The Premier League has nearly reached its halfway point, and the title race has narrowed to five, as there is no reason to supsect any team from Bolton on down to make a serious run to the summit.
The current leaders Manchester United stand two points clear and have yet to lose, but have not impressed, relying on late comebacks from both ahead and behind to draw too many matches. They have good depth and teamwork under the rule of Sir Alex, but individually there is little magic to be had. Then again, maybe Berbatov has found some, but the laconic Bulgarian is not known for his consistency. They benefit from little World Cup fatigue as only Park and Chicharito had substantial roles in South Africa. They have survived, despite the only occasional presence of Rooney, mostly due to the stability along their back line, especially in the middle. Van Der Sar has been solid in goal, yet he has no depth behind him. If Rooney, Chicharito, and Rafael can find a consistent high level, they can even improve, though they must consider investing in Carlton Cole to hedge.
Players I would pay to see: Rooney, Nani, Berbatov.
Players who must play well for them to win: Ferdinand and Vidic, Nani, Berbatov, Evra, Rooney.
Players who if they play too much kill their chances: Any GK not named Van Der Sar, O’Shea, Evans.
Chelsea were seemingly running away from the pack until their recent stretch which even saw them struggle in the Champions League with MSK Zilina at Stamford Bridge. 32 shots at Birmingham produced only nine on target and zero goals. Obviously, missing both Lampard and Essien at times has hurt them significantly, as they no longer can just plug in other near-world-class players like Ballack or Deco. They have shown themselves too susceptible through the middle, as Terry and Alex also have struggled with injuries. Cech has returned to a decent form, but they are another top club with nobody behind their number one.
Players I would pay to see: Drogba, Malouda, Essien.
Players who must play well for them to win: Drogba, Malouda, Essien, Terry and Alex, Lampard.
Players who if they play too much kill their chances: Any GK not named Cech, any player with a squad number higher than 40, Ramires, Ferreira, Kalou.
Arsenal have only one player remaining from “The Invincibles”, and the six years have shown a consistent problem converting chances into goals. When combined with their penchant to become unsteady late in matches, their challenge consistently suffers from dropped points in winnable matches. Of course, the additions of regular time for Song and now Chamakh has somewhat increased their ability to deal with the physicality of the daily grind. Naturally, they possess a great depth of some interchangeable parts, and the players all believe in what they are doing under Wenger. Oh, but their woeful goalkeeping must improve.
Players I would pay to see: Song, Fabregas, Van Persie, Arshavin, Nasri, Rosicky, Sagna.
Players who must play well for them to win: Fabregas, Song, Van Persie, Chamakh, Sagna.
Players who if they play too much kill their chances: Bendtner, Wilshere, Denilson.
Ah the riches of the Middle East have been showered upon Manchester City, yet instant success has not arrived upon a horse-drawn sleigh. World class players all over the pitch and in the stands watching have done little to implement a plan to harness this advantage. At times, they appear forlorn to have to play, especially at some of the lower-ranked outposts around the country. They must solve their owners versus manager versus players versus fan expectations dilemma. Mancini should start by breaking up his DeJong, Yaya Toure, and Barry central midfield, and move decisively toward pairing somebody with Tevez up front. They can, at least, be assured of the best goalkeeping in this group, with an established backup to Hart.
Players I would pay to see: Tevez, Silva, A Johnson, Balotelli, Yaya.
Players who must play well for them to win: Tevez, Kompany, Silva, A Johnson, Tevez.
Players who if they play too much kill their chances: Yaya&Barry&DeJong, Vieira.
Tottenham live on the edge each match and sit fifth in this race, yet from owner to substitute, they possess the most belief in themselves. Only their supporters continue to doubt, as they have been conditioned to do. Clearly, they remain unafraid of the big matches, but they must increase their readiness against the “lesser” teams. Having earlier dismissed Bolton, Tottenham actually possess a lower goals differential, as leaving every victory to late will bite them before long. Solving their center and right of their backline would contribute mightily, as would finding a regular defensive midfielder. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to move to a 4-5-1 to provide their width without having to force Hutton and Assou-Ekotto. Gomes has come around to being perfectly adequate, and might become good if he sheds his habit of making the worst possible mistake at the worst possible time. At least they have good depth behind him. Ouch, not only is Van der Vaart out for a month, its for the most possible matches in a month as well.
Players I would pay to see: Van der Vaart, Bale, Modric, Assou-Ekotto.
Players who must play well for them to win: Van der Vaart, Bale, Modric, Defoe, Assou-Ekotto, Huddlestone or Palacios.
Players who if they play too much kill their chances: Crouch, Jenas, Bentley, the crappy version of Lennon.
Now some of these players deemed useless may prove needed if the spate of freezing weather continues. The snowy, uncertain pitches will bring out the necessity of direct targeting from open play, which will highlight the necessity of an aerial presence. Lots to play for, and, if the pressures don’t overwhelm them, many great matches to see.