When defending champions Chelsea, popularly called the Blues, began their 2010-2011 English Premier League campaign in August, few would have bet against the north London football club retaining the title for a second consecutive season. The Blues were in rampaging form under coach Carlo Ancelotti, winning their first five games by such large margins that by mid-September, they had scored 21 goals and conceded just one.
They had also managed to retain most of their Premiership winning squad for the new season, a star-studded line-up featuring Frank Lampard, John Terry, Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, and Michael Essien among others. But by November, Chelsea’s dominance had become a distant memory—a bizarre slump of form pushing them below even the top five in the league standings.
“Chelsea’s problem is that it has too many players past their prime,” says Delhi-based football commentator and analyst Novy Kapadia. “Terry, Lampard, Ashley Cole, Drogba and Anelka all had a torrid time in the World Cup as well, and they are still feeling the aftershock of that.”
With Chelsea’s downfall, Manchester United, or United, leapfrogged to the top with their usual alacrity; neighbours Manchester City put to good use the millions poured into the club by their new owner, Abu Dhabi ruling family member Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed; Arsenal pulled up their socks to get back into the game after an unpromising start to the season, and even London club Tottenham Hotspurs put their best boot forward in the title race. The usual three-club race at the top of the Premiership had turned into an unusually democratic playing field.
“I cannot remember a title race with five teams in it,” Arsenal’s long-serving manager Arsene Wenger told news agency AFP. “(United manager) Alex Ferguson said there were going to be three, now there are five.”
The top five teams began the new year separated by just five points. United lead the table now, but only on goal difference, with City breathing down their neck. How United have remained unbeaten and at the top of the standings is a mystery in itself—on the field they have looked ordinary more often than not. They have had no breakthrough performances in midfield, a struggling defence, and a strike force in flux with the injury-ridden Wayne Rooney often failing to make it to the teamsheet. They just managed to win one match away from home, drawing eight.
Snakes and ladders: Chelsea’s (in blue) loss has been Arsenal’s (in red) gain in the league. Reuters
“I think the title is there for everyone to win or lose,” Ferguson said at a press conference on New Year’s Eve. “It is the nature of this league, in every game or set of games you see a surprise result. You are going to see a lot of these results, it is a tough league.”
United’s lack of dominance and Chelsea’s lack of form opened the gates for the teams which have, for the past six seasons (all won by Chelsea or United), resigned themselves to being also-rans.
City have profited the most from this, and also from the fact that their new signings—an unprecedented £100 million (Rs703 crore) was spent in 2009—have had the chance to gel together as a team for a whole season now. Argentine forward Carlos Tevez, who was one of the high-profile signings (bought from United), has proved invaluable for City this season, scoring 12 goals so far. Only United striker Dimitar Berbatov has scored more with 14. City’s hopes for a title challenge are further buoyed by the fact that they have won seven games since November by more than comfortable margins, lost one narrowly and drawn three, including their high-profile derby clash against United. Their unlimited coffers also mean that they are the only team in the top five willing to spend in the January transfer window, with Wolfsburg striker Edin Dzeko, Bundesliga’s top goalscorer in the 2009-2010 season, their target.
“We have the chance to win the league this year and the decisive factor could be Edin Dzeko,” City’s Italian manager Roberto Mancini told news agency Reuters. “This player can decide titles and that is why we want him.”
Kapadia offers another perspective to the United-City duel: “A lot depends on how far United progress in the Champions League, because the added stress of playing in Europe’s top club competition will take a toll on the players, and Ferguson will have to start rotating his squad. City will have the advantage in this because they are in the Europa League (Europe’s second-rung competition), where the quality and intensity is lower, and Mancini can get away with playing his second string players in those matches.”
Arsenal too have found new hope in the new year after spending five seasons without a single title, and manager Wenger believes the team can put together a lengthy run of victories after their 3-1 thumping of Chelsea in the last week of December.
Scrappy campaign: Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney (in red) has been bogged down by injuries and off-field controversies this season. AP
“It is Arsenal’s title to win. We have to go on a run and be consistent,” Wenger said at a post-match press conference. “The only thing we have learnt from these first six months is that the team which will be the most consistent, with great emotional stamina and resolve, will win it.”
Arsenal’s midfield has performed second to none this season, with Cesc Fabregas threading magical passes, Alex Song orchestrating beautifully between defence and attack, and Samir Nasri providing the finishing edge with nine goals already this season.
“We have always been strong mentally, but we have not been as mature as we are now,” Wenger said. “We have courage, intelligence and talent in the squad. To be capable of putting these three ingredients together in every single game will be decisive.”
The one thing Arsenal are missing is a strong defence—they have already conceded 22 goals this season, six more than City, and four more than United and Chelsea. In the absence of their rock-like central defender Thomas Vermaelen, who was ruled out of the 2010-2011 season with an injury, Wenger has been forced to rely on rookies such as Sebastien Squillacci and Laurent Koscielny in the centre of defence.
“The defence could be Arsenal’s downfall,” says Kapadia. “The midfield is fantastic, the attack has variety, but the defence is just a big hole, and they have no one to plug it.”
While England shivers in the winter chill, the race for the premiership is warming up for a piping hot finish.