Football Soccer - Arsenal v Manchester City - Barclays Premier League - Emirates Stadium - 21/12/15
Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne in action with Arsenal's Per Mertesacker
Reuters / Dylan Martinez
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19 down, 19 remaining

As we enter 2016, we’ve just passed the half way point in the premier league season. 19 games have come and gone, and we really are no closer to seeing who will top the pile in May!

It’s Arsenal who head into 2016 as top dog, but only just! They lead the way on goal difference from the ever resilient Leicester City side, who simply refuse to leave their shock position at the top. Waiting in the shadows of the 2 leaders, are the inconsistent favorites, Manchester City. A team which really should be on top, are 3 points of the pace. The chasing pack includes Spurs, and at a further stretch, United & Liverpool.

For the Gunners, they are now placed well to make a full charge at their first title since 2004. They will need to reinforce well during the transfer window,  as tough trips away to Liverpool & Stoke await this month. If they come out on top as we move into February, the dream may well become reality.

Leicester City negotiated a tricky xmas period, which saw them face Chelsea, Liverpool & City. Points were dropped, as would be expected, but they still find themselves close to the summit. With only a single loss this season (which was to leaders Arsenal) there is no reason why the top 4 cannot be achieved. Could they make a dramatic run to the crown? If they are, then the fitness of the Mahrez-Vardy axis will be of utmost importance.

The pre-season favorites Manchester City have found it difficult, while on paper, the team looks like it should canter to the title, in action, it’s simply not the case. Their shocking away form has seen them lose valuable ground to rivals, trips to Arsenal & Leicester has seen a return of just 1 solitary point. Losing Kompany for large patches of this season has seen a nervous defensive line up, which several teams have already taken advantage off. The City attack is never in doubt, but it appears the defense will decide their Premier League fate. They are still most peoples favorites to win the title, but this will be an important month, to sort of their away form, and solidify their weak defense.

Several other teams are still in the mix, Spurs will fancy their chances at their best attempt to finish at-least in the top 3. Pochettino has done an excellent job, and they only find themselves 4 points behind. If they want to make a serious assault at the crown, they must get some support up front, with Harry Kane their only legitimate option in strike. It’s been a frankly disappointing season for both Manchester United & Liverpool for various reasons, and they are both 9 points off the top. For either team to make decent challenge, they will require a dramatic change in form.

Arsenal & City will both fancy their chances of being Champions of England, come the summer sunshine in May. But don’t rule out a potential fairy tale ending, with Leicester City gatecrashing the top 4 party!

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Cherries Conquer Champions

It took 77 home league matches for Jose Mourinho to suffer his first defeat at the Bridge, so far this season, they have already lost 4 times. This time around, it could be the most damaging. Bournemouth, in their first season in the top flight went to the home of the Champions are went back to the South coast with the points. For Chelsea, it’s been the same story. A lacklustre attack and their leaky defence have once again contributed to another awful result. Bournemouth took the chance they had, albeit with a marginal offside decision, and firmly held back a blunt Chelsea attack, recording probably the biggest win in the clubs history. It’s a big game next for Chelsea, who travel to table toppers Leicester City. Could it be the former Chelsea manager Ranieiri, who inflicts the fatal blow to Mourinho’s stay next week?

The Foxes comfortably put aside a floundering Swansea City, who look to be in free-fall. For once, it was not Vardy with the headlines. His fine scoring streak has finally come to an end, but a Riyad Mahrez hat-trick capped a fine performance.

It was a mixed weekend for the chasing pack. Arsenal managed to end a horrible run of results, which has seen them pick up 2 points from 9, and seeing several key players ruled out with injury. Sunderland were dogged, but the Gunners just edged it on the day, and now sit in 2nd. Both Manchester clubs had disappointing results. City were rightly punished by a blistering Stoke City side, losing 2-0, and it could have been more! City were just not at the races this week. United did not fare much better, another 0-0 draw at home, this time, West Ham the side holding resilient. The Hammers with another outstanding away performance at a big club.

