Weekend Review: Tight at the top
Our panel reflect upon the weekend's Premier League action and look ahead to tonight's huge showdown between Man City and Chelsea.
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Manchester United suffered yet another defeat on Saturday - their eighth of the Premier League campaign so far - as they were beaten 2-1 at Stoke. While their hopes of retaining the title are long gone, is there any way back for them in regards to a top-four spot?
Matt Brocklebank (sportinglife.com): There's only one way I see Man United finishing in the top four and that's if they act quickly and sack David Moyes. It may sound drastic to some and, hand on heart, I can't see it happening, but Moyes was the wrong choice to replace Sir Alex Ferguson in the first place and I don't see him turning it around for the Premier League title holders. Moyes spent 11 full seasons at the helm of Everton, guiding them to one top-four finish in that time, and the work Roberto Martinez has done in half a season at Goodison brings everything into perspective. You could argue Moyes is simply running up to form with his new side, but that's not good enough for a club of United's calibre so moving for a proven world-class manager with a Champions League pedigree such as Jurgen Klopp or Gus Hiddink looks the only answer to give the team a real shot in the arm. Moyes shouldn't be as big as 33/1 to be the next Premier League manager to go but they have Fulham, Crystal Palace and West Brom among their next four league games so he really should be able to steady the ship. If not, Moyes should be staring down the barrel.
Chris Hammer (sportinglife.com): No. I'm not one for blowing my own trumpet but, and some of you will just have to take my word for this, I've regularly told readers of our Football Centre clockwatch since the season began that Manchester United will massively struggle to finish in the top four and so far I couldn't have been more right. United pretty much lost the fear factor as soon as Sir Alex Ferguson left and a string of disappointing results throughout the season continues to give future opponents belief that they too can compound David Moyes' misery. Earlier in the campaign the likes of West Brom, Everton and Newcastle all registered their first Old Trafford wins in decades, while Stoke's triumph on Saturday was the Potters' first league victory over United since 1984. Nobody is scared. And they haven't been for a while now. These results now spark only laughter from non-United fans rather than any kind of shock and I'm sure there's quite a few good-hearted folk out there actually feeling rather sorry for Moyes' plight, which sums up how dramatically their domineering aura has vanished. Their latest defeat was sustained after another largely toothless display despite the presence of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata in the side and they now find themselves seven points and three places below fourth-placed Liverpool. At this rate a Europa League place might be even out of reach and, in my view, it might not be too long before that's all they've got left to focus on.
Zacharia Amin (Sky Bet football trading): Although Manchester United suffered their eighth defeat of this season's Premier League against Stoke, they arguably had a lucky escape with Liverpool and Tottenham also dropping points away from home against lesser opposition. United are now 100/30 to claim a top-four spot, drifting slightly from 3/1 as their chances of finishing in the top four hang by a thread. This weekend's result also confirmed that United effectively have no chance of retaining their Premier League title - they are now 150/1 to win the league and are in the running to complete the biggest drop-off after winning a league title in Premier League history.
The relegation battle continued to intensify with the bottom 10 sides now separated by just six points - who do you think are sliding towards the drop and which sides have the all-important momentum as we head towards the final third of the season?
ZA: Strong performances in the past month from previous relegation favourites Crystal Palace and Sunderland have seen them both move out of the bottom three. The momentum Sunderland have gained in both the league and League Cup reflects in their current price - they are are now 5/2 sixth-favourites to be relegated. Palace, however, are still even-money second-favourites to go down despite a good run in the league and an extremely productive transfer window. Norwich are 7/4 to be relegated and are arguably one of the most out-of-form teams in the league with just one win in their last nine games and, with their main competitors all strengthening in the January window, the Canaries could be in serious trouble. Swansea are also certainly one to keep an eye on with only one win in their last 10 league games and are now 10/1 to be in the bottom three come the end of the season. Unsurprisingly, Fulham are favourites at 1/2, with Cardiff currently 6/5.
