There isn’t a soul out there who would have told you at the beginning of the 09/10 Premier League season that Birmingham City F.C. would be in eighth place, a point behind Liverpool. And yet, given the campaign’s turbulence for the standard bearers of the English game in recent years, it can’t surprise anyone that at least one of them would fall off the wagon at some point.
Of course, that means that the so called ‘pretenders’ have to be doing something right. In this case, they are and doing it in a way that would concern any of the Big 4 clubs. Aston Villa are beating the Big 4 heads up. Tottenham Hotspur are getting results that in previous years they would have blown. Manchester City’s money is starting to count for something. Birmingham City are the second hottest team in the country behind the Championship’s Nottingham Forest, and by next week, one of those two streaks will have ended as they sort through a replay at St. Andrews in the F.A. Cup.
Are the top three concerned? They may not say it but there are strange things about this season. Manchester United, two points off leaders Chelsea, are right where they want to be…at least that’s what they say. Dumped unceremoniously by old friends Leeds United, they’ve laid eggs in two of their last three matches, didn’t look entirely convincing in the third, and have been somewhat lacking in the all-out killer instinct department at times this season. Chelsea lead, but are now at the infamous ANC month. Missing multiple options in the attack and the midfield, they must hold it together long enough for the cavalry to come back and lead on toward the end. Arsenal were cruising along until Robin van Persie got chopped down against Italy while with the Dutch. The result is the loss of their true hitman and with a formidable January and February approaching, can they play the good game and score against traditionally annoying teams?
Ah, speculation runs rampant, but it will be a frenetic “Mad Month” at both ends of the table. A look at each side from top to bottom explains it all:
Through 20 Rounds
Leaders: Chelsea (45 Points)
The Blues were cruising through the Premier League, with only minor blips against Wigan and Aston Villa along the way until a quarterfinal clash with Blackburn came rolling along in the Carling Cup. After nearly getting dropped in the extra time, the end came more damningly in the ensuing penalty shootout. By the weekend, penalties were a hot topic in London, particularly after Lampard had a penalty by Shay Given in City’s 2-1 win. Until there F.A. Cup win over Watford, the Clues had beaten Pompey and nipped Fulham, but drawn four and had many wondering about Petr Cech’s ‘keeping abilities following his blunders against Everton. With the ANC rolling around, the Blues will be pressed to keep the top spot.
January Outlook: Fortunately, the Blues got some of the lightweights of the League. Hull and Sunderland look shaky while they’ll want to rectify the St. Andrews trip result when Birmingham goes to the Bridge. A trip to Turf Moor suddenly doesn’t appear so daunting with Owen Coyle likely to be at Bolton before too awful long.
Transfers: Chelsea are usually linked with half of Europe’s elite in any given window. Theirs is a Mad Month to watch rather than speculate. Look for a forward of some sort to arrive to offset Drogba’s ANC run.
2nd: Manchester United (43 Points)
I had predicted that United would have a tough time trying to get a fourth consecutive title with the loss of C. Ronaldo. In fact, silverware of any kind will be tough to come by this term, with the most likely to be the Premier League itself. SAF thought that this was the spot to be in going into the New Year, but I dare say that he wanted them to go in and fall flat against Leeds. There have been times this campaign where the killer ability of Ronaldo has been sorely missed, and several matches have been altered deep into “Fergie Time,” if you will. Of course, this is a side that begins to find itself right around now, so playing them out of contention should be done at your own risk.
January Outlook: Very similar to Chelsea, with a pair of fistfights with City interjected in to determine a finalist for the Carling Cup. Where Chelsea got Birmingham and Arsenal at home in the next few rounds, United must make trips to those sides. This is not the time for frailties to start popping up.
Transfers: United seem committed to keeping the club as is. Turmoil surrounding Nemanja Vidic will not help continuity. Perhaps a stab at either the forward or defensive sides might be in the offing if they decide to make a raid for help.
3rd: Arsenal (41 Points, game-in-hand)
The club I thought looked prime to slip has a golden chance to bust through to the top of the Premier League. Of course, the opposite is true too. January affords Arsenal some less-than stellar competition, but the kind that often undoes them: the Bolton’s of the world. They’ve only lost to the other elite teams of the Premier League and the above average grinders. How much Robin van Persie’s loss affects them will be known sooner rather than later.
January Outlook: They get the Trotters twice, with a much improved Everton and F.A. Cup challnge at the Britannia against Stoke. The month ends with a trip to Villa Park and a critical clash against United. The next two months will determine much of how the Premier League race will shape up for the Gunners.
Transfers: Wouldn’t count on anything. Wenger seems committed to going after Chamakh in the summer. Whether he wants to strengthen the strike force anymore is anyone’s guess, though he seems to be basing his dealings on what the other big spenders do.
4th: Tottenham Hotspur (37 Points)
Spurs started out the house of fire, then Luka Modric had his leg broken by Lee Bowyer. While it prompted the arrival of Niko Cranjkar, it came at a perilous time, with Chelsea and United in the offing. Consequently, they were brushed aside and struggled to come to grips, the low point being blasted by Arsenal at the Emirates. They promptly grabbed 18 points from the next 9 matches, including a 9-1 whipping of Wigan and a 3-0 victory that sealed the fate of Mark Hughes. Poised on the cusp of finishing what a lasagna denied them some time ago (depending on how much you are into conspiracy theories) Spurs have a balance that is creative, can get results when they aren’t, and have the ability to outclass anyone on their day.
January Outlook: Just how serious Spurs are will be tested quite soon with a trip to Anfield on the cards. A win there could kill off Liverpool, but a draw would do well. Hull looks winnable, but Fulham and Birmingham will provide far stiffer challenges.
Transfers: Who knows? This is the Harry Redknapp show, and we’re all just along for the ride. Spurs are linked with practically half of Europe, and if a team is willing to part with someone on the cheap, Harry has an ear open for them.
5th: Manchester City (35 Points, game-in-hand)
You would think that a team with the fewest losses in any league is very likely to be leading that league. Then there’s City. They first lost to Manchester United in a hotly contested and well criticized contest. Then they began to draw. And draw. And draw some more. Seven straight draws, followed by beating Chelsea, another draw, and a drubbing at Spurs was enough to get Mark Hughes canned, probably the third most controversial talking point in the last half of 2009. Enter Roberto Mancini, and hello results. Of course, that’s if you consider Stoke and Wolves to be mighty opposition.
January Outlook: Rosy. If Arsenal can change the Premier League race in the next two months, City will be the side that prosper the most. Six consecutive matches look winnable in the league. They may be near the top before anyone notices it happening. Only the United Carling Cup clashes will be a test.
Transfers: Like Spurs, linked with everyone. Only they have the cash to really get someone if they feel like it. Possibly look for a strong defender to join to shore up the defense. Patrick Viera seems to be practically in Eastlands already.
6th: Aston Villa (35 Points)
This looks vaguely familiar, doesn’t it? Villa are right in the thick of things with impressive performances when the stage has been the biggest. Beating United at Old Trafford was a nice touch, but many point to last year’s campaign as the real test; namely whether or not they can stay alive longer than the did last year. Bad results to bottom half teams (i.e. draws) have cost the Villans precious points, and back to back losses against Arsenal and Liverpool have not helped matters, having dropped from 3rd to 6th in short order.
January Outlook: This month and a half stretch is contentious, with a Carling Cup semifinal against Blackburn sandwiched around matches with Arsenal and Fulham. Wins are critical against West Ham and Wigan, though in their first go round they lost to both sides.
Transfers: Unlike the above, Villa are looking to hold on to everyone to make sure they can contest for League honors. That will mean hanging on to Emile Heskey (I know, hard to envision that) who is wanted by Liverpool and to fend off any other attempts to pull the team apart.
7th: Liverpool (33 Points)
Let’s be honest for a second: he who still believes that Xabi Alonso was not an incredibly integral part of Liverpool’s success in the last few years is sadly mistaken. Their personnel matches the City 4-2-2-2 concept, yet they play a traditional 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1. They aren’t set up to succeed, and it shows. The signs were ominous early: losses to Spurs and Villa raised concerns which were papered over with wins against Bolton, Burnley, West Ham and Hull. Then October came and shattered the Liverpool image. Since then things have been very meek at times, with a much needed win over Villa taking the sting out of a terrible loss to Pompey, but which was reset by a draw at the Madejski against Reading, a side who’s home form is down right awful, in the F.A. Cup.
January Outlook: The Sunday match with Spurs at Anfield is probably the most critical contest this campaign for the Reds. A loss would put them 7 back of Spurs and in a dog fight to stay in the Europa League positions. A win drags them to a point behind Tottenham, though they would need help from whomever City, Villa, and Birmingham are playing to keep pace with the last Champions League spot. The rest of the month is not impossible to grab 9 points from, but given their form this term, nothing is guaranteed at this point.
Transfers: Maxi Rodriguez is a name that is increasingly becoming thrown around in Anfield circles. Andrea Dossena is likely off to Napoli with Andriy Voronin probably on the way out as well. Expect others to leave possibly, with cover needed at right back with Glen Johnson hobbled. Also, while a second quality forward would help, they would do well to find a midfielder who is capable of passing and creating opportunities. Rafa’s puzzling treatment of Aquilani, not to mention his less than stellar start in Liverpool colors has many worried that they missed the boat with the Italian.
8th: Birmingham City (32 Points)
Just from the start you know that the Blues are easily the surprise team of the campaign so far. 8 points off the magic number of 40 with 18 to play is stunning, to the point that some suggest maybe Europe is in the offing. That’s optimistic to say the least but then again, did you expect them to be here right now? The beginning was a touch rocky, particularly the gut wrencher at White Hart Lane. After being dumped back to back by Burnley and Arsenal, though, the new ownership, headlined by Carson Yeung, settled in and righted the ship. Since then, Birmingham hasn’t lost, winning against those who were supposed to challenge them and drawing those they were supposed to lose to. In short, they are the anti-Liverpool.
January Outlook: All that said, to keep the unbeaten run through the month will be quite a task, with a fresh United lurking (instead of one having to have played City midweek), Chelsea and a chance for revenge against Spurs. Then there’s Pompey, who are a wildcard at this point, considering the turmoil on the South coast, and possibly the hottest team in England, Nottingham Forest, to take on in a replay at St. Andrews in the F.A. Cup.
Transfers: Sporting Gijon’s Michel seems to be on his way finally, after the two sides could not make it work in the summer. The status of a certain Joe Hart is also in question, as he has made a massive difference in Birmingham fortunes. Stumping up the cash for the 22 year-old in the summer looks to be priority number one.
9th: Fulham (27 Points)
Ol’ Roy Hodgson has been busy keeping Fulham right around the same place they were last year. If only everyone else wasn’t doing better than this last year. With as many things on their plate, the Cottagers have done extremely well to be in 9th, though their League form has been inconsistent at best. The heatwave found by Bobby Zamora has been crucial in the last month to keep things moving right along, as they have at times struggled to gain any League footing while fighting in the Europa League. The loss against Stoke, however, came with a hefty price tag with Brede Hangeland and Bobby Zamora both lost to injury; the Zamora loss particularly damning as it will be easily a month before he’ll probably even be cleared.
January Outlook: It just got a lot worse. Pompey and Blackburn, as well as a lower league F.A. Cup opponent will give them time to regroup, but the month ends with Tottenham and Aston Villa. They need the early points because they are certainly at a disadvantage right now.
Transfers: One wouldn’t have given it much thought until Zamora got racked. Now a forward on loan is certain, and Stefano Okaka is expected to fit the bill. They may also need to look for a defender with Pantsil probably done for the campaign and Hangeland’s health in question.
10th: Stoke City (24 Points)
Stoke have a bit of an identity crisis going. They are playing more aesthetic football but have the players you would expect to go grind out victories. This works part of the time, as they have only lost one contest with any aplomb (Liverpool’s early 4-0 win) but sometimes look lost offensively and have problems breaking down teams that look to hold down the fort for long periods of time. That said, they’ve also been involved in some excellent encounters (v. Wigan, Fulham) so they’ve certainly got the ability to play a good game. That, and they still have Rory Delap. So when all else fails, heave up and throw it deep.
January Outlook: Getting the win over Fulham was important, as they have dates at Turf Moor and home matches with Liverpool and City. 4 or 5 points this month would be a good haul.
Transfers: Tony Pulis will do whatever he can to hang on to Ryan Shawcross. The windfall from any deal, though, would certainly give him some leeway in the transfer market. Don’t plan on seeing too much go on here.
11th: Sunderland (23 Points)
What’s gone wrong here? Sunderland started out ablaze with Darren Bent leading a fierce attack, an attack that has suddenly fizzed out. They could have been the first to slay United at Old Trafford had the Fightin’ Ferdinands not colluded to both be awful. Their last win was the bucking of Arsenal back in November. Since then it has all been down hill. They need to get it back together, and quickly.
January Outlook: Not terrible. They’ve got Bolton, a match they probably ought to win, then trips to Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park. 4 points this month would be worthwhile. They just wish they had Michael Turner for a couple of these.
Transfers: They might need to look for some defensive loans depending on how severe John Mensah is crocked. They could stand to have Craig Gordon back sooner than later. Otherwise it looks quiet in the Northeast.
12th: Everton (22 Points, game-in-hand)
You would be hard pressed to find a more disappointing start to a promising side than Everton. Hit with the bubonic plague of injuries and rash egos (coughlescottcoughjocough) the Toffees started off getting dusted by Arsenal 6-1 at Goodison. For a little while they looked to break the funk but more players fell down and shattered. At the end of November the picture looked very bleak for the Merseysiders, but, molded with the toughness of their boss, David Moyes, the Toffees notched four draws and a win to close out 2009, playing far better and getting some key players back into the action.
January Outlook: They’d love nothing better than to deliver a shock to the Gunners who humiliated them at the start of the trail and finally have some bodies back. City and Sunderland follow with Wigan to close the month. It’s not entirely out of place to suggest maybe 7 points this month.
Transfers: Jo may well hit the bricks but the may get something better in Landon Donovan. Any more loan moves to get some bodies on the bench would be welcome but not probable. Health is the concern and if they get the walking wounded back, they may not need to dabble too much in the market.
13th: Blackburn Rovers (21 Points)
Blackburn’s travels have been relatively unkind this term. Then again, so have their home contests. September’s 6 and November’s 7 points have them at “head above water” stage currently. They’ve beaten the lesser lights, slipped in an upset of Villa, and been pounded by the betters. If Big Sam can get healthy again, perhaps his instruction straight from the touchline instead of phoning in plans like he’s making air raid plans will help.
January Outlook: 4 or 5 points would be a good tally. City and Fulham will like their winning chances, while they can probably fend off Wigan and West Ham.
Transfers: Sam’s a defensive guy, but his offense is offensive. Andwele Slory seems to be the man Blackburn is after. Anything to get that sputtering attack going will be welcome.
14th: Burnley (20 Points)
It’s been a good thing that Turf Moor has been impregnable. While producing the shock of the season in nipping United two matches into the campaign, any attempts at playing on the road have been met with utter disdain. They’ll need to rely on that home form, especially if Owen Coyle abandons ship for Bolton. That within itself might be enough to see them sent packing back to the Championship, and whoever takes over if Coyle leaves will be lauded and become a legend if he can keep them up.
January Outlook: Three points against Stoke are essential. Miss those and they maybe might be able to squeak out one more point, with United and Chelsea in the forecast.
Transfers: Need a new manager. Anyone interested? Outside of that, don’t look too surprised if nothing else happens.
15th: Wolverhampton Wanderers (19 Points)
It took Wolves a little time to get up and running in the Premier League. Outside of a shock win at Wigan and against Fulham, the opening matches saw the club take their lumps. Much ado was made about the side resting players in December at Old Trafford, but what can’t be ignored is that Wolves are playing some of their best football of the campaign right now, having snagged 9 points in December and advancing to the 4th round of the F.A. Cup.
January Outlook: This could be a 6 point month. Two of three wins over West Ham, Wigan, and Hull would see to that, with Liverpool visiting the Molineux after the aforementioned 4th round tie against Crystal Palace.
Transfers: Mick McCarthy seems to be on the prowl for a couple of new faces to help keep up the fight. Midfield seems to be the key area, with a possible loan-to-buy deal set up for Fode Mansare from Toulouse, as well as other inquiries lined up.
16th: Wigan Athletic (19 Points, game-in-hand)
Athletic are easily the most schizophrenic side in the Premier League. Wins over Villa, Chelsea, and Sunderland have been offset by 5 goal slaughters against United, a 9-1 whipping against Spurs, and a 4-0 hammering…from Pompey. Roberto Martinez certainly has the quality in the squad to be a good mid-table side, but consistency has not been there strong suit this season and they’ll need to figure this out before they are dragged any further into the relegation scrap.
January Outlook: Home tilts with Villa and Everton would be succesful if they get draws. Trips to Wolverhampton and Blackburn present the best chance for a three pointer, if they get one at all this month. The Wolves game might become “six-pointer” talk if they slip any further down the table before then.
Transfers: Olivier Kapo looks to be hitting the dusty trail. Charles N’Zogbia is a hot topic amongst many others. Little seems to be going towards Wigan, outside of loanee goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic from Sporting Lisbon.
17th: West Ham United (18 Points)
West Ham looked alright coming out of the traps. The squad showed Wolves the new land was not the old, became the first of the early heartbroken against Spurs, and drew Blackburn. They were then blanked in September. They turned right around and drew Fulham, Arsenal, and Sunderland in October, then scored their best victory over Villa. December did them little, only gaining 4 points in six matches. They’ve been draw happy, with six already, but have dropped ten contests, one of six teams to do so, which is part of the reason they are stuck just barely over the relegation line at present.
January Outlook: They need points this month. Wolves, Pompey, and Blackburn all appear on the schedule. The Villa match might be asking a bit much right now, but they have far more talent than their league position shows. They need Carlton Cole back desperately. Of course, this could all be moot if transfer rumors floating around come to fruition….
Transfers: Pesky rumors kept putting West Ham with Adrian Mutu, maybe more out of spite for Chelsea than anything. What’s not a joke is the possibility that West Ham could offload some key players, including Cole, Alessandro Diamanti, Matthew Upson, Scott Parker, and Robert Green, who have all been rumored to be seeking a life boat away from the sinking ship. A loss of any of those four would be a crushing loss, and for a team who are finely poised and the success/failure line, losses of any kind are going to be substantial.
18th: Bolton Wanderers (18 Points, 2 games-in-hand)
Misery mire has not quite been the same since a certain Sam Allardyce fled to Blackburn. Gary Megson did what he could, but he has been sent to the unemployment line. Enter Owen Coyle. He’ll be taking over a side whose marquee victory is at St. Andrews against Birmingham before they become the Unbeatablues. Only wins over fellow strugglers have come and draws have become precious, including the Tottenham and Manchester City points. Coyle will need to get something going quickly, though they have a couple of matches to improve positioning still.
January Outlook: Burnley is the best bet for any points this month. They’ll have to play Arsenal twice over more than likely, with Liverpool and Sunderland also in the offing. 4 points this month would probably be a good haul.
Transfers: Completely in the air at the moment. Coyle will need to survey the land quickly if he wants to make any moves. Needless to say, I doubt Burnley will be to inclined to let him snag an old player or two.
19th: Hull City (18 Points)
Hull’s late season slide from last term continued right on into the start of this term. The first three points netted only 8 points, which was matched by a splendid November in which they won two and drew two to double their season tally. That was also the part of the campaign where Jimmy Bullard was healthy. They’ll be stuck in the opposite side of the relegation scrap this year, where last year they were riding high before crashing mercilessly down to earth for the second half of the campaign.
January Outlook: Bleak. Wolves at the end will represent their only shot at points as they host Chelsea, then run into Tottenham and United. Any more than three points in this stretch will be a massive boost to morale, with Spurs known to occasionally drop home points against inferior opposition.
Transfers: Freddy Adu made a stir by listing Hull as a possible loan spot, hopefully to catch up with pal Jozy Altidore. Altidore probably saw the report, picked up his cell, and told Adu to stay the hell away. Any move will probably be preceded by selling, so if no one leaves, expect no one coming in.
Bottom: Portsmouth (14 Points)
Watching Pompey this term has been a traumatizing experience. Already on their third owners this term, there is a good chance a fourth set might be needed. A winding-up order has been served by HMRC. Players have been delayed payments for a third straight month. This madness will inevitably end with Pompey in the Championship by season’s end. If it doesn’t, it will be the largest miracle in Premier League history. It took them eight matches to finally secure any points at all, and their points have been split between October (the first buy-out) and December (the second buy-out and Avram Grant’s managerial start). Beating Liverpool did more against the Reds than did for the South coast outfit.
January Outlook: Bleak. It’s not bad enough that players aren’t being payed, but their best odds at points are with West Ham. Fulham, Birmingham and City will all be looking for three points in their Pompey encounters.
Transfers: They are pretty well hamstrung at the moment. Debts hang over this club like a tsunami, waiting to crash down on them. A transfer embargo has been put into place, with loanees unable to extend and players likely to bail. These are troubling times for all the Fratton Park faithful.
Even with above listed, there is still going to be a lot of talk between now and the end of the month as to who goes where. Chime in if you think you know what major moves your club will make before the window slams shut.
Tags: Arsenal, Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Chelsea, Everton, Fulham, Hull City, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Portsmouth, Premier League, Soccer, Stoke City, Sunderland, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United, Wigan Athletic, Wolverhampton Wanderers