Premier League 2013-14: Mid-Season Review

We have come halfway through the English top division football. As always, there has been drama, controversies, allegations and thrills. And off course, some enthralling football. Sometimes nail-biting, sometimes sensational, sometimes drab but more often than not entertaining. Naysayers’ most publicized league has definitely been the most competitive one in ages. Tighten your seat belts as Debojyoti Chakraborty takes you in a recap journey of the league so far.

After the 2013-14 English Premier League season preview, here comes the mid-season review. By and large teams playing top-flight football in England have played as per the predictions. But Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool have surpassed my expectations. On the other hand, Manchester United’s woe seems to find a new low with every week. Let us look back how the season has gone and what we can look forward to.
EPL 2014 - Mid Season Table

Arsenal

Arsenal sit at the top of the table as this article is written. The league table is congested but Arsenal have been there for majority of the season. And they are there for a reason. Professor’s young and nurtured midfield is coming of age with Aaron Ramsey leading the pack. With the strong statement made by the signing of Mesut Ozil, the Gunners are right on track for claiming the crown after a decade long wait. They look defensively astute as well with Per Mertesacker marshalling the backline to most number (9) of clean sheets. If they can keep Olivier Giroud fit for the remainder of the season or find a suitable back-up for him in the transfer window, their wait could be over.

Manchester City

They are touted as the team of the season and possible champions. They would have been miles ahead of the pack had it not been for their awful away form. Yet to drop a point at home, Manchester City have been miserable, to say the least, on their travels – only one draw and one win out of their first six away fixtures. Why it is so, well, have been discussed in detail in my earlier article. But there are signs of improvement. Return of club captain Vincent Kompany and midfield maestro David Silva from injury has turned their fortunes. They are at their best while attacking, with most number (57) of goals scored in the league and 11 times netting three or more goals in a match. And as Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has put it “…the title is Manchester City’s to lose”.

Alvaro Negredo scores the second goal for Manchester City against Arsenal in the Premier League
Goal as usual for Manchester City

Chelsea

Drama was expected with the return of the Special (Happy) One and Jose Mourinho has not disappointed. His post-match interviews are as interesting – or more – as any match. As always, Mourinho has made his team look compact on the pitch. With the plethora of attacking talent at his disposal in the midfield area, Chelsea is more soothing to the eye this season. But lack of clinical strikers upfront may just cost them the title.

Liverpool

Liverpool were on top of the table on X-mas day and it ignited a spur among their loyal fans – who have been long overdue – with jokes flooding social networking sites (“Where is my scarf mama? “It is on top of the table”). Next game results saw them dropped to 4th. This is just a true reflection of the league this year – competitive. Liverpool are playing a good brand of football, Brendan Rodgers has inflicted some steel to the team and the owners have been patient with him. But it is not incorrect to say that Liverpool are carried on his shoulders by one person – Luis Suarez. After being suspended for the first five matches for biting Branislav Ivanovic last season, Suarez has netted 20 goals in 15 matches. He has failed to score in five matches and not surprisingly Liverpool has managed to get a total of one point out of those matches. In matches where he has scored, Liverpool have dropped only two points. But their thin squad may pull them back towards the final run and if they again miss out on Champions League football, it could be doomsday for them.

Everton

With the departure of long serving manager David Moyes in the summer, Roberto Martinez took over at the Goodison Park. While he had done wonders in the cup matches, many were sceptical about his capabilities in a league running over nine months. Well, he has silenced all his critics. Even with club captain and the best left-back in the country Leighton Baines sidelined by injury for nearly one-third of the campaign, Everton have the best defensive record in the league – second least number of goals conceded and least number of matches lost (only 2 out of 20). Martinez deserves more credit for changing the style of Toffees’ play – rather than direct, he has brought in silky but effective passing in their game. Ross Barkely certainly has been the young player of the league and he is showing no signs of stopping. Things are looking good for a European spot next season.