CH: Unfortunately my extremely confident pre-season relegation tip of Crystal Palace to finish bottom doesn't look quite so hot anymore and despite their expected defeat at Arsenal on Sunday, the Eagles certainly seem to be on the up under Tony Pulis. There was a time during Ian Holloway's tenure in charge when Derby's fewest ever points tally of 11 looked in grave danger and by the time the former Stoke boss was appointed, Palace only had four on the board from the opening 11 games. Considering he boasted such a proud record of never previously being relegated as a manager, it was surprising Pulis would put this in jeopardy by taking on this highly improbably task of keeping the south London outfit up but he's transformed their fortunes and made them extremely tough to score against. They are no longer the Palace side I tipped to finish rock bottom and they now have that all important momentum to climb to safety. With Gus Poyet at the helm, Sunderland are another resurgent side unrecognisable from the team managed so embarrassingly by Paolo Di Canio. That era is well behind them now and a derby triumph at Newcastle continues their march closer to safety. In terms of the teams I fancy to go down - take a chance on Hull (4/1) and Swansea (10/1). The Tigers have lost four of their last five and it will take more than a point against Spurs last time out to prevent this worrying slide down the table following a promising first half to the campaign. The Swans are also badly out of form and Saturday's defeat to West Ham was their sixth in their last eight league games and the weekend reports doubting Michael Laurdup's future as manager won't help the mood in the camp.
MB: It remains pretty tight in terms of points on the board but I honestly don't see Cardiff or Fulham, currently occupying the bottom two places, escaping the drop. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looked a slightly odd appointment to me and, hearing some of his interviews since taking over, the former Man United striker simply seems too, well... nice, and certainly doesn't strike me as the type of personality who is going to inspire a struggling side to go the extra mile in a relegation dogfight. Similar sentiments apply to Rene Meulensteen, who is without doubt an astute coach in his own right, but he lacks experience as the main man and his persistence with an attacking style of play could ultimately cost Fulham their place in the top flight. I agree with Mr Hammer in that Swansea have to come under consideration for relegation given the prices, while Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis have it in them to haul their respective teams out of trouble. West Brom are the team I don't fancy one bit, despite managing to get a point against Liverpool at the weekend, and the 4/1 on offer for Pepe Mel to experience relegation in his first spell in England is tempting.
Arsenal returned to the top of the Premier League with a 2-0 win over Crystal Palace but Manchester City have the chance to replace them when they host Chelsea in tonight's huge showdown at the Etihad Stadium. Who do you think will win and what implications will it have on the title race?
CH: There's no doubt in my mind that Manchester City will beat Chelsea tonight and possibly by a wide enough margin to inflict yet another damaging psychological blow on all their rivals. Jose Mourinho's men are the only side I think could feasibly push City just a little close this season (sorry Arsenal fans) but if they are swotted aside as ruthlessly as Arsenal, Tottenham (twice) and Manchester United were - not to mention the countless other teams who have been so routinely battered - then it could end up being a title procession. I'm going to predict City will end up 10 points clear by the end of the season which some may argue is a little bold considering they'd only go one ahead of Arsenal if they win tonight. But City's momentum is scary having won 11 of their last 12 league games, scoring 40 goals along the way, and no other team can keep up with that. On the whole, when Manuel Pellegrini's side have an off day they still win by one or two goals but if the Gunners, Chelsea or Liverpool are slightly off colour then points are dropped. Sure, Sergio Aguero's absence won't help but the likes of Alvaro Negredo, Edin Dzeko and Yaya Toure managed plenty of goals without him during his recent spell on the sidelines and will do so again.
MB: I'm just about with City for the title, nowhere near as keen as Chris is, though, and I'm going to attempt to be bold and predict a draw at the Etihad this evening. City were absolutely flying in the first half an hour against Tottenham, with Sergio Aguero looking like he could have gone on to score four or five himself before limping off injured, but Pellegrini's men were ultimately a shade, and I repeat a shade, flattered to run out such ready winners given the Dawson 'goal' which was given offside and the harsh penalty decision/sending off of Danny Rose. They have been unbeatable at home all season and the goals are flowing from all over the pitch, but Negredo and Dzeko are not Aguero, which offers some hope for a Chelsea back line that has shipped just two goals in their last nine games in all competitions (one conceded against Liverpool and one against Man United). If one manager is going inspire a clean sheet at the Etihad this term then is has to be Jose Mourinho and the 12/1 about a 0-0 stalemate in what will be a high-pressure encounter isn't the worst price in the world from a betting perspective.
