The Premier League is starting to take shape with over half of the season now having played, and only Southampton are upsetting the monopoly of the division's traditional 'top six' clubs.
Any one of five teams appear capable of landing the coveted fourth spot come the end of the season, while the title race seems to be a battle between only Chelsea and Manchester City.
It was a good weekend for most teams in these top positions, and this is how Chris Muratha rated the recognised biggest six teams in the English top-flight...
Chelsea and Manchester City
‘El Cashico’ went down at the Bridge on Saturday in Gameweek 23’s biggest fixture. The two leading lights of England’s top flight went head to head in west London in
what was billed as potentially a winner-takes-all fixture.
Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea had been on the summit of the Premier League for much of the first half of the season with only Manchester City putting up any form of a fight in an attempt to retain their title.
City’s manager Manuel Pellegrini had spoken of a need for his charges to set aside their recent wayward form and go for the jugular at the Bridge…anything short of three points and the league would be as good as gone.
Five points separated the two sides and most of the pre-match talk centered on City’s capability to close the gap to two points similar to the manner in which a late run in mid November to December wiped out Chelsea’s eight point lead in dramatic fashion.
City simply had to win in Chelsea’s backyard, a feat accomplished by no other league side this campaign. Possible…? Yes, I mean, League Two Bradford City did it the week before after coming from two goals down to pull one of the greatest comebacks in recent times.
Thing is, that was in the FA Cup, the world’s oldest competition, and stranger things have happened in it - City themselves being victims on the very same day falling at the hands of Middlesborough to crash out of the competition.
The elements favoured Pellegrini’s men however. Chelsea had just come out of a pulsating mid-week Capital One Cup second leg semi-final victory over Liverpool that went all the way to extra-time.
Additionally, they would be missing two of the players directly responsible for the lofty league position, Spanish duo Cesc Fabregas and the leading scorer Diego Costa, through injury and suspension respectively.
City however, had personnel problems of their own, still deprived of the services of powerhouse midfielder Yaya Toure who was miles away in the Africa Cup of Nations.
Their record without their talisman was wretched, City haven’t won a single EPL game in his absence and recently lost at home to Arsenal in the last round of matches. An even keel perhaps?
Eventually Chelsea escaped with a draw to keep their lead at the top intact. City played better and had the clearer chances but did not make the most of them.
A Loic Remy strike was swiftly cancelled out by David Silva diverting Sergio Aguero’s effort into the net right before the break. A see-saw second half failed to truly light up as Mourinho sought to hold out and keep what he had. City pushed on for a late winner but could not find one and, as it stands, it's advantage Chelsea.
Chelsea and City grade: C
Manchester United and Liverpool
Manchester United and Liverpool have almost had an exact trading of places since last season. United were languishing in mid-table while Liverpool were in third place at this stage last year.
The Anfield outfit, powered by the brilliant ‘SAS’ partnership of Sturridge and Suarez ended up coming within a whisker of lifting a first Premier League title for the club while their eternal rivals endured a season to forget and finished in seventh under the tumultuous David Moyes era.
Fast-forward and things have changed, albeit not as much as expected. United brought in dutch tactician Louis van Gaal and splashed the cash like it was an hour after payday to sign the likes of Angel di Maria for a British record, Radamel Falcao, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw etc.
This was supposed to be the beginning of the road to recovery, bringing with it league titles and the return to the Champions League. Sounds good doesn’t it?
Well…things haven’t quite gone according to plan. Granted they are in third place but United haven’t yet delivered the champagne football everybody expected and their away record is pathetic to say the least.
There have been some improvements, like their home form for instance and the defence has been a bit more solid but these are still uncertain times for the Old Trafford side. Baby steps still.
Liverpool on the other hand lost their best player to Barcelona, with Luis Suarez leaving in the summer after plundering 31 goals and registering double digit assists. Manager Brendan Rodgers then pulled a Tottenham - after criticising the same team when they sold Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for a world record fee - and reinvesting the money in a bunch of expensive flops.