Liverpool & Spurs, who are looking to sneak into the Top 4, also suffered this weekend. Spurs could not break down a tough WBA team, being held 1-1 at the Hawthorns. Liverpool’s recent bright run was halted in shocking fashion. With a stunning loss away to struggling Newcastle, Georginio Wijnaldum the star with an inspired match to record a much needed win for Steve McLaren.

Watford’s excellent start to the season continues, with another win against Norwich, taking them up to 9th. The Canaries could not replicate their display against Arsenal last week, and were simply out-muscled by the Watford strike duo Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo. Both of whom adding another goal to their tally. It’s been a mundane season so far for Southampton, sitting firmly in mid-table. It was once again another average showing for the Saints, who were saved any blushes against rock bottom Aston Villa by a late goal from Oriol Romeu.

There is still one more match this week, the Monday night game at Goodison Park, where Everton host the impressive Crystal Palace. It should be an interesting game for the neutrals!

 

 

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Far From Over

As we move into the final round of games, only Manchester City have sealed their place in the final 16 of the Champions League, and can somewhat relax. For the rest of the English clubs, it’s still far from over.

Arsenal have the biggest task on their hands. After a miserable opening 2 games, which saw them take zero points. They now find themselves in a winner takes all duel with Olympiacos. In order for the Gunners to avoid the drop in the Europa League, they must beat the Greek side by 2 clear goals. The last 3 visits to Athens has seen the Gunners lose on all occasions, but on previous visits, it was a dead rubber. Arsenal could easily obtain the 2 goal margin of victory required for progression, but as they have already shown several times this season, they could just as likely lose 3-0. They will provide the most interest to watching neutrals!

Manchester United also head into their final game looking for a victory to move into the next phase. United, PSV and Wolfsburg could still all qualify, setting up a tasty finale. United fly to Germany to take on the German side. On paper, it is a simple task, win, and they go through. In reality, it wont be as easy. United have already lost at PSV, and Wolfsburg are a side to be taken seriously. A draw would not be the end of the road for LvG, but a PSV win at bottom placed CSKA Moscow would prove fatal to their chances. Though it’s an easier task than the one Arsenal will have to face.

Jose Mourinho is still not certain to feature in the knockout rounds either. Chelsea find themselves top on 10 points, along with Porto. Who they will face in the final match. Porto won the fixture earlier in the group stage at the Estádio do Dragão. Though it will be a tougher task for Porto to take the 3 points at the Bridge. Dynamo Kiev will most certainly win their game against Tel Aviv, who are rock bottom on zero points. A draw between Chelsea & Porto, combined with a Kiev win would see all teams tied on 11 points, and then it could get very messy!

The group phases of the Champions League is usually much derided, it’s usually predictable, and seen as a money maker. But this year, especially for the English clubs, it could prove to be a defining moment for their season!

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Leicester Light It Up

In a weekend that saw both Manchester City & Arsenal fail to score any points, it was an opportunity for the chasing pack to overhaul the early season pace setters.

While Manchester United took advantage of their rivals slipping up, with a narrow last gasp victory at Watford, it’s Leicester who currently reside in top spot!

It’s an impressive feat, regardless of how long they may enjoy that spot. With blockbuster teams like the Manchester Clubs & Arsenal snooping around top spot. No one would have guessed the Foxes would be in front.

All the headlines will be about Jamie Vardy, who is on a ridiculous scoring streak, which has seen the striker net in 10 games in succession, matching the record held by Ruud Van Nistelrooy. He also tops the scoring charts, ahead of names such as Sergio Aguero & Alexis Sanchez.

Though it’s not just the Vardy factor. Ranieiri has gotten the whole team to play some explosive football. This has been typified by the dynamic Algerian attacker, Riyad Mahrez . Not only has he found the net 8 times, but he has contributed 6 assists (with only Mesut Ozil ahead in terms of assists).

What has stood out this season is the sheer audacity of Leicester to play attacking football. Their defence is anything but tight. They have conceded 20 goals. City, United and Arsenal have conceded 13,9 & 11 respectively. They may be conceding loads, but they are making it up with their attack, ”you score 2, we’ll score 3” is their current mentality. Leicester have shown great mental strength on several occasions, recovering from a deficit to take points. Of the last 10 games, they have only lost once, to Arsenal. A game in which they attempted to go head to head with the Gunners, though they lost, their style of play did not once ease up.

