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2013 UEFA Champions League First Leg Wrapup

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The Champions League never fails to disappoint. We are halfway through the round of 16 and we’ve been treated to some pretty fantastic games. Here’s a quick recap of the major events.

Games of the Round

Real Mardid 1, Manchester United 1

The Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid played host to one of the most anticipated matches in Champions League history. Real Madrid playing Manchester United has always been seen as a big match up. This was no different. It, however, had the added allure of pitting Sir Alex Ferguson against Jose Mourinho, as well as being the first time Cristiano Ronaldo has faced off against his old club. This game did not disappoint. The game was even from the opening, with chances at both ends, before Danny Welbeck broke the deadlock. Welbeck’s 20th minute strike gave hope to Manchester United that they might could win this game. However, the defense never quite settled, and there was a feeling that an equalizer was inevitable. Cue Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese man leaped well above the United defense to head a perfectly placed cross home. Both sides had chances to win it, Madrid being spectacularly denied multiple times by David De Gea, and Robin van Persie getting so close with the last kick of the game.

AC Milan 2, Barcelona 0

Few people saw Milan being able to win this game, even with it being played at the San Siro in Italy. Currently sitting 3rd in Serie A, they were huge underdogs to Barcelona, who are 12 points clear of second place in La Liga. Milan were expected to park the bus and play very defensively, but they did anything but that. A tenacious midfield helped keep Barcelona away from their goal. In fact, Barcelona only had one shot on target. There was controversy in Milan’s opening goal, as a free kick coming in took two deflections, the second off of a Milan player’s arm, before falling to Kevin-Prince Boateng who lashed home. A number of Barcelona players began to protest to referee Craig Thomson, and Gerard Pique was shown a yellow card for his troubles. The second was pure class, with M’Baye Niang sending the ball to Stephan El Shaarawy, who found the onrushing Sulley Muntari. Muntari volleyed it past Victor Valdes, giving Milan a 2-0 lead that they never looked back from. They played patient, disciplined, and positive soccer, and were rewarded with a major upset victory.

Players of the Round

  • David De Gea deserves special mention for his heroics against Madrid. The Manchester United goalkeeper had 7 saves. If it weren’t for his spectacular efforts Madrid could have easily run out 3-1 winners. The Spaniard has been given grief for his play in the past, but he showed his worth to everyone who tuned into this game.
  • Thomas Müller was a key part of Bayern Munich’s 3-1 thrashing of Arsenal. The attacking midfielder provided the assist for Toni Kroos’s opener before scoring himself in the 21st minute. He put in a shift defensively, too, earning himself a yellow card for a challenge on Thomas Vermaelen.
  • Claudio Marchisio was solid for Juventus in the midfield. He took three shots, scoring one goal, and provided an assist in their 3-0 win over Celtic in Scotland. That strong showing will be enough to see Juventus through to the quarterfinals, barring an amazing comeback.

News from the first legs

  • Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paris Saint-Germain’s world class striker, was controversially sent off in the last few minutes of PSG’s 2-1 win over Valencia. UEFA’s disciplinary panel will be meeting on February 27th to determine if he should serve a longer suspension than the mandatory one game. “Ibrahimovic’s red card was not deserved. I don’t understand it. It’s unfair,” PSG boss Carlo Ancelotti said immediately after the game. “I think it was a normal tackle, nothing special, I was surprised to see a red card.”
  • Tensions continue to run high at Real Madrid, with Jose Mourinho singling out Sergio Ramos for being at fault for Danny Welbeck’s goal. Mourinho has been at odds with Ramos, Iker Casillas, and others in the dressing room in recent months. Mourinho will reportedly be leaving Real Madrid in the summer, with a return to Chelsea or a move to PSG in France the two most likely options for the widely respected Portuguese manager.
  • Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger took the 3-1 loss to Bayern Munich particularly hard, going and sitting alone in the locker room for 25 minutes after the game. He has admitted that reversing the 3-1 deficit, especially given that Bayern Munich’s goals are away goals, might be impossible. He’s set his sights on a top four finish in the Premier League this season. Qualifying for the Champions League again next year will be their priority.

The schedule for the return legs is as follows (home team listed first)
March 5th: Manchester United x Real Madrid; Borussia Dortmund x Shakhtar Donetsk
March 6th: Paris Saint-Germain x Valencia; Juventus x Celtic
March 12th: Schalke 04 x Galatasaray; Barcelona x AC Milan
March 13th: Malaga x Porto; Bayern Munich x Arsenal

Click here to see complete bracket

CONCACAF WCQ Preview

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With there only being 16 months left until the World Cup, qualifying around the world is getting near the end. Here in the North America region, designated by FIFA as CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football), the final round is going to begin on Wednesday. Known by fans as the “hexagonal” due to it having six teams, this final round of qualifying sees each team play ten games to determine who goes to the World Cup. The top three qualify directly, while the fourth placed team will have a two game playoff with either New Zealand or New Caledonia.

