Premier League reaches boiling point

September 28, 2012

The English like drama. For all the talk of keeping calm and carrying on in a supposedly buttoned-up society, no other country has fostered such a vicious tabloid culture or watches soap operas so fervently. No parliament chamber is quite as rowdy and acerbic as the English, nor, seemingly, has any other economic and political world power produced quite so many riots.

Happily, its soccer league reflects that.

If it’s drama you want – and what other tools for achieving escapism does sport possess after all? – the Barclays Premier League will sell it to you in wholesale quantities. Take the narratives buried just inches below the surface of Saturday’s Manchester United-Tottenham Hotspur bout (live, 12.30 p.m. ET, FOX Soccer), for instance.

US forward Clint Dempsey continues his campaign to win a starting job for the Spurs. He come over from Fulham following an ugly public “they-won’t-let-me-go, he-won’t-train offseason” spat, coming on the heels of Spurs’ own year-long transfer saga involving the finally departed Luka Modric.

Dempsey’s compatriot Brad Friedel, meanwhile, is clutching onto the starting goalkeeper spot – not to mention his record streak of consecutive Premier League appearances, which stands at 319 – as half of France lobbies new manager Andre Villas-Boas to start their nation’s number one Hugo Lloris.

Villas-Boas himself is trying to prove that his one treble-winning season with FC Porto wasn’t a fluke, after bombing at Chelsea last season, and that he is indeed special like his now-estranged one-time mentor Jose Mourinho. After an opening day 2-1 defeat to Newcastle, Villas-Boas’ Spurs are slowly improving and have drawn twice and then won twice. However, they’ve taken those points from weaker opponents – West Brom, Norwich, Reading and QPR – and have yet to make a mark against a decent opponent.

And if Manchester United looks like it’s sitting pretty just a point off the lead, consider that it lost its opening game to Everton – a club that is never good early in the season – and had to come from behind in three of its four subsequent wins, in spite of having added the league’s best striker in Robin van Persie and the envisioned (but somewhat disappointing) solution to the ongoing playmaker problem in Shinji Kagawa.

United overcame a deficit to Fulham in a game that turned into a cheap horror flick when a stray cleat opened a deep, 6-inch gash above Wayne Rooney’s knee that required dozens of stitches to close. It also made comebacks against Southampton and Liverpool, a huge clash wherein the biggest news was nevertheless that Liverpool’s Luis Suarez had deigned to shake the hand of United’s Patrice Evra, who got him suspended for racial abuse last season. Goalkeepers David de Gea and Anders Lindegaard have further added to the suspense, alternating in making errors and losing the job to the other.

This turmoil is rampant among the league’s biggest clubs.

Once-mighty Liverpool had grown so dysfunctional in recent years – rapidly and haplessly meandering from a ballistic approach, to a focus on young English talent, to a fetish for Spanish pizzazz – that a winless start to the five-game-old season is grudgingly tolerated as acceptable collateral damage to the long-overdue rebuilding effort under Brendan Rodgers. With just 33 games remaining to stave off relegation, the Reds sit perilously in 18th place. And if they looked much improved against United last Sunday, they nevertheless lost for a third time in the league. September isn’t yet out and some are already losing patience with Rodgers.

Meanwhile at Etihad Stadium, reigning champions Manchester City, lacking all the snap, crackle and pop of last season, have slumped to a three-game winless streak after giving up a lead to Arsenal in a 1-1 draw, two leads to Real Madrid in a 3-2 loss and tying Stoke 1-1. If he hopes to avoid fading from the race early, City’s emotional circus director Roberto Mancini will have to continue to keep his merry band of mega-million egos and eccentrics interested and well-behaved.

Chelsea has transitioned very nicely from bunkering in and grinding out wins, a mentality that won it last year’s Champions League, to trusting a threesome of fluttering playmakers in Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar. Yet manager Roberto Di Matteo knows that he’s a few hissy fits by powerful veterans John Terry – who is suspended for the next four games for racially abusing QPR’s Anton Ferdinand – and Frank Lampard away from getting the sack, just like several predecessors did.

Arsenal, the world’s biggest club that’s perennially outspent, in spite of owning a massively profitable new stadium and reporting a $60 million profit for last season, has dealt with the departure of yet another star in van Persie well, absorbing his loss with great pickups like Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski. Yet undefeated as though they may be, the always-promising-but-never-delivering Gunners remain liable to slip into an epic swoon, causing manager Arsene Wenger’s face, which couldn’t possibly accommodate any more wrinkles or frown lines, to somehow find room for a few new ones.

The media glare, proliferation of egos and the imperative of performing are forever on the rise in the Premier League. Yet the league has become more competitive, with no fewer than five title favorites and upsets more commonplace. The old adage that you cannot lose more than five games and win the league nevertheless remains true. In the last 10 editions, only 2009-10 Chelsea lost six times and won it. More than ever, each game matters.

So stay tuned.