There may be whispers of a shock Leicester title win, that is clearly a far fetched dream. To maintain this level of attacking vigour over 38 games is something only the most well equipped teams can do. Top 4 may even be a stretch, come May. But right now, let’s just enjoy a team other than the ‘Big 4’ on top. Let’s see how far they can take this magical run!

 

 

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The Quarterly Report

With 11 games knocked off the fixture list, we are just past a quarter of the way through the season, and already, the league table is starting to shape up with intriguing story lines.

Let’s start at the top, with the fight for the title. Defending champions Chelsea look to be well and truly out of the race. Lying in 15th, with a daunting 14 point gap to the summit. Jose Mourinho looks to have imploded, and the fallout has been spectacular. It’s Manchester City & Arsenal who are the early frontrunners, with Arsenal on a current hot 5 match win streak. City were always going to be around the top, but Arsenal seem to have found a new resolve, helping them keep pace. Manchester United are close behind, though they will really need to turn it up if they are to mount a serious challenge after a string of turgid results.

With Chelsea’s demise, the possibility of gate-crashing the Top 4 is most certainly there. Liverpool will be looking to pounce, after a meek start to the season, they will hope the Klopp factor can take them back into Europe’s elite. Spurs will want to make the most of the opportunity to also make a dash for that 4th spot. With the North London club slowly gaining traction as the season has started to settle.

The biggest surprises so far this season have been a splendid Leicester City and the upset specialists West Ham. Under Claudio Ranieri, Leicester have been a breathe of fresh air, their gung ho attacking spirit has lit up the season, with both Jamie Vardy and Mahrez up near the top of the goalscoring charts. They currently find themselves in 3rd, it wont last, but Leicester fans have all the right to enjoy their current blistering form. West Ham are also aiming high, they have had a simply sensational away record this season. Taking 3 points from The Emirates, Anfield and The Etihad. Along with a victory against Chelsea at Upton Park. Though losses to the likes of Bournemouth and Watford still show the terrible inconsistency of the side.

Focussing our attention to the other end of the spectrum, and the dreaded drop. Out of the 3 promoted clubs, it’s Quique Sánchez Flores’s Watford who look the most impressive. Sitting cosy in mid table. Its been tougher for both Bournemouth and Norwich, who are sitting close to the trap door. Bournemouth have been especially unlucky, losing key players to season ending injuries, It will be a challenge for them to survive all season.

Some teams are already looking like they will be fighting the plunge into the Championship all season. Both North-West clubs look in shambles. Sunderland have already replaced their manager, and Newcastle are stuttering just like they were late last season. Villa prop up the table (as we speak!), with only 1 win all season, and Tim Sherwood removed from the top seat, things look uncomfortable for the Villans.

As the season takes its course, the Xmas period will determine what the table will start to look like come 2016. It’s still a long way to go, but the sub-plots are already starting to sprout!

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A Sterling Weekend……..

It was a comfortable weekend for the so called Top 4. Arsenal, City, United and Chelsea all recorded wins. The first time this season that has occurred.

Frontrunners Manchester City had to deal with a bruising international break, losing top scorer Sergio Aguero and playmaker maestro David SIlva to injury.  This meant that others now had to step up, and both Wilfried Bony and Raheem Sterling duly obliged. Sterling bagging his first senior hat-trick, and Bony scoring a brace to crush Bournemouth 5-1 at the Etihad.

Arsenal find themselves second, chasing City after their impressive victory against United in the previous game week. That would mean nothing had the Gunners stumbled against newly promoted Watford. After a tough first half, goals from Sanchez, Giroud and Ramsey meant that the Gunners keep up the pace with City.

United were looking for a rapid response to their horror show at the Emirates. They were up against an Everton team who may have had other things on their mind, having to deal with the news of the death of former manager Howard Kendall earlier in the day. This showed as United ran out a comfortable 3-0 victory. They are level with Arsenal in the chasing pack.

Its been a shocking season for Chelsea, and they were up against another manager under huge pressure, Tim Sherwood and his Aston Villa team. Chelsea were not at their best again, but Villa were feeling generous. A rash Guzan clearance was pounced upon by Willian, allowing Costa with the simplest of finishes. It didn’t get any better for Villa, when an own goal sealed the points for Chelsea.  Villa are now under immense scrutiny, a long season awaits for them.

Away from the Big 4, the biggest fixture of the week was the debut of new Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp. He would have liked an easier fixture to open with. Tottenham have proved to be a dangerous team, having put 4 past City recently. Klopp would have taken a point before hand, and that was the case. Neither team could find the breakthrough, and it ended up a 0-0 stalemate.

Newcastle suffered an embarrassing defeat last time around, conceding 6 to a rampant City side. They made amends for that, firing 6 past Norwich City, thanks to 4 goals from Wijnaldum. Newcastle finally recording that first win of their season, and managing to lift themselves off the foot of the table. To make things better, their local rivals Sunderland now find themselves rooted at the bottom. Sam Allardyce finds himself back in the hot seat, this time at the Stadium of Light. In a tightly fought contest at the Hawthorns, it was the home side that emerged victorious. Allardyce would not have been best pleased with keeper Pantilimon, whose shoddy handling allowed Saido Berahino to put away the dropped ball into the net.

Jamie Vardy continued his sensational start to the season, adding another 2 goals to his name. A rousing second half display salvaged a point at St Mary’s, after Southampton had taken a 2-0 lead in the first half. West Ham continue to impress, this week managing to beat the lively Crystal Palace team at Selhurst Park. It seemed like Palace would hold on to a point, after being reduced to 10 men and having valiantly held on to a 1-1 score line heading into the dying embers of the game. But two rapid goals from Lanzini and Payet late on took all 3 points back over the river.

Swansea City host Stoke in the Monday night match, to cap off this week. The fixtures for next week already look delicious. At the top of the table, its the Manchester Derby at Old Trafford. While its the fight to avoid bottom place in the Tyne-Wear derby in the North East!

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Who Will Join England?

Qualification for next Summer’s Euro 2016 tournament in France will end during this International Break, several other of the home nations & Ireland will be looking to join England for the party next year!

For England, it has been a very cosy road to France, played 8, won 8, scored 26. The only team with a 100% qualifying record during this phase. As with England though, a serene qualification does not always equate to a comfortable tournament! We shall see if they can preform when the time comes.

Due to the expansion of the tournament to 24 teams, the chances of the other home nations to join England next summer have risen. Now the top 2 in the group will go through automatically, with a play-off for the 3rd placed teams (though the best 3rd placed team will also directly go into the Finals)

Wales have been in excellent form as of late, and has seen them rise up to 8th in the FIFA rankings. Wales have not been present at a major tournament since 1958. Surely that dire record will come to an end over the next few days. The Dragons missed out on confirming qualification last time around, a draw against Isreal had to see the home fans put the champagne back on ice. Only a solitary point is needed from games against Bosnia & Herzegovina and Andorra. The champagne should be flowing not too soon!

Northern Ireland last appeared at a major finals at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, and haven’t even featured in the European Championships since their inception in 1960. That record may finally change, as the Green & White Army find themselves top of their group with 2 to play. They have a slightly more tougher job at hand to qualify. Needing 2 points against Greece and Finland. They will be looking for a win at home vs. Greece, to avoid requiring a result in their final game away at Finland.

Scotland and Ireland find themselves together in the same group. and both nations will face a tough task to secure qualification. Bring drawn in the same group as Germany and Poland was always going to make it difficult to get a top 2 finish. That has been the case so far. For the Republic of Ireland, a shot at the top 2 is still possible. Currently laying wait in 3rd but with their final two games against both Germany and Poland, it will be an uphill struggle to finish in the automatic spots. Scotland have the most formidable task. Currently 4th, and with a 4 point gap to 3rd place Ireland, they will hope to recoup at least 4 points from their final 2 games, and hope Ireland get some hammerings to reduce their goal difference.

England have been going on solo trips to these tournaments for the last few occasions, and it would be nice to see some of the neighbours joining in too. Let’s hope for all the best come next week!