13 Feb Premier League Review: Run-In Underway as Competition Heats Up at Top and Bottom
Twelve games to go always seems like the start of the run in, and as we ticked through twelve laps and down to eleven to go in our race this weekend we can look at one of the oddest league tables I can remember.
Essentially there are three sides for whom the league table holds almost no interest: Manchester City who transcend it; Arsenal who are now adrift from everything, an island in sixth; and West Bromwich Albion who are crushed by it, surely too far gone now after a cruel weekend of results. That West Brom supporters will pour over the table to find something, anything to hang their hats on, tells the story about what relegation does to a team, but the crux of the matter is that the turnaround needed from only three wins all season looks far too great.
Everywhere else you can throw a blanket over them and that means there are very few meaningless fixtures between now and the end of the season. Nowhere was that more apparent than St James’ Park at the weekend. There were at least three goalmouth scrambles of note through the game with Newcastle United desperate to repel Manchester United and just about managing to do so. It was a performance from Newcastle based upon a sheer need to win and the sudden real opportunity to do so. Manchester United gave Newcastle hope through the game, Matt Ritchie delivered the means to win and the rest of the match was defined by what it meant to hang on to those points. Jonjo Shelvey blamming the ball into the shins of an opponent to waste precious seconds encapsulated the game — not pretty but essential.
As a win goes, it alleviates very little pressure on the home side — they sit in thirteenth but only two points ahead of eighteenth – but it could simultaneously prove vital come May. For their Mancunian counterparts, the defeat cannot be called fatal but it pulled them back into a race for Champions League qualification they looked to have have risen above. United have a Champions League to try and win instead of having to ensure qualification for, and this defeat signposts that they may well not be in quite as good shape to do that as they might like, and that they may struggle to shake off Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.
There were three different wins for the three chasing United. Tottenham crowned an excellent run of games with a 1-0 victory which should have been a 3-0 victory but could have become a 1-1 draw, reminding us the ball is always round. Chelsea simply had to beat West Brom and did so 3-0 without actually convincing anyone of much. Liverpool destroyed Southampton’s will with one backheel and managed to get 45 minutes of nothing much in the second half under their belts. These four sides cannot go into three and the feeling persists that the side that goes furthest in the Champions League may well find it toughest to ensure they remain in it next year.
That Southampton shook hands on 0-2 shows us their arch-pragmatism due to fear of Liverpool on the counter combined with the psychological damage of shipping a daft score at home at this stage of the season. It may well have been the right thing to do – goal difference very much looks like it will prove to be a point at the bottom of the table, but it was no barrel of laughs for their supporters or the millions watching around the world. The table as it is though very much allows them live to fight another day and while they obviously lack cutting edge, they were tidy enough in the first half against The Reds to suggest they can play their way out of trouble.
But you can make a case for them all. Huddersfield won a must-win with aplomb, Steve Mounie reminding us all he is a decent player and may well be able to offer the goals needed. Stoke have solidified and should have won but Brighton appear to be saving their best football for the end of the campaign and scored another lovely goal. Swansea’s late winner feels like it means they have won eight on the bounce but they are actually only a point clear. West Ham won when they had to.
Crystal Palace, shorn of Zaha and in an injury crisis, suddenly look so vulnerable again. In the defeat against Everton Alexander Sorloth looked half-decent but the quality simply wasn’t on show. Palace are right in it. Everton aren’t and their patch of the table is the uncertain one, the one that it could be said no one wants. The race for seventh is the race for a potential Europa League place if the fates decree it. The side that finishes seventh is so rarely equipped for a European tour but the supporters love it.
This season it looks likely to be one of Everton, Burnley and Leicester City. There is the feeling the latter would be most able to remain a coherent football team and navigate the waters. Claude Puel did that with Southampton and while Leicester were destroyed by Manchester City they have looked the best of the rest across the campaign and have the requisite depth. They aren’t the first good side to find the Etihad beyond them and they could well manage the Thursday/Sunday situation well enough to remain reasonably well placed in both.
That’s for next season though. For now these are our three leagues. The current placings in each of those leagues look like grid qualifications for a grand prix with an eleven lap race in the offing. Who do you fancy?