Tuesday, 28 September 2010
Title contenders' failings hint at close finish
The new kings of English football? Not quite yet, but they do now at least feature in the discussion. Having put a halt to the Chelsea juggernaut on Saturday, Manchester City will undoubtedly be the happiest of the Premier League contenders. City fans will quite rightly consider their team's excellent recent record against the champions as proof that, thanks to some hefty investment, they now boast a side which can compete and win at the highest level. The nature of the win, however, prompted as many long-term questions as it provided short-term answers. First and foremost, whilst the safety-first setup of Mancini's side got the job done against the champions, there are already some indications, notably in the Citizens' home draw with Blackburn and away defeat to Sunderland, that the Italian's pragmatism may be misguided against the less well-resourced and ambitious sides of the Premier League. His favoured 4-2-3-1 places great reliance on new City captain Carlos Tevez, and whilst the diminutive Argentine has a phenomenal recent scoring record of 24 goals in his last 29 games, it is difficult to see where the goals are coming from on a rare occasion that he doesn't deliver. Of course, if his side do need a goal, Mancini does have reserves of formidable quality in Emmanuel Adebayor, Mario Balotelli and Roque Santa Cruz. But these big names and bigger reputations are not likely to be content with a role as impact substitutes, and an unhappy dressing room is rarely conducive to success on the pitch.
Prior to their defeat at Eastlands, Chelsea's spectacular start to the season had been the subject of a torrent of hyperbole from the media, with a few overly-eager souls even suggesting that the Blues might emulate Arsenal's 'Invincibles' of the 2003/4 season and go the entire league season unbeaten. In such an atmosphere, it would be easy for even a top side to become caught up in the hype. Consequently, a week consisting of a shock exit from the Carling Cup and a defeat at the hands of the 'new power' in English football may prove to be just the antidote for dangerous notions such as a quadruple trophy haul. And thanks to the failings of the chasing pack, the reality check has only cost a point. Chelsea will justifiably be disappointed with defeat in Manchester, but they still boast a points tally and goal difference that is the envy of the Premier League, and will rightly be confident in their own ability to maintain their position at the top of the pile. But the recent setbacks have also exposed a worrying lack of depth in the Chelsea squad. The creativity of the injured Frank Lampard was badly missed against Manchester City, and the introduction of Daniel Sturridge for Didier Drogba at Eastlands didn't exactly strike fear into the hearts of the home defenders. The Blues bench appears to consist of youthful promise rather than trusted experience, and consequently there are doubts over Carlo Ancelotti's ability to change a game if it isn't going the way of his side. Such limitations could prove particularly costly against top level opposition, and the next big test is Arsenal on Sunday.
Last weekend's Premier League action has left Sir Alex Ferguson with much to ponder. Six games into the new season and his are the only side in the division still unbeaten, but are three points behind leaders Chelsea after their third consecutive draw away from home. Conceding soft goals has become a recurring motif in the story of United's travels this term, with the Red Devils' defence undoubtedly suffering as a result of Rio Ferdinand's persistent injury problems. This new-found defensive frailty has resulted in extremely uncharacteristic collapses from winning positions against Fulham and Everton, as well as a laboured draw against Bolton last Sunday, and correcting these errors will surely be at the forefront of Sir Alex's thoughts. But as several below-par performances this season have already shown, United's problems are not limited merely to their defence. Much has been made of the early season form of the seemingly evergreen Paul Scholes, but at 36, he will not be able to maintain such good form over the course of an entire campaign, and will have to be used sparingly for maximum effect. In his absence, United look worryingly short of creativity and vision in the centre of midfield - something which could prove particularly costly against defensive minded teams. In attack, it appears - in one of the most surprising turn of events this season - that United are currently over-reliant on the brilliance of Dimitar Berbatov. Wayne Rooney's post World Cup/post injury hangover has been enhanced by tabloid revelations concerning his private life, and it is likely to be some time before he is back to his all-conquering best. In the meantime, Ferguson will hope that these problems do not cost him any more points in his pursuit of Chelsea and a 19th Premier League title.
Oh dear. Things had started so well for Arsenal this season. After beginning their campaign with a solid point at Anfield, and with the imperious Cesc Fabregas and unflappable Jack Wilshere pulling the strings, the Gunners hit a bewildered Blackpool for six, put four past Bolton and even managed an 'ugly' win away at Blackburn, encouraging some to suggest that this might finally be the year that Arsene Wenger's crowd-pleasing side started collecting trophies as well as admirers. But in the past couple of weeks, the old failings have begun to emerge. Away against Sunderland, Arsenal took the lead but, like so many times before, failed to put their determined hosts to the sword, and Darren Bent's injury time penalty ensured that the Gunners were duly punished for their profligacy. Against West Brom last weekend, the arguments against Arsenal's title credentials were there for all to see. A below-par performance was exacerbated by a complete lack of leadership in the face of adversity (although Samir Nasri tried his best) and uncommitted defending, not to mention some truly awful goalkeeping. Arsenal lack a top class shot-stopper, a defensive organiser, a midfield enforcer and a world-class striker. It is no coincidence that the two best teams in the country, Chelsea and Manchester United, can both supply ticks next to all of the positions described above. Arsenal cannot hope to compete with them on a consistent basis without such additions. The clash with Chelsea this Sunday is now crucial. Another defeat would be a significant - if not quite fatal - blow to the Gunner's title hopes.
With a hard-fought victory at Eastlands, Manchester City have given the lie to manager Roberto Mancini's claims that Chelsea will 'easily' retain their Premier League crown. On a weekend of surprises, the performances of each of the title contenders have raised questions about their credentials, and none of them will have much room for error if they are to succeed in their quest for glory.
NOTE: Liverpool and Tottenham have not been given coverage in this post as I do not consider them to have a realistic chance of winning the title. Especially Liverpool. The four sides listed above must be regarded as the main contenders, although Manchester City's win over Chelsea has done nothing to weaken my initial conviction that the title will ultimately be heading to either Stamford Bridge or Old Trafford. That said, it is likely that City, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool will all have a large say in which of the two is eventually crowned champions.