Tottenham Hotspur

What happened to Spurs? As the pun pointed out, sum of a number of moderate things put together need not necessarily compensate for one world-class performer. With as many as 7 new players coming in at the expense of Gareth Bale’s world record setting transfer to Real Madrid, it was always going to be difficult how Andres Vilas Boas can galvanize the team. But AVB’s never ending tweaking with formations, tactics and starting XI, his unimaginative style of play and his inexplicable high line coupled with lethargic tempo to the game brought his own downfall. Subsequently coach Tim Sherwood, a former player and captain of the Blackburn Rovers’ Premiership winning side in 1995, has taken over. He is not doing too bad either with only two points dropped in the first four matches in charge. But his inexperience may prove to be critical and Tottenham do not look to go beyond Europa League spots.

Manchester United

Things were meant to be different. Things were meant to be tough and Sir Alex Ferguson asked for patience from the fans in his farewell speech. In hindsight, he might have known that he is not handing over a good, leave alone great, side to David Moyes. Then came the transfer window debacle where United failed to capture their targets and their rivals got stronger. And with the air of invincibility gone, many a team have registered their first ever win or win after ages at the Old Trafford. With FA Cup exit and a top-four finish fast eluding the Red Devils, Moyes needs to start thinking for the next season as early as January. How things have changed at Manchester!!!

ManU
Things are not too Rosy everywhere in Manchester

Newcastle United

After a horrendous Premier League campaign last season, partly due to the torturous Europa League schedule, Newcastle United are back on track. They have created a decent gap with teams below them and look poised to continue their good work. Alan Pardew is currently the second longest serving Premier League manager behind Arsene Wenger. And his experience showed when he shifted to 4-3-3 from 4-4-2 at the expense of charismatic and fan-favourite Hatim Ben Arfa. A decent top half of the table finish is on the cards.

Southampton

Less than a year with the club, manager Mauricio Pochettino shocked everyone when he announced his ambitions of finishing in the top 4. To his credit, he managed to keep Southampton there till the start of November. But a sudden dip in form has seen the Saints collecting only five points from a possible 27. But it cannot be denied they are playing one of the most free-flowing football in the league. This is a good advert for the league. Pochettino though has to realign his ambitions and cling on to a top half finish.

Hull City

Hull City have been in the news over the controversy of their owners trying to force a name change to Hull Tigers drawing the wrath of supporters. But in the field, the Steve Bruce managed side has been making the right moves. Working with a shoestring budget, Bruce has brought in Tottenham duo of Tom Huddlestone and (on loan) Jake Livermore, which has proven to be a masterstroke. Having already scalped Liverpool, Hull would look for similar sort of results to hang on to a top half finish in their comeback season in Premier League.

Aston Villa

Aston Villa started the season on grand style by beating Arsenal. But they have been hit hard by the injury of front man Christian Benteke. Even though they have triumphed Manchester City en route but goals in general have eluded them. A lower half finish is achievable if their defence can hold fort.

Stoke City

After the appointment of Mark Hughes, Stoke city is slowly going through a transition. Even with the likes of Peter Crouch in their ranks, Stoke is keener to pass the ball around and build up play rather than try long balls. They have scrapped some good results at the Britannia Stadium like draw against Manchester City, Everton and win against Chelsea. But they would do well not to be drawn into the relegation dogfight.

Swansea City

Like Newcastle last year, Swansea is this year’s victim of taxing Europa League fixtures. With games coming thick and fast, and injury list growing by each game, it has been a nightmare for Michael Laudrup. Swans have looked exhausted, more mentally than physically, and have faltered in critical moments. They have conceded crucial goals and missed golden opportunities and they are 16 points and seven places behind Tottenham – even if both the teams have scored (26 and 24) and conceded (28 and 25) similar number of goals. Beating Manchester United in the FA Cup might give them the push to surge ahead. And with talismanic striker Michu expected to come back from injury soon, don’t rule out the Swans for a shot at top half finish.

