January 11, 2017

The Premier League at the halfway* point

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

With no winter break – quite the opposite, in fact – we didn’t have time to really do a quick recap of the first half of the Premier League season. With games essentially every day from Boxing Day past New Years, we finally get a bit of a breather with only cup games – both EFL and FA – going on the past few days.

While there isn’t a shock team atop the standings like Leicester City a year ago, this season has had its fair share of drama and storylines.

Look no further than one of the world’s premier clubs, Manchester United. With Jose Mourinho in charge, the team got off to a scuffle start and looked doomed to set more dubious club records, like it did under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.

There was a 10-game winless streak and a near crash out of Europa League.

But then, all of the sudden, things started coming together. The Red Devils are now on a nine-game winning streak in all competitions and a 15-game unbeaten run. This is a side that could certainly do some damage in 2017.

Speaking of streaks, you can’t ignore Chelsea’s Premier League-record winning streak of 13 games. The Blues became one of four teams to reach that mark before falling to London rival Tottenham last week.

All it took was a winless October and a switch to a switch to a back three system to kickstart the 2014-15 league winners. Diego Costa has been on fire – and keeping his fiery ways in check – while Eden Hazard has returned to form after seemingly taking a season off.

With reinforcements on the way in the transfer window, it will be hard to unseat Chelsea from the top of the table.

Manchester City has had some growing pains under Pep Guardiola, but have also shown it is capable of some greatness when everything lines up. The title favourite early on, the Sky Blues had to work through a plethora of issues, including suspensions to Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho after a brawl against Chelsea.

You can expect some more roster moves in January, but will Guardiola be able to stabilize his squad and make a run for the top? It remains to be seen.

Tottenham isn’t losing much, but it also isn’t winning enough. The EPL’s last undefeated team have had a few too many draws when it should have gone for victory.

Spurs are one of two teams that haven’t lost at home, another solid statistic. But until it stops settling for draws and pushes the way it did against Chelsea, we can’t see this North London side putting up an honest title challenge.

The other team that has yet to lose at home has a challenge of its own: Defending. Liverpool has made Anfield a fortress once again, but has had an incredible time trying to keep a clean sheet. The defence still leaks goals and even cost the Reds three points after Bournemouth was able to comeback and beat them after being down two in the 76th minute. The attack has been fantastic, but without a solid base to build from in the back, it could all be for naught and certainly damages any hopes of truly challenging Chelsea.

And then there’s Arsenal. It’s the same old story for the Gunners: Loads of talent, but should probably do better. The injury bug has also started to come around and rumours are rampant that both Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez – only their two biggest stars – are unhappy at the Emirates. With the amount of good teams hanging around European spots this season, this could actually be the season that Arsene Wenger finally misses out on Champions League.

As for the defending champions, Leicester City has thrown all its eggs in the Champions League basket and now could be in some trouble. The Foxes are through to the knockout round of the UCL, but are just six points out of a relegation spot in the Premier League.

With Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani both gone for a month at AFCON, this is a very tricky situation for FIFA manager of the year Claudio Raneiri to handle. The Tinkerman has his work cut out for him.

As for the relegation strugglers, three of the four teams at the foot of the table have canned their manager with Swansea actually onto its third gaffer of the season.

Hull City looks hopeless and could even sell its best player, Robert Snodgrass.

The Swans sold their captain, Ashley Williams, didn’t replace him and are for some reason wondering why their defence is awful, allowing 45 goals in 20 games.

Crystal Palace has turned Alan Pardew into Big Sam Allardyce – fresh off his dismissal from the English national team – and will try to long ball its way out of trouble.

Sunderland is the only relegation battler that hasn’t canned its manager, but you can bet that Moyes isn’t feeling too safe these days.

With the transfer window open, cup games still clogging fixture lists and European play starting back up in February, there are still a lot of twists and turns to come in this Premier League season – even if there isn’t a Cinderella story to please the masses.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

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