Toffees have morphed from stodgy to lively, while their former manager, David Moyes, has overseen the regression to stodginess at his new club United. It is therefore only just that Everton are in legitimate contention for one of the four coveted spots for the UEFA Champions League and United are not.

The Red Devils have won their two prior league games 3-0 and 3-1 over Aston Villa and West Ham respectively, but with five losses and four draws so far this year, they are far off the leaders. Consequently, their eighth place is not unfair. An away game at Hull City will offer the chance to pick up three more points though, and could help lubricate the slow crawl back to respectability.

Spurs, who just fired their manager Andre Villas-Boas, host West Bromwich Albion, who just fired their manager Steve Clarke. AVB has been succeeded by a former assistant, Tim Sherwood; West Brom haven’t yet announced their new manager. Regardless, both teams are in crisis. Spurs are not looking like they’ll finally get back to the Champions League; the Baggies hover only just about the relegation zone.

Newcastle, one of the season’s stronger first-half teams will take on Stoke City. That game should shed some light on whether they are worthy of their sixth place. Every last one of these games, in fact, should teach us more. Whether this is the same Premier League of old, or whether something really has changed.

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