Rodgers splashed the cash, just like United, bringing in Mario Balotelli (after Rodgers initially said he would never look to sign the Italian), Dejan Lovren, Lazar Markovic, Emre Can, Alberto Moreno, Rickie Lambert etc. What followed was a disastrous first half of the season.
The loss of Daniel Sturridge, second top-scorer last season, up to now did not help matters either. Liverpool were languishing in 11th place at the start of November but a run of great form has seen the rise to eighth - just five points off Manchester United in third.
They pushed Chelsea all the way in their two legged Capital One semi-final and, in all truth, deserved to be in the final. Sturridge had returned for the visit of a West Ham side that had been in unfamiliar territory themselves earlier on the season after their best ever start to a campaign saw them reach as high as third.
They travelled to Anfield in seventh, a point above Liverpool, whom they had beaten
comprehensively at Upton Park. But a resounding 2-0 win ensured Liverpool leapfrogged the east Londoners.
Liverpool won through a sparkling Sterling and a goal-scoring return of Sturridge. Things are looking up for the Anfield side as they chase the coveted fourth spot.
Liverpool grade: A
United welcomed Leicester City to Old Trafford looking to avenge a 5-3 reverse in October. The Red Devils had not hit their stride for much of the campaign, instead being effective rather than effervescent.
The lavishly assembled side still has not hit top form and manager Louis van Gaal has been forced to field questions regarding the lack of goals and spark from his side. A crippling injury list had hampered United early on but an 11 match unbeaten run was brought to a grinding halt in their last home game against surprise package Southampton.
They desperately needed a win here and three goals before halftime courtesy of Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao and a Wes Morgan own goal pretty much sealed it for them. The road to redemption continues.
United grade: B
Tottenham and Arsenal
The two north London rivals faced West Bromwich and Aston Villa respectively. Tottenham travelled to face Tony Pulis’ side on the back of a morale-boosting victory that ensured their passage into the Capital One Cup final.
Manager Mauricio Pochettino had spoken of a need for consistency from his troops and he was absolutely spot on with that assessment. Spurs drubbed Chelsea 5-3 at White Hart Lane in one of the most scintillating performances of the season and then let a lead slip to go down 2-1 ay Crystal Palace a few weeks later.
A silver lining in the season has been the revelation of young Englishman Harry Kane, who has scored 10 goals and assisted two more in 19 Premier League games. He has been their leading light and, if he and Dane Christian Eriksen can maintain the same form as they showed in the 3-0 win away at West Brom, then Tottenham will be in the race for that elusive final Champions League slot.
Tottenham grade: A
Arsenal, after a slow start to the season, have finally found the form that made them lead the league table for most of last season before eventually succumbing to the ‘fourth spot syndrome’ and winning the FA Cup.
The Gunners have climbed from eighth to fifth after a strong winning run, bringing them to within a point of third-placed United.
The man responsible for most of the renaissance has been Chilean Alexis Sanchez. The summer signing from Barcelona turned down Liverpool to move to the Emirates Stadium and has been the fuel that has fired the canon for most of the season.
His 12 goals and seven assists have carried the Gunners through game after game and his overall influence on the side is at galactic levels. His impact has been so phenomenal that an endorsement from living legend, all-time top scorer, Thierry Henry felt overdue.
Henry cited Alexis as the man to finally succeed him and went ahead to issue a challenge to the South American to get his own statue at the club’s grounds.
He was unavailable against an Aston Villa side that could not buy a goal and the inevitable happened. Arsene Wenger had spoken of his team’s spirit being as high as it has ever been in his pre-match programme notes and it was evident as Santi Cazorla inspired Arsenal to a 5-0 drubbing of the sorry Villans.
Mesut Ozil scored for the second game running and his deft, audacious flick to assist Olivier Giroud’s goal was another encouraging sign from the German. Theo Walcott also got on the scoresheet and this will serve as great news for Gunners and England fans. As it stands, the only way for Arsenal is….up.
Arsenal grade: A
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