By: Andrew Pasco
With ten games remaining in the EPL season for 2015, here’s a batch of predictions for what to expect as the season winds down.
Will anybody be able to contest Chelsea for the title this year? With a five point lead plus a game in hand due to their extended (and triumphant) League Cup run, it would be a brave man to bet against Chelsea finishing the season anywhere but top spot. Following a third place finish last year born out of resolute defending, the addition of a top class striker in Diego Costa, and the silky playmaker Fabregas, they’ve added genuine attacking verve to an already solid unit. Bringing back Courtois, the world’s top young goalkeeper, from his loan spell at Athletico Madrid has only further bolstered their defensive solidity.
How they react to their exit from the Champions League could be a factor in the upcoming games, but with no more games in midweek for the rest of the season, they should finish the season comfortably as champions. The only realistic challenge could come from defending champions Manchester City, who in their remaining games only face three teams in the top seven in their remain games (compared to Chelsea’s five), there is a chance they could bridge the gap but inconsistencies and a persistence with a 4-4-2 formation that can see them exposed at the back will likely see them come up short. Regaining the form and confidence of captain Vincent Kompany will be key.
Prediction: Chelsea – First; Man City – Second
Top 4 and the Race for Champions League Qualification
What the EPL has lost in title chasing drama has been more than made up for by a five team race for the final two Champions League places. Five points separate third from sevent, and with the next seasons new Champions League TV deal paying a staggering 50 million pounds per team, the pressure to qualify has never been greater.
At seventh place, Southampton have been the biggest shock of the season so far. After seeing a host of star names leave (mostly to Liverpool), their manager departing to Tottenham, and the introduction of relatively unknown players and a new foreign manager, preseason thoughts of European qualification were non-existent. In fact, a battle against relegation was widely anticipated but they have fully deserved their place in the top reaches of the table. Recent results have seen them fall from fourth place, and it may be difficult to recover but this season should be seen as a huge success and an excellent platform to build from. That they’ve done this with star striker Jay Rodriguez missing the entire season is even more impressive.
In sixth place are Tottenham. Upon his arrival from Southampton, manager Mauricio Pochettino’s first criticism of his new team was a lack of fitness in the side. Word from preseason training camp was that it was a punishing fitness regime, but it has paid off in that Tottenham lead the league goals scored after the 85th minute, goals which have earned them 13 points in the table without which they’d be languishing back in 11th. Harry Kane has emerged as a genuine goal machine and some of their signings from the summer of 2013 are finally coming good. With a big game against Man United to come this weekend, and arguably the easiest fixture list of the challengers. They are strong contenders for a place in Europe.
Liverpool are unbeaten in the league since a 3-0 loss to Man U back on December 14th. Since then their record is nine wins, three draws and zero losses making them the form side in the league. This is a long way from the dire football they were playing at the start of the year. A change in tactics, moving to three at the back, has given them a defensive solidity not yet seen from Brendan Rodgers in any of his previous teams. The rejuvenation of Simon Mignolet in goal has been remarkable. Dropped from the side in December, for Brad Jones (who???), he has since reclaimed his place and, amazingly, is now a contender for the golden glove award for most shutouts. Steven Gerrard is due to return from injury this weekend, and with his impending move to MLS, there is a feeling of “Do it for Stevie” emanating around the club. That the FA cup final lands on his 35th birthday, there could be no better send-off for the club legend than to have him lift the trophy at Wembley before swapping shirts for the first time in his career. The key will be to not allow the cup commitments to impact on their league form.
Currently holding onto the final Champions League place are Manchester United. Under Sir Alex Ferguson, Man U were renowned for playing fast attacking football. Even on an off day, they would find a way to win games, they had an aura of invincibility. First under David Moyes, and now Luis Van Gaal, the free flowing attacking football that was ingrained in the club has somewhat diminished, and performances have suffered. What has remained the same is that they continue to get wins, even when they don’t play well. Marquee signings like Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao have been inconsistent at best, it appears from the outside that LVG is still to determine his preferred team and formation. A plan B of playing direct long balls to Fellani has been met with criticism from fans and the media, but the fact is that they have been picking up the points and are currently keeping the sides below them at bay. Their season will be determined by their next five games, in which they face Tottenham (sixth), Liverpool (fifth), Aston Villa (17th), Man City (second), and Chelsea (first). Success in those games could see them safely into the top 4, but should they suffer a string of defeats, another year outside the Champions League awaits.