West Bromwich Albion

Apart from beating Manchester United away after a gap of 36 years, the Baggies could manage only 3 more wins. A usual mid-table team, that too now without a manager, they would be dragged into relegation battle sometime or the other; but they might just survive.

Norwich City

After couple of strong seasons back into the top flight of English football, the Canaries are feeling the heat this time. Life would be even tougher in the later stages of the league as teams get desperate for every point.

Fulham

Another mediocre side staying up for too long in the top flight of English football. Their fixtures produce results – only one of their matches has been drawn – but more often than not, the Cottagers find themselves on the wrong end of it. With the worst defensive record in the league (42 goals conceded), this might be relegation time for them.

Cardiff City

Controversies have dominated Cardiff City’s season so far. First, jersey colour change by the owner, billionaire Malaysian Vincent Tan, has seen the Bluebirds appear in red attire in home matches. Then their tough campaign became even tougher with the sacking of fan-favourite manager Malky Mackay. Apart from winning the Welsh derby against Swansea and stunning Manchester City in a 3-2 thriller, Cardiff have no memorable moment so far. And it does not look likely that newly appointed manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can add to that.

Cardiff_City
Who owns the club: Off course, the FANS

Crystal Palace

Having scored the least number (13) of times so far in the league, Crystal Palace’s problem area is clear – up front. Their defence is not too bad but failing to find the net have meant they have lost more often than taking something home. New manager Tony Pulis has initiated a mini revival by collecting four wins and 13 points from nine matches. But he knows that he has a tough job at hand.

West Ham United

Life back in the top flight has not been smooth sailing for Sam Allardyce, the Big Sam. Hampered by the absence of front man Andy Carrol, Hammers are on a downhill slide taking only two points out of seven matches since December. They can thank shot-stopper Jussi Jääskeläinen – baring his heroics West Ham would have been in deeper trouble. Another manger seems to be on firing line but even that may not be enough for survival.

Sunderland

There seems to be no light at the Stadium of Light. Black Cats are languishing at the bottom of the table and even a change in manager did not do much to ignite any hope. But this season the league is tight, a couple of wins can pull them up above the drop zone. Even then, survival would be tough come the end of season.
To cap it all, the league is still wide open. Only two points separate the top three. I shall put my neck out and say it will be either Chelsea or Arsenal. Manuel Pellegrini might just lose out in the final lap to his counterparts, only two managers with Premier League title to show for in their CV.

And it is not only at the top, the league is tight throughout – 9th place Southampton is only 10 points above safety. So brace yourself as (truly) the most competitive league in Europe enters its business end. We at Goalden Times will be with you through out this journey.
Match of the seasonMerseyside derby: Everton 3 – Liverpool 3

Best Team of the season – 1. Liverpool 2. Everton 3. Arsenal
No. of managers sacked during the league – 6 (Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Fulham, West Bromwich Albion, Tottenham Hotspur, Cardiff City)
Drama of the seasonPaolo Di Canio, former Sunderland manager, asking the fans to keep their chin high after losing 3-0 to West Bromwich Albion

West Bromwich Albion v Sunderland - Barclays Premier League
Hit me here!!!

Controversy of the season – AVB continuing with Lloris after a head injury sustained during the match against Everton. He was forced to rest Lloris in the next game on the advice of Spurs medical team. AVB kept on defending himself saying all the decisions were taken by the medical staff.

Fantasy Team of the season:
Wojciech Szczesny (Arsenal); Seamus Coleman (Everton), Per Mertesacker (Arsenal), John Terry (Chelsea), Leighton Baines (Everton); Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal), Yaya Touré (Manchester City), Mesut Özil (Arsenal); Luis Suárez (Liverpool), Sergio Agüero (Manchester City)

Substitues – Jussi Jääskeläinen (West Ham United); Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur), Martin Skrtel (Liverpool); Steven Gerrard (Liverpool) Adam Lallana (Southampton); Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Romelu Lukaku (Everton)

La Liga – Mid-Season Review

With Barcelona trailing by five points behind Madrid, Villareal struggling to stay afloat and the miracle of Levante, a lot of changes are taking place in Spanish football. Sumit Sarkar reviews the primera division of La Liga so far