ZA: It's no surprise that Manchester City are favourites for tonight's game at 5/6, with Chelsea 100/30 for the win. City are averaging close to four goals a game at home and are yet to drop points at the Etihad this season. However, I can see Chelsea making it difficult for City to break them down tonight so I wouldn't be surprised if Chelsea got something from the game - the draw is currently 11/4. City are already odds-on to reclaim the title from their Manchester rivals at 4/6, a win tonight will see them go back to the top of the league and cement their place as firm favourites for the title.
Which team do you think struck the best bit of business on transfer deadline day and who do you think will look back on January as a missed opportunity to strengthen?
ZA: Crystal Palace and Fulham were undoubtedly the most productive during the window, bringing in players who could potentially steer them away from the relegation zone, with Tom Ince and Konstantinos Mitroglou arguably the best bits of business from the clubs near the bottom. At the top of the table, Liverpool's failure to secure Yevhen Konoplyanka grabbed a lot of the headlines on deadline day, the club is now 1/2 to secure the Ukrainian's signature in the summer. Julian Draxler also proved to be one that got away for Arsenal, with Arsene Wenger reportedly not agreeing with Schalke's valuation of the young German - Arsenal are now 1/3 to sign him in the summer.
CH: I think it's fair to say deadline day passed without any transfers to get excited about although Crystal Palace and Fulham were the most active clubs as they both brought in five players each to boost their survival hopes. Tom Ince could potentially give the Eagles an extra attacking spark while Joe Ledley, who scored plenty of goals from midfield in Scotland with Celtic, may also help out in that department. As previously mentioned in the relegation debate, Palace's current crop of players has shown rapid improvement under Tony Pulis so his last-ditch squad strengthening should only maintain their survival push. Fulham, who allowed Dimitar Berbatov to depart, crashed to a 3-0 home defeat the day after their late recruitment drive but let's not read too much into that considering the highly-rated striker Kostas Mitroglou was unable to play. At the other end of the table, Arsene Wenger has been widely criticised for only bringing in an injured aging midfielder rather than a striker to ease the burden on Olivier Giroud and this is the fundamental reason why I earlier wrote them out of the title race. The Gunners are just about getting by at the moment thanks largely to their midfield flair and tight defence but with a tough run of games approaching in the top-flight, FA Cup and Champions League, the fatigue factor will take its toll and goals could well dry up. Some would argue Liverpool were the other big losers of the window having failed to add a single player to their squad while the late breakdown of a possible £16million deal for Ukraine winger Yevhen Konoplyanka from Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk prompted much head scratching. Of course it's not easy for top clubs to make quality signings in January but having got themselves into a wonderful position to at least challenge for a top-four spot this season, you'd have thought Liverpool would have shown a little more ambition and intent to bolster their ranks.
MB: I'd have to agree that Liverpool missed a trick in the transfer window, with direct rivals Man United signing Juan Mata and Everton moving for Aiden McGeady and Lacina Traore. The Reds are clearly in good shape up front, barring injury to Sturridge or Suarez, which would leave them with Iago Aspas as the only real option, but I expected them to sign another defender given the injury situation at Anfield and the fact they've looked vulnerable in that area. Arsenal seem to be faring pretty well considering everyone feels they haven't got enough cover and Olivier Giroud looks like a player who thrives on games and will maintain his excellent form for the remainder of the season if staying free from injury. I'm not sure Kostas Mitroglou and Lewis Holtby will bring about a massive change in fortune for Fulham, but I'm looking forward to seeing the Greek striker in action nevertheless. I think the best piece of deadline-day business was struck by Crystal Palace, who have Tom Ince on loan for the rest of the season. He has been a joy to watch in the Sky Bet Championship for a couple of seasons and now and deserves his chance at the top table. Given the move isn't a permanent one, it remains to be seen where he may end up starting next season should he impress, as expected, in the coming months.