With the end of the season fast approaching here are a few of the things I’m thinking about. Feel free to add your own thoughts on one of the most dramatic seasons I can remember.
Newcastle looks like they might just stumble at the final hurdle between them and Champions League Football.
The way Chelsea is playing right now, they will make it very hard for Newcastle to finish in the top four in the league. Dropping any points from here to the finish line will most likely see the Maggies out in the comparative cold of the Europa League instead.
Newcastle and Chelsea meet next week. This will be the defining match of Newcastle’s season.
Even Tottenham have shown some signs of life this weekend, waking up long enough to kick Blackburn to the curb with a 2-0 result. But they can’t be considered the favourites to sustain form at this late stage. Their entire squad looks a little tired and the speed of their counter-attack- the foundation of their good play earlier this season – isn’t what it used to be.
Norwich City and Swansea City have run out of steam.
However that doesn’t diminish what they’ve been able to accomplish this year as newly promoted sides. While neither side is in any danger of being relegated, both of them have noticeably struggled in the last month or so.
That is the effect of being in the Premier League, where smaller sides are pushed to the limit every week against teams with larger, deeper squads.
Norwich manager Paul Lambert has been trying to rotate his squad as well as possible; he named back-to-back identical 11s for the first time against Manchester City recently. But it isn’t the same as being able to field whole swathes of fresh players through the tough periods of the season as the Chelseas, Liverpools, Manchesters (literally plural), Arsenals and even Evertons can.
Basically,the deeper squad rule applies to any sides that have been in the Premier League for an extended period of time and enjoyed the fruits of an extra 60+ million a year in TV rights alone.
It is a testament to a side such as Newcastle that – besides Cisse – has been reliant on basically the same players all year to hold them in a lofty position on the log.
Swansea and Norwich have talented managers (Brendan Rodgers seems to be more securely linked with his club than Lambert, whose name has been tossed around regarding a few vacancies or potential vacancies) who have done a lot with little so far.
Let’s hope they are around for a few years and build something with the extra money that comes with staying in the top flight. Both have been among the most entertaining sides promoted in a long time.
Wigan Athletic’s win over Newcastle almost gets them out of the drop zone.
On Saturday Wigan played with the fire and passion of a side that is desperate to avoid the pit of relegation. They are now three points clear with three matches remaining. It is by no means a foregone conclusion that they stay up, but with the form of Queens Park Rangers bottoming out and Wolverhampton and Blackburn showing no signs of life, they are probably going to be fine. Another win will put this one away.
Aston Villa fans are still holding their breath.
Recently Villa seem to be so intent on killing themselves that they have dropped about five places on the ladder in two months. They were up near the top 10 very recently and have plummeted to just three points above relegation.
They managed a draw this weekend to put a brake on the recent run. They’ll need to find a win in the next few weeks to ensure they aren’t stuck at the bottom at the end.
Manchester City versus Manchester United is going to be very, very big.
But, ultimately I think City will get the win in this game, and find a way to lose the title in the coming weeks. They just don’t look like a solid team at the moment. They have talent all over the pitch and were playing fluid, fast passing team football earlier in the season, but that feels like about four or five months ago – because it actually was.
Recently the metro-Manchester side have been playing like a bunch of really talented individuals who were paid a lot to move to a cold part of the world and run around in front of a starving, foaming fan-base. They’ve cracked a little under the pressure.
It takes a long time to build a specific culture. City are discovering this at the tail end of this season. Manchester United didn’t win immediately under Sir Alex, and took a long time to build the kind of steam that has been churning out trophies at a terrific rate since the late 90s.
He was actually fairly close to being sacked for losing.
However what he has built is a culture. There are specific roles for specific players in any given circumstances. He has some old fellas around such as Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes who can teach the ethos and professionalism to the younger players coming through. P
layers either bought at a young age or coming through the system – think Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck this year – are able to learn not just about winning games but how that happens. So far the sky-blue Manchester team are at the stage of trying to build that culture.
The moral of the story is that the Manchester City fans should hope for longer-term success not just a flash in the pan of good players ending up in the same uniform this year.
Liverpool still needs to find a good striker.
Despite the soft up-tick in form of Andy Carroll recently, Liverpool still need to find a more well-rounded front man to lead this team to bigger things than the League Cup, FA cup final and eighth place in the league.
The best illustration for why this needs to happen is to compare Carroll to Peter Crouch (though admittedly Liverpool will be hoping for someone better). Stoke have bought in completely to long-ball tactics as their form of attack in the Premier League.
They have a group of thugs defending madly at the back, and hack the ball downfield hoping to win 1-0.
The thing is that Crouch can do three things better than Carroll. Namely, score with headers on a more consistent basis; hold the ball up better for his midfield to catch up to the play; and score and pass accurately with his feet. In fact he is a bit underrated in this area.
The long and the short of it is that while Crouch definitely has strengths that suit Stoke’s chosen style of play, he is actually a fairly well-rounded football player and will provide other avenues of attack.
Liverpool spent a lot of money on Carroll and seem intent on trying to make his play work, but he offers so little around the park that when the crosses aren’t finding their target, Liverpool only look like scoring when Luis Suarez can do it all himself or Steven Gerrard finds a loose ball to hammer home.
It’s not a long-term solution and I think the savvy New England owners will probably understand this now.