Finally we have Arsenal, perennial fourth place finishers in recent years, they have qualified for the Champions league in all 17 years under Arsene Wenger. Despite an injury list that never seems to fully clear, they have the experience of running the race to the end which should see them through. On a similar run of form to Liverpool, they are the other form side in the league at present. While still competing in the FA Cup and with the second leg of their Champions game against Monaco to come, they have more games than most to play but their league fixtures are mostly against teams near the bottom of the table. Fourth place is the bare minimum for Arsenal, and should they fail to reach this, questions may start to gather more weight regarding the future of their long serving manager.
Predictions: Arsenal – Third; Liverpool – Fourth; Tottenham – Fifth; Man. United – Sixth; Southampton – Seventh. (But really it’s too tight to call).
Skipping over the midtable teams, we look to the bottom of the table where teams are desperate to avoid the drop to the lower leagues. Like the Champions League next season, a new TV deal has been struck for the Premier League next season, equalling a 70% increase in TV revenues. The financial implications of staying up have never been greater, the modern game is all about money and many teams have struggled to return to the top flight after dropping down a division due to the financial restrictions imposed on teams in the lower league.
Last place Leicester City are a strange one. They look certain for the drop but when you watch them play it’s hard to see why. Apart from an early season thumping against Man U, they have usually been involved in tightly contested games and are generally well organized and hard working. A lack of quality in the oppositions box has ultimately cost them, but the sight of a World Class midfield veteran in Esteban Cambiasso has been very enjoyable to watch. Unfortunately, he won’t be enough to see them out of their current position.
Burnley lead the league in distance covered by their players this season. Do they ever work hard! Safety is not out of reach, and they will rely heavily on the goals of Danny Ings. Unfortunately the fixtures are against them, their next four games are all against teams in the top 7. After that however, they have a run of games against their direct rivals. Those games will determine the final outcome of their season.
QPR aren’t only worried about the loss of TV revenue they would accompany relegation, but their very future as a club. Following their promotion from the lower league last season, they were found to have breached several financial restrictions. The penalties they should incur have not been inforced this season, as the Premier League is a completely different organization to the lower league system. Should they finish in the bottom three, and be demoted to the lower league, they would be subject to a 50 million pound fine, or possible exclusion from the league. A very nervous end to the season awaits the QPR fans and board. The key game against Aston Villa on April 20th.
Aston Villa recently went 660 minutes of league football without scoring a goal. Almost 7.5 games. It’s a run that cost their manager his job and the new man Tim Sherwood has already injected some much needed passion into their game. They have the distraction of an FA Cup semi final to come and they can’t allow that to distract them from the main objective of staying in the league. They do seem to have renewed energy with the arrival of the new boss and the hope will be that it can carry them away from the danger area.
Sunderland are once again treading lightly in the Premier League, they exchanged strikers with TFC only to see Altidore score freely on his MLS debut, whereas Defoe has continued to struggle with two goals in his seven games so far. Not a terrible return considering Jozy got one goal in his entire time at Sunderland, but more will be required if they are to avoid being caught up. They face Aston Villa this weekend and a loss their will see them right on the fringes of the drop. It’s looking dangerous .
Hull City and Everton may be nearer the drop than they’d like, but should both have enough quality to avoid any serious worries. Everton, however, find themselves amid some managerial uncertainty as questions have been raised over the stark drop in form for a team largely unchanged following last season’s fifth place finish. While that may have been a considerable over achievement, the nature of their play has dropped dramatically as has the form of star youngster Ross Barkley. Perhaps it’s a case of too much being expected of a young man just beginning his career, and there is little doubt he will progress to be a star player. Next year they’ll look to build on this team, whether a new manager will be in charge will remain to be seen but hiring and firing has never been the Everton way (they gave David Moyes 11 years!).
Predictions for the drop: Sunderland – 18th; QPR – 19th; Leicester – 20th