19 games gone and 2015 almost at an end. A good time to review those predictions and speculate a little about the second half of the season.
Well, in August I was finding it hard to see beyond Chelsea for the title unless the cracks started to appear. I fancied they might, but with no great confidence. Did I say cracks? More like a bloody great earthquake as it turned out! At the half way point they lie 14th in the division, only three points off the relegation zone. And the great manager, the imperious Jose Mourinho, has been sacked. What odds would you have got on that at the beginning of the season?
It is a remarkable implosion. You could now look back at the second half of last season and detect signs of the rot setting in. But that would be hindsight at its most brazen. The fact is that no-one expected pretty much every part of the Chelsea team to misfire, and Jose, under an unusual type of pressure for him, react by starting to blame his players in public. There’s only one outcome when that starts to happen. Lose the fabled dressing room and sooner or later, you’ll get that call from the Chairman.
I think there has been a bit more going on at Chelsea. The disgraceful episode when Mourinho attacked in public and then eased out the club doctor, Eva Carniero, for coming on to treat Eden Hazard late in a game when Mourinho was still worried about the result, lit a slow burning fuse which eventually exploded in Jose’s face. It was first and foremost a poor example of football’s attitude to women. It disregarded the doctor’s duties. It fractured some relationships with the players. And, maybe, most important from Chelsea’s point of view, it threatened an employment tribunal case in which all the dirty linen would be exposed. My suspicion is that the club was happy to get rid of Mourinho to allow a more amicable settlement of the dispute with Dr Carneiro, or to remove the pressure of having to protect the manager in a court case. This way, the club’s reputation is less likely to suffer damage.
I’m sure Chelsea will claw their way back up the league under Dutchman Gus Hiddink (for the second time). Top four is probably not on. But there is always the Champions League. Put your money on them now!
In my predictions, I suggested Arsenal were in with a shout if Chelsea cracked. I know I try to find a way to imagine Arsenal winning the title every year. West Ham are my team, but until they look capable of mounting a serious title challenge, Arsenal are my team for the top. They’ve done pretty well so far. They are top as we go into 2016, though only on goal difference. Being Arsenal there have been injuries and iffy performances – the latest the 4-0 reverse at Southampton on Boxing Day. In the Champions League they lost games that should have been easy, sneaked through their group at the end and as a reward for their under-performance, will have to play Barcelona in the last 16. Arsenal’s defence against Neymar-Messi-Suarez? Not optimistic.
But the Premier League is there for the taking. No dominant team. Mesut Ozil on fire – best player in the league this season. Ramsey and Walcott back from injury and doing well. Giroud on a goal streak. Cech solving the goalkeeper problem. Koscielny showing he is now one of the best centre backs around. Sanchez injured – and tired after the Copa America this summer – but back soon. Just buy that quality defensive midfielder in the window Arsene!
In my predictions I quite fancied Man Utd to do well. They have been unexciting and recently pretty poor. Early on they were winning despite being not that impressive. There is now a lot of pressure on manager Louis van Gaal. The fans don’t like his possession-based football. I’m not sure there’s that much wrong that an in-form Wayne Rooney and a bit more confidence all round couldn’t solve. There’s quality in the team. Maybe a bit more pace would help. I still think they’ll manage top four, but winning the title is beyond them.
Will van Gaal be sacked? I think it would be a mistake. But Jose Mourinho is available…
I didn’t fancy Man City this season. Felt like Pellegrini’s last season before Guardiola comes over from Bayern Munich. This despite two very pricey purchases in Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne. City started well though, and it looked like they would get out of sight of the rest before they even got going. But City then faltered, partly – maybe largely – because of the injuries to Aguero, Silva and Kompany. Without those three, they lack the same solidity, creativity and incisiveness. Who wouldn’t suffer? There have been some flakey performances. But still, at half way they are only three points off the top position. If they get their act together they could still win it – and even quite easily.
So none of the current “Big Four” have had all guns firing. And some have been turning them in on themselves. That has left a gap for someone else to fill…
Step forward Leicester!
This is the most remarkable story of the season.
Last season Leicester escaped relegation with a run of late victories. Most pundits thought they’d go down this season. So did I. But no, under Italian manager Claudio Ranieri – Chelsea’s ex-“Tinker Man” – they have been brilliant. Playing fast, well-organised and direct football, they have taken on all-comers and won most times. At the half way mark they share a points lead with Arsenal – the latter have a better goal difference. The two major stars have been striker Jamie Vardy, who was playing the lower leagues until two or three years ago, and Algerian midfielder Riyad Mahrez. But the whole team has been outstanding – you can’t be top at Christmas relying on just two players.
Inevitably, for us old-timers, thoughts turn to Nottingham Forest in the 1980s. Up from the second division, they won the First Division title – as it was then known – at first attempt, and then two European Cups in successive years. Maybe the greatest managerial achievement ever. Brian Clough, no less!
Can Ranieri emulate Cloughie? I think probably not. I’m not sure Leicester have the depth in their squad to sustain a 38 game campaign and end up top. They have been lucky with injuties so far – it may not continue. I think top four is a real prospect, but even that will take mental fortitude if and when things start to go a bit wrong, as they usually do for all teams at some point. Still, a Champions League place at the end of the season would be an amazing achievement.
I wasn’t too sure about Liverpool at the beginning of the season and I’m still not. They faltered under Brendan Rodgers and he lost hios job. They did well to get German, Jurgen Klopp. At first he energised them and they looked like contenders. Then they hit a run of poor form. My guess is that this will be a season of consolidation and he’ll have them going for the title next year.
The team that may yet challenge Arsenal and Man City for the title this season is Tottenham. I dismissed them at the start of the season. I take that back now. Mauricio Pochettino is building an exciting young team – a mix of English and foreign players – that is getting serious results in difficult games. They play a modern pressing game, but have pace and flair, and striker Harry Kane is back on form after a barren start to the season. They are fourth, only four points behind Arsenal and Leicester. It’s possible to imagine the title coming down to a battle between the North London rivals, Arsenal and Spurs. That would be great, but I think Man City will have something to say about that.
So, what about the happy Hammers? Well, I’ve been pretty pleased with the season so far. We are 7th at half way, though sharing the same points with Crystal Palace and Watford – two other success stories this season. Early on we beat Arsenal, Man City and Liverpool away from home – all exceptionally rare events! And we beat Chelsea at Upton Park – another unusual occurrence in recent years. Slaven Bilic is proving to be a great manager – honest and erudite. The team is playing football that is so much better than in recent years. We’ve stuttered recently because of a raft of injuries to key players – notably Payet, Lanzini, Moses, Sakho and Reid – but the team has hung on in there, getting draws; and the win against Southampton on 28 December was a big boost. The star has been Dmitri Payet, a French midfielder we bought from Marseille. He was one of the best players in the Premier League until he got injured. Skilful, creative, hard-working, he’s had it all. He’s due back for our next game, against Liverpool, so I’m becoming more optimistic again. Top six this year is a possibility.
So, predictions for the title. Arsenal to win, City second, Tottenham third, Leicester fourth. West Ham sixth. Fifth, who knows! Probably Man Utd.
That means the Irons have to come above Liverpool, Everton, Palace, Watford, Stoke, who are all in the same zone at the moment. A big ask.