We’ve gone beyond halfway in the Premier League now and the time has come to start analysing just where the glittering prizes are going to go come season’s end. Leicester City, quite extraordinarily, remain top of the table, three points clear after the weekend and, uniquely among the top five, without any distractions from the FA Cup to concern them having gone out to Spurs.
The Leicester Tester: Can Vardy & Co Win The Premier League?
By Dave Bowler
Everyone, it seems, has brushed off any chance of the Foxes taking the title in the end, but with each passing week, more points are chalked up and none of the usual suspects are looking capable of stringing together the kind of run that will see them charging off into the distance.
The acid test for Claudio Ranieri’s team comes in the next few weeks, a period for which they can prepare with a blank weekend, unlike their competitors. They take on Liverpool at home next Tuesday – Liverpool will have played West Ham in the cup on the Saturday – before travelling to Manchester City and Arsenal on consecutive weekends.
If they come through that spell with at least four points, they must be taken seriously as real title challengers for they then go into a far more benign looking run against Norwich, Albion, Watford and Newcastle.
The biggest threat to Leicester may be Leicester themselves and not simply because their squad is inevitably thinner than those around them or more susceptible to being knocked off course by injury, especially to Vardy, Mahrez or Drinkwater. Currently, they are just playing and enjoying life, still unbowed by any sense of pressure.
But it’s one thing being top after 20 games. If they are still top after those seven fixtures, perhaps with 60 points or more and with just eight games to play, then the scrutiny will come upon them like never before. Will they crack under that strain, or could they just carry on playing? Surely not?
The defining element of that equation might come from beyond the East Midlands, for we are still waiting for one of the big clubs to put together the sort of season defining run that really great clubs do, the way Juventus have reeled off 11 wins in Italy at present.
The twin giants of Manchester have both made an almighty Horlicks of a season where they could and should be running away with it, but both are bedevilled by managerial uncertainty.
United’s is, to an extent, of their own making. Van Gaal has impeccable credentials as a coach but his way is not the traditional United way and he’s a perfect example of a football club’s board not understanding what it is that their supporters demand.
It is destined not to end well and the very fact that we all know that the Dutchman will be on his way sooner rather than later has cast a shadow over United’s season. Their focus must be on qualifying for the Champions League rather than the title.
Manchester City must still be title favourites, although their reliance on Vincent Kompany has been laid bare for all to see this season and should he be missing for a sizeable chunk of what remains, City could struggle to reclaim their crown.
Beyond that, for all that he has been reasonably successful in his spell at City, and could yet carry off the quadruple, Manuel Pellegrini daily labours under a Pep Guardiola shaped cloud, his arrival at the Etihad seemingly inevitable once he has ended his stint at Bayern Munich.
That’s hardly conducive to getting the best out of players, while attacking four competitions at once might prove too much for them. And perhaps the City board would like to tell the world just how it is that they only have Aguero who they can depend on in front of goal, for all their money.
North London might yet reclaim the title, with Spurs having perhaps their best opportunity since the great days of Mackay, Blanchflower and Nicholson over 50 years ago. Mauricio Pochettino has assembled a good squad, has given some highly impressive youth its chance and they are quietly homing in on the top, though their recent defeat to Leicester was deeply damaging on that front.
Again though, Spurs are deeply vulnerable to injury to Harry Kane in particular and if they are serious about grasping this chance to carry off the title, they should be delving into the January transfer market.
Which leaves Arsenal. Gradually, over three or four seasons, they have been piecing together a team worthy of the title. In Ozil they have one of the best players in the league in terrific form, Sanchez can be a magician reminiscent of Suarez, Giroud continues to defy the critics.
Defensively though, they remain just a little too brittle, though the arrival of Cech between the sticks has been hugely significant. So significant that come the end of May, Cech might well be collecting another Premier League medal. But he’s going to have to keep Vardy out in the game against Leicester first.