La liga kicked off on the last weekend of August this season, and if the kick-off did not get delayed by a week due to players’ strike, twenty clubs would have played each other once by the time this review reaches the editorial desk. The first round of matches got rescheduled on the third weekend of January, and as of now, each club has played 17 games. We reviewed the primera división of la liga in our September issue of Goalden Times and with only two rounds of the first leg remaining, it is a good time to take stock of the happenings so far. After seventeen rounds, the league table looks as follows, with Real Madrid CF on top, five points clear of FC Barcelona, despite being beaten handsomely in the El clásico.

Club

Played

Won

Drawn

Lost

GF

GA

Points

Real Madrid

17

14

1

2

61

16

43

Barcelona

17

11

5

1

51

9

38

Valencia

17

10

4

3

28

18

34

Levante

17

9

3

5

21

19

30

Osasuna

17

6

8

3

21

28

26

Málaga

17

7

4

6

20

22

25

Sevilla

17

6

6

5

19

19

24

Espanyol

17

7

3

7

18

21

24

Athletic Bilbao

17

5

8

4

23

19

23

Betis

17

7

1

9

19

22

22

Atlético Madrid

17

5

5

7

23

27

20

Getafe

17

5

5

7

17

23

20

Mallorca

17

4

7

6

15

22

19

Rayo Vallecano

17

5

4

8

19

26

19

Granada

17

5

4

8

11

21

19

Real Sociedad

17

4

6

7

16

23

18

Racing Santander

17

3

8

6

12

21

17

Villarreal

17

3

7

7

15

25

16

Sporting Gijón

17

4

3

10

16

29

15

Zaragoza

17

2

4

11

13

32

10

              Green – Champions League; Blue – Europa League; Red – Relegation Zone

The Title Contenders – the Usual Suspects Tangoing

Given the state of affairs in la liga over the last 6 years, it is no surprise that Madrid garnered a staggering 43 points from 17 games, losing only 2 and drawing only 1. Barcelona, the defending champions who have drawn six and lost only two games in the entire league last season, already have drawn five and lost one. In Spanish general elections held in November, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero lost the Prime Minister’s office to Mariano Rajoy. With power shifting from the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party to the Partido Popular – with whom the Blancos always enjoyed a harmonic relation – it is being said that the Barcelona era in Spanish football is nearing its end. Incidentally, on the last weekend of November, two weeks before the clásico, Barcelona lost to Getafe. Since the clásico of December 10, the talk about shift of power in Spanish football from Camp Nou to Bernabéu was shelved for the time being, but as the liga resumed on the second weekend of January, the whispers returned with the draw at the Barcelona derby.

Real Madrid is in an even better position than they were, at this stage, when they last won the title in 2007-8. Between 24th September and 10th December they had a winning streak of 10 games. They scored 61 goals in 17 games, averaging 3.6 per game. Cristiano Ronaldo scored 21 in 17 appearances, Gonzalo Higuaín 13 in 16 appearances and Karim Benzema 10 in 15. Ángel di María and Mesut Özil produced 13 and 8 assists respectively. Real Madrid is indeed playing awesome football, and to a plan.

Beating everyone else in la liga and beating Barcelona though, are two entirely different propositions. It’s been long since Madrid came to a clásico as favourites and they took the lead before the ball reached their half even once. In spite of the slip-up, which led to Madrid’s first goal 23 seconds into the match, Barcelona kept playing the ball to Valdes, and Valdes continued to play the short passes as confidently as ever. Barcelona not only defeated Madrid, but established the superiority of the brand of football they play. Barcelona completed 681 passes against Madrid’s 427. Barcelona’s brand of football is characterized by passing and possession. No team other than the Ajax of 1971-72 possibly has played this brand of football so consistently and so efficiently. Real Madrid is playing wonderful football this season, but the Barcelona era is far from its end. Barcelona, however, is not playing as well as they played last year. Their average possession has gone up by 2-3% this season. Since the Copa del Rey final in April 2011, they remained undefeated in 24 competitive games before their shock defeat to Getafe in November. During that period they defeated Manchester United, AC Milan and Real Madrid. But they have drawn away not only against Valencia, Athletic Bilbao and Espanyol, but also against Real Sociedad. They drew against Sevilla too at home. In the absence of Pedro Rodriguez and Alexis Sanchez, the Barcelona attack has lost its width. Injuries to Puyol and Pique left the centre of Barcelona defence soft. If either of Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets play centre back instead of their holding midfielder role, it doesn’t help the team. Pep Guardiola tried playing only three at the back, and it gave width in the midfield through Thiago Alcântara, and at times through Cesc Fàbregas. Nevertheless, the 3-4-3 formation is risky and leaves a hole in the defence. The absence of Andrés Iniesta is restricting the variety of Barcelona’s game plan. The dazzling form of Leo Messi is covering up a lot, but the problems exist.

European Contenders – Some Radical Shift

Valencia are at the third spot with 34 points after 17 rounds – 4 points less than Barcelona and 9 less than Madrid. While it may not sound surprising, let us not forget they were financially in troubled waters, and in spite of losing Juan Mata at the start of the season they are playing better football than they did last year. But some remarkable changes are taking place in Spanish football and that is reflected in positions 4 through 6 in the table. Villareal, who finished fourth last year are struggling to stay outside the relegation zone. Sevilla finished fifth last year and are hanging out there at seventh spot. Athletic Bilbao and Atlético Madrid, who finished the last season at sixth and seventh spots respectively, are now at the ninth and eleventh spots.

The Levante Miracle

Who did Madrid lose to other than Barcelona? It was Levante Unión Deportiva – a club whose entire football budget for a season cannot pay Cristiano Ronaldo for more than half a season. The club that came up from segunda division and barely survived relegation last season, shot up to the top of the table on the eighth week of this season, and remained there for two weeks. Levante apparently defies all logic, but their achievement cannot be disregarded as fluke. A club in administration and a team with average age of thirty-two, they are at number four at half way through the season only because they played rationally. Being a team of mature players, they know their limitations and are well organized. Their new coach, Juan Ignacio Martínez applies a simple strategy – no pretences. They don’t try to hold the ball, they have a well-organized defence and they are swift on the counter attack. 36 year old Sergio Ballesteros, their captain, who on a few occasions outsprinted Ronaldo in the Madrid game, has been the inspiration for the team. After seventeen rounds they are at number four, ahead of Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Madrid and even high spending Malaga.

Osasuna

The club that brought Levante down from the top on the tenth round is now at the fifth spot – Osasuna, a club that finished ninth last season. They have drawn against Atlético Madrid, Sevilla and Malaga, and defeated Espanyol and Villareal.

Project Malaga Paying Off

Malaga finished eleventh last year. They are a European contender this season and are at the sixth spot now. Their spending of €58 million in the summer will pay dividends if they qualify at least for the Europa league. Though they lost to Sevilla and Valencia and Real Madrid, among the bigger clubs of la liga, they defeated Athletic Bilbao, Espanyol and Villareal. Giving a 3-year contract to the ex-Real Madrid coach, Manuel Pellegrini looks like one of the best moves of Malaga boss Seikh Al Thani.

Newly Promoted Clubs

Real Betis moved up from segunda división this season and won their first four games, and was on top of the table in September. They played some good attacking football but lost their composure.  They are presently at the tenth spot with 22 points. Rayo Vallecano, who returned to the primera división of la liga after eight seasons and Granada, the club that returned to the top flight after 35 years are placed fourteenth and fifteenth respectively. Both of them scored 19 points each through 5 wins and 4 draws, but are separated on goal difference.

Relegation Zone

After seventeen rounds, the three teams in the relegation zone are Villareal, Sporting Gijón and Real Zaragoza. With only 10 points from 2 wins and 4 draws, Real Zaragoza, S.A.D., another la liga team in administration, are at a sad state and are at the bottom of the table with little chance of survival. Sporting Gijón lost 5 and drew 2 of their first 7 games. After seventeen rounds they are at the nineteenth spot with only 4 wins, but they can still survive.

Villareal – from European Contender to Relegation Zone

On the third week of the season, when Madrid lost to Levante in one of the biggest upsets of the season so far, Villareal lost to newly promoted Granada in another major upset of that round. With only 3 wins against Mallorca, Rayo and Betis, they are at the eighteenth spot with 16 points. Villareal more or less retained their team from the last season with the exception of Santi Cazorla, but they are nowhere near their last season’s performance. They crashed out of UEFA Champions League by finishing at the bottom of their group without earning a single point! If Giuseppe Rossi had not been injured, things could have been better for the Yellow Submarines. Nevertheless, with only 4 points separating 8 teams from the eleventh position through eighteenth, Villareal should be able to avoid relegation.

Two Spectacular Games

La liga may not be the most competitive league around, but surely throws up some incomparable games of football. Barcelona thrashed Villareal and Atlético Madrid, but drew 2-2 with both Valencia and Athletic Bilbao and goalless with Sevilla. The game at Bilbao, when Athletic Club hosted Barcelona in the eleventh week, was uncantoalfútbol (an ode to football) according to Pep Guardiola. In a spectacular display of fast end-to-end football, Marcelo Bielsa’s boys went up twice leaving it for Leo Messi to show his prowess on a waterlogged pitch to save the day for Barcelona at injury time. After Bilbao took the lead for the first time, Fàbregas headed in a cross from Eric Abidal to level the score. Then a Mascherano back pass went out of play and Bilbao scored from the corner as it landed on Abidal’s feet, and then deflecting against Pique, crossed the goal line. Already inside the injury time, Iniesta failed to hold on a pass from Messi. Bilbao keeper, Gorka Iraizoz also slipped. Messi finally slotted in the deflection. The game had it all – tactical twists, brilliant goals, awful misses, great saves, fouls and cards. Athletic Bilbao was intensely attacking, which is a signature of Bielsa.

Another extremely competitive game was played at the Mestalla between Valencia and Madrid. Madrid were up 1-0 at the half time, but they slackened in the second half. At 71 minutes, Ramos slotted in a header to put Madrid up 2-0. Then came the most dramatic 20 minutes of la liga so far. Roberto Soldado made it 2-1 but a Valencia corner was hoofed back to their half that Diego Alves tried to clear coming out of his box, missed, and Ronaldo scored from a difficult spot. Soldado scored another, which was the fourth goal in 11 minutes. In between, Mourinho had some heated exchange with Jordi Alba. At injury time, Valencia got a free-kick near the Madrid goal line. Tino Costa took it as the entire Valencia team was up there in Madrid’s box. Artiz Aduriz and Higuain collided and Higuain fell on the ground. The ball banged on the bar and rebounded to Soldado, and was rolling towards the goal when Higuain put his shoulder on its way. Valencia was robbed of a penalty and possibly a point. Had the referee given a penalty instead of a corner, the top of the table would have looked a lot more competitive at the winter break.

 Predictions

After the winter break, the league commenced with the Barcelona derby and the Valencia derby on the second weekend of January. Both the games ended in draws. Madrid easily defeated Granada and will play Mallorca and Athletic Bilbao in their remaining games in the first leg. Barcelona plays Betis and Malaga in their last two games of the first leg. Anything can happen and the league is wide open between Madrid and Barcelona. However, it is advantage Madrid at the moment. Valencia has an outside chance, but in la liga it has been next to impossible to cover a deficit of 9 points in 21 games. It will be good to see Levante playing in the Champions League – even if they play only the qualifiers. Between Osasuna, Malaga, Sevilla and Bilbao any two may qualify for Europa league. Villareal will survive, but apart from Zaragoza, any two among Sporting, Racing, Granada and Rayo will get relegated.