1289: Premiership: Champions’ League
by : Hugh Larkin
One third of the way through the Premiership campaign and the league at least has a much needed whiff of unpredictability about it. Not in the title race where Arsenal and Chelsea show every intention to turn it into a two –horse affair right through the winter, but in the hunt for the other two Champions’ League spots.
For several seasons only five teams have been realistic contenders but three of them are below par so far. Manchester United are talented but in transition, Liverpool are limited in attacking options until the January sales, while Newcastle United are defensively unsound and unable to get the best out of a talented squad. In the past few years the elite clubs have been given an easy ride during dips in form because no other side has produced true consistency- even Houllier’s misfiring Liverpool have been able to qualify for Europe’s big competition.
The evidence so far suggests that any major drop in performance will now be fatal because several clubs are demonstrating consistency, strength of purpose, good management and the ambition to challenge the status quo. Step forward Everton, Bolton and Middlesborough who all have relatively youthful , hungry and talented managers who aren’t afraid to aim high and who see their clubs as a stepping stone to prove they can take on one of the really big appointments.
Bolton and Middlesborough are both clubs that have made steady progress in recent seasons. The first priority for both Sam Allardyce and Steve McLaren was to produce teams that are hard to beat; that target achieved both have now moved on to add quality players and try to force a route to Europe via cups or a fifth place League finish. Boro pipped Wanderers to the Carling Cup but both have come into this season combining solid defence and grafting displays with the option to play good football in the right circumstances.
Everton are from a different mould as everyone expected a season of struggle with Rooney gone. That very lack of expectation has allowed David Moyes to make best use of his resources; his squad contains solid defenders in Stubbs and Weir , combined with hard working midfielders like Carsley, Cahill and the tough as teak Gravesen and he’s put these hardened pros onto the park to stop the opposition and try to sneak a goal. Unlike at Spurs and Birmingham the fans are so happy not to be in relegation trouble no one gives him stick for this limited approach.
Although the season is only 13 games in there’s already enough evidence to suggest that one of these three could finish in the top four. Its unlikely that all three will run out of steam as the matches progress and while Manchester United should be able to right the ship, the future at Anfield and St James seems uncertain and far too dependant on the right buys in January.