With the six teams this go around being Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, and the United States, this could the toughest Hexagonal ever. No match can be taken lightly, as a slip up with so few games to play could be costly.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica are an experienced team in the Hex, having qualified for it each time the format has been used since 1998. The squad, as a whole, is definitely improved from the 2010 team that finished fourth and lost a playoff with Uruguay, which meant they missed out on the World Cup that year. Álvaro Saborío has been phenomenal in qualifying so far, with six goals in six games. Captain Bryan Ruiz is solid as ever, providing a great deal of experience and leadership to the team as they battled their way through qualifying, and Cristian Gamboa, while only 23, has been tidy in defense. They are solid at home, with few teams being able to go into Costa Rica and win consistently. For example, in 8 trips the USA has made to Costa Rica for World Cup qualifying matches, they have managed to get a draw once and lost the other seven times. This is a strong team, but if it will be strong enough to qualify for the World Cup remains to be seen. They open with their first two games being on the road (away to Panama and the United States), and it will be critical for them to get as many points from those games as possible.

Honduras

Due to a 95th minute goal by the United States against Costa Rica last hexagonal, Honduras was able to qualify for the World Cup. Honduras defeated Spain in the Olympics, an impressive feat even with youth squads, and the stars of that team will be present throughout qualifying. Honduras opens at home to the United States and Mexico. While that may sound tough for them on paper, San Pedro Sula is a tough place to travel to. A duo from the English club Wigan, midfielder Roger Espinoza and defender Maynor Figueroa, will be key players. Espinoza, at age 26, provides a good amount of energy in the midfield, and Figueroa, with his 92 appearances for Honduras, is the most experienced player for Honduras outside of the goalkeeper. Jerry Bengtson, who plays his club soccer for the New England Revolution, has been Honduras’s top scorer in qualifying with five goals. While they won’t win the group, they will for sure be a threat to qualify, and will not be an easy team to face.

Jamaica

While on paper Jamaica has no chance of qualifying, their results in the last round show that their heart might sneak them in. They qualified for the hexagonal on goal difference, with wins against Guatemala and the United States at home being critical moments in their campaign. However, they followed that up by crashing out of the Caribbean Cup in December in humiliating fashion. Since then, they have retooled the squad, adding in a few new players from England who have roots in Jamaica, including Jermaine Beckford, Theo Robinson, and Garath McCleary. The squad they are going to put out for their first game, away to Mexico, may be the strongest squad Jamaica has ever produced. Goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and midfielder Jermaine Johnson will provide leadership to the new players incoming from England, and will be rocks to build the team around. While they might not end up qualifying for the World Cup themselves, they are to be underestimated at your own peril. A bad result in one of the games against Jamaica could be the difference between travelling to Brazil and sitting at home.

Mexico

Mexico are probably the favorite to win the group. In the last round, they won all six of their games, scoring 15 goals in the process. Javier Hernández, the Manchester United striker known simply as Chicharito, is Mexico’s leading scorer in qualification so far, having bagged three goals. Mexico’s squad consists of 9 players who participated in the gold medal winning squad at the Olympics. The Estadio Azteca, the stadium where Mexico plays it’s home games, is a fortress. They have only lost 11 games there since they started playing in the stadium in 1966, and their last World Cup Qualifying loss at home came on June 16, 2001, a 2-1 defeat to Costa Rica. Carlos Salcido and Andrés Guardado, having made 106 and 87 appearances for Mexico, respectively, continue to provide experience in the absence of captain Rafael Marquez due to injury. They open at home against Jamaica and away to Honduras.

Panama

The last time Panama made the hexagonal in 2006, they managed to draw with Guatemala and Mexico, and lost their other 8 games. Since then, they have rapidly become one of the most improved teams in the region. In the Gold Cup in 2011, they defeated the United States in the group stages and made it to the semi-final. Having never qualified for the World Cup before, they will hope to shock the world and accomplish that feat this time around. While they may be the weakest team in the hexagonal, they showed they are no pushover with a 2-0 road victory over Honduras in the previous round of qualifying. FC Dallas striker Blas Pérez is the top goal scorer left in the competition, having scored 9 goals across the 10 games Panama has played so far. Captain Felipe Baloy, who plays his club soccer in Mexico, is a linchpin in their defense. Gabriel Gómez leads the midfield, having made 80 appearances for the national team. While they will probably finish at the bottom, they will cause problems for every team they have to face.

United States

If Mexico is the favorite to win the group, then the United States will be in the running for second. With the influential Landon Donovan taking a break from playing soccer and his future uncertain, the USA could be without their all-time leading goal scorer for the entire qualification cycle. The USA will end up turning to a lot of youth to qualify, and will rely on captain Carlos Bocanegra (110 appearances) to provide leadership and strength to the defense. By comparison, the other 7 defenders called up for the match with Honduras have a combined total of 56 appearances for the United States. Midfielder Michael Bradley and forward Jozy Altidore have returned to the team, and their contributions, along with those of Clint Dempsey and goalkeeper Tim Howard, will decide the fate of the USA. The schedule is against them, with three of their opening four games being away to Honduras, Mexico, and Jamaica. The United States may get off to a bumpy start, but the quality of their squad should be more than enough to see them through to Brazil.

Transfer Speculation Time

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It’s that time of year again when the mad scramble to pick up any talent – no matter how limited – your team thinks will help that final push for promotion, avoid relegation or maintain mid-table anonymity. The transfer window is wide open, and below is a team-by-team look at who needs what, and what they’re likely to get.

Arsenal

Despite recent improvements, The Gunners still need to shore up a leaky defense. Problem is, they don’t have the money to go for a front-line player. With most of their money gone in securing Theo Walcott’s future – they apparently had to break their wage structure to do so – look for Arsenal to make a move for Montpellier’s Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa or perhaps West Ham’s Mohamed Diame