Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Race for Premier League title is just champion

It's been an incredible Premier League season so far. Approaching 2014 and the second half of the campaign, Steven Beacom answers some burning questions

Luis Suarez has been in exceptional form for Liverpool so far this season

So, exactly who are the title contenders?

Just eight points separate the top seven teams, but as we prepare to enter the New Year I feel only THREE can win the title. They are Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea.

Manchester United have enjoyed a fine run lately, but are still six points adrift of third placed Chelsea and eight behind leaders Arsenal.

If they were chasing one team, it's possible with United bearing down on them, they could crack, but I can't see the Gunners, City and Chelsea all collapsing.

Brilliant so far, Everton are not title contenders. Rule Spurs out too. And despite playing some stunning football and having the best player in Luis Suarez, Liverpool don't have the squad strength to finish as top dogs.

City and Chelsea most certainly do, while Arsenal continue to defy those of us expecting them to fall away.

Many neutrals would like to see Arsene Wenger's entertaining side crowned champions. When the crunch comes, however, from March to May, that's when the Gunners will fade leaving City and Chelsea to fight it out.

City have numerous high class players, though ultimately their title dream will come down to their fab four; back in form goalkeeper Joe Hart, captain and defensive lynchpin Vincent Kompany, midfield maestro Yaya Toure and striker Sergio Aguero, who in big games is often the difference. Alvaro Negredo is in excellent form, but having the injured Aguero back for the run-in will be vital.

Chelsea, up until Sunday's 2-1 victory over Liverpool, had rarely impressed all season. It is their winning mentality that has kept them in the mix.

Just two points adrift of Arsenal and one behind City, Jose Mourinho will demand his players perform as they did against Liverpool from here on in.

With a resolute defence and Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian such creative forces, they'll run City close.

Signing a prolific striker in the January transfer window is the key to Mourinho's men finishing above the blues from Manchester.

Just how important is Jose Mourinho in all this?

Huge. He's the best manager in the Premier League and tactically as astute as they come. He's been more the Serious One than the Special One this season, but on Sunday versus Liverpool the juices were flowing and the Mourinho of first time around at Stamford Bridge was back with a bang, orchestrating the home fans, dancing on the touchline and coming out with some astonishing comments in his post match interviews.

Referee Howard Webb made several poor decisions during the game including not red carding Samuel Eto'o, who should also have conceded a penalty for a blatant foul on Luis Suarez, but Mourinho went on the offensive calling the Uruguayan a 'diver' and insisting there are too many TV pundits with Liverpool connections.

Deflecting tactics of which Sir Alex Ferguson would have been proud.

Jose has entered the title race. Fun for us all and dangerous for Manchester City.

Who will finish in the top four?

If City, Chelsea and Arsenal will be in the top three... that leaves Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Spurs gunning for that final Champions League spot.

What Everton, with Ross Barkley and Seamus Coleman in particular outstanding, have done since August under new boss Roberto Martinez has been wonderful. To me, they've been the team of the season. Maintaining their fantastic form in the second half of the campaign though will be too much to ask.

Tottenham appear to have stabilised with Tim Sherwood now at the helm. They aren't top four material however, because mentally they are not strong enough, even if there's plenty of talent at White Hart Lane. That means a shoot-out between United and Liverpool in a contest that will have a huge bearing on their respective futures.

If Brendan Rodgers can steer his side to the Champions League they'll have a reasonable chance of keeping Luis Suarez. If not, new contract or not, he'll be on his way and that will be a massive blow to the Reds who, with the Ulsterman Rodgers in charge, have made great strides in the past year.

Making the top four is equally as important for United and their new boss David Moyes, who would come under severe pressure if his side only qualified for the Europa League.

Wayne Rooney has been the one consistent shining light since Moyes was appointed. Robin van Persie needs to shake off his niggly injuries and join the party.

United's experience and proven ability to get the job done means they are favourites, but the January transfer window will prove decisive.

Moyes must do better than he did in the summer when only Marouane Fellaini arrived.

One year ago, Rodgers brought Daniel Sturridge and Coutinho to Anfield. If successful in landing two more gems like that, Liverpool could be celebrating a significant victory over their fierce rivals.

Who will be relegated?

There's just seven points between Swansea in 11th and bottom club Sunderland. Andy Carroll should return in time to save West Ham while Tony Pulis has injected enough belief into the Crystal Palace players to keep them safe. Surely WBA, Fulham, Stoke, Swansea and Aston Villa are too good to go down which leaves three from the bottom half... Norwich, Cardiff and Sunderland. I can see Hull City, in 10th at present, being dragged into the mix too but come August it'll be the Canaries, Bluebirds and Black Cats in the Championship.

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