As the Premier League resumes after a fortnight-long winter break, it enters the business end of the season. There are plenty of interesting little sub-plots to savour between now and May, of which the title race is probably the least interesting right now. There’s an almighty scrap to avoid relegation, as well as one to qualify for the Champions League places.
Apart from this, the Champions League too resumes this month, on the 16th. The four English teams—Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and defending European champions Chelsea—in the knockout stages will have to manage their squads adroitly to hope to progress in the competition. This sets us up for an excellent few months of club football.
Is the Premier League title race over? Defending English champions Manchester City have been in imperious form since a 2-0 loss at Crystal Palace on 30 October. Since then, City have won 12 games and drawn one, dropping just two points from a possible 39. This is a title winning sequence if there ever was one, and as a result, City sit 9 points clear at the top of the table. If there’s a fly in the ointment, it is that their last game before the winter break was the draw against Southampton, and if we’ve learned anything from the tussle between City and Liverpool over the past four seasons, it is that draws are the new defeats. City can’t really afford to drop any points over the next couple of months until they meet Liverpool in April. Of course, this also means that Liverpool have to pretty much win all of their remaining 16 games, including the one against City, to stay in the conversation.
City have a deep squad of world class players, coached by probably the greatest manager in the game right now. The sheer fact that Pep Guardiola has managed to keep City hungry for more titles after four Premier League trophies in five years is testament enough to his unique genius in managing football teams. If the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Rodri, João Cancelo, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Bernanrdo Silva can keep bamboozling opposing teams with their breathtaking football, the title race could well be over by this time next month.
However, second placed Liverpool do still have a glimmer of a chance. The Reds lost their way a little over November and especially December with losses and draws ensuring that they ceded more ground to City. However, the team have done will in January, winning two important games without attacking talismans Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané. The two will now be back after the African Cup of Nations. Meanwhile, Liverpool have made an exciting attacking signing by bringing in Luis Diaz from Porto. Teenaged wunderkind Harvey Eliot too is fit after his horrific injury a few months ago. Manager Jürgen Klopp’s charges are as well placed as they ever hope to be to challenge City. Liverpool do have a game in hand over City, and if they manage to win every game between now and their April clash, there is still an outside chance that the title race will go down to the wire.
The relegation battle: Where things are really heating up is at the bottom of the table. There are no fewer than five clubs, separated by six points, for the three relegation spaces. Burnley, Newcastle and Watford occupy the bottom three places, but after the winter break, each of them will fancy their chances. Watford brought veteran coach Roy Hodgson out of retirement to save the club’s Premier League status, after sacking manager Claudio Ranieri.
Newcastle, meanwhile, spent £90 million of their lavish new Saudi finances to bring in talents like Bruno Guimarães, Kieran Trippier, Chris Wood, Dan Burn and Matt Targett to try and stay in the Premier League. Bottom-placed Burnley have a tough task, but they do have three games in hand over Norwich who are currently placed at 17th. And despite a new manager bounce for Everton—the Toffees brought in Frank Lampard as manager in January—and some exciting new players like Delle Ali, they are far from safe. Expect the relegation scrap to go down to the wire.
The race for the Top Four: When Chelsea began the season, coming off a remarkable end to the 202-21 season when Thomas Tuchel’s side won the Champions League, the current doldrums seemed like impossible. It seemed at the time that Chelsea were just one world class striker away from league. So the Blues duly went and bought the best striker in the Serie A, Romelu Lukaku. Seven months on, Lukaku cuts a lonely figure as Chelsea’s gameplan seems to be passing him by. The team’s fluency and finishing are far from perfect, and Chelsea’s normally dependable defensive steel seems to have deserted them too.
However, that’s nothing compared to the shambles that are Manchester United, currently occupying the final Champions League spot. The hugely impressive West Ham are breathing down their necks, not to mention a rejuvenated Arsenal and a Tottenham Hotspur that has two extra games in hand. Although Chelsea seem safe at number three, we can expect an intense four-way fight for the final Champions League spot, with Wolverhampton Wanderers also possessing an outside chance of making the cut. If either Wolves or West Ham can take the final spot, it will be a season to remember indeed.