Home and Away

Just like old times as open season falls on unpredictable Premier League race

No longer a two-horse race, fans can enjoy a measure of fickleness as a host of teams stake claims at an early stage of the campaign

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 9:51pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 9:51pm

November is traditionally the time the British hunting set dust off their 12-bores and head to the sodden fields to blast unsuspecting beasts for the pot.

Never mind the pheasants, open season has been declared on a superior quality of game found within EPL stadiums.

Manchester United's 1-0 victory over leaders Arsenal last week together with the surprise draws and losses against lowly opposition for Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool, have blown what was left of the natural order to smithereens.

We usually bemoan England national team interruptions, but this weekend is a welcomed breather from the thrills, spills and mania of the unpredictable 2013-14 title race.

We hope the uncertainty continues and the scramble for dominance lasts until mid-May
Peter Simpson

A third of the way through the campaign and just six points separate the top eight teams - and the only thing we can be sure about is that we have not a clue as to what will happen next.

Mid-table clubs and battling basement sides have been landing left hooks to give the big boys bloody noses and embarrassing shiners. While some put these David-spanking-Goliath bouts down to falling standards at the affluent, talent-packed powerhouses, credit must go by the spittoon-load to the bantamweights punching above their weight.

They are scoring important rounds and have handed back to fans a longed-for adrenaline rush caused by that rare EPL commodity - unpredictability.

It is still too early to tell if this season will revert to the formulaic two-horse race. But we hope the uncertainty continues and the scramble for dominance lasts through until mid-May. The top eight teams appear finely balanced, each possessing an Achilles' heel to counter their strengths. All could win the title and all can lose it over the next five games.

Liverpool and Arsenal are desperate to claim the crown, more so the Merseysiders who have not won the title for 23 years. But there are reasons to be cheerful at Anfield with marksmen - Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge - regularly on target and Simon Mignolet solid in goal.

But though manager Brendan Rodgers has assembled a squad that appear united, they lack the depth to sustain a long campaign. An injury to Suarez, or worse, his departure, could prove catastrophic.

Arsenal have not won the Premier League for nine years, but instead of chasing a runaway pack they lead the herd despite injuries to key players. Though they tend to improve in the second half, the Gunners' upfront firepower is fragile. Should Olivier Giroud limp off with a serious knock the muzzle would be silenced. Another world-class striker is needed come January to be battle ready for the run-in.

Are third-placed Southampton serious title contenders? Really? This column spends most of its disposable income on a St Mary's season ticket and money well spent it is, too. But even Saints fans in their wildest dreams do not believe the EPL crown can be ours. Even European nights might prove a top-five finish too far.

Over the past decade, Birmingham City, Bolton Wanderers, Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers have all sat in the top four at this point in the season, only to tumble when the going got tough. Still, the Saints have a defensive and home-game record to die for and the young homegrown talent has been augmented by the arrivals of Dejan Lovren, Victor Wanyama and Dani Osvaldo.

The next five matches away to Arsenal then Chelsea and then home to Aston Villa , Manchester City and Newcastle United will write the script.

Fourth-placed Chelsea appeared to have been undone by having too much talent, a paradox not even Jose Mourinho can afford. He has so many creative options he appears unsure of his best team and this is manna for the opposition. Any club in the land would want Fernando Torres and Samuel Eto'o in their starting XI but many believe another top-class striker is needed if Mourinho is to continue his winning ways.

Life after Alex Ferguson was bound to be difficult, but reigning champions Manchester United too often resemble nervous impala on the predator-infested savannah. Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie bond ever closer and Adnan Januzaj offers more teeth to bare. But options - especially on the flanks - remain limited, with Nani, Ashley Young and Shinji Kagawa losing their sparkle. Manager David Moyes is right to be cautious as he feels his way into his role. But there's a difference between guarded wisdom and timidity. A therapeutic January shopping spree will soothe the anxiety.

Roberto Martínez's fifth-placed Everton might be an outside bet as top dogs but they remain unbeaten at fortress Goodison Park and have no European distractions. The squad, armed with goal machine Romelu Lukaku and backed by stabilising midfielders Gareth Barry and James McCarthy, are more than capable of a top four or above finish - more so with £27.5 million (HK$342 million) still in the bank from Marouane Fellaini's departure to United.

Manchester City would be riding high if it were not for their woeful defence that blights their goal tally, which is the best in the division. The damage from Vincent Kompany's absence and the dip in Joe Hart's form has been costly. A winning streak over their next five matches against Spurs, Swansea, West Brom, Southampton and Arsenal will of course remedy all, and if there is one team capable of blowing away the field, then it is Pellegrini's all-stars.

And then there is Tottenham, who along with Manchester City and Chelsea count among the EPL's big spenders. Combined, the trio spent £250 million in the summer, but Spurs are suffering most from their gluttony.

Gareth Bale's exit has left a glaring hole and Spurs have the worst conversion rate of any top-flight team, scoring six goals from 89 shots, a 5.7 per cent strike rate. New signings are taking too long to bed in and with City, United, Fulham, a resurgent Sunderland and Liverpool on the to-do list, it is now or never for Andre Villa-Boas' team.

But nothing is absolute - and like the game birds under fire in the fields, now is not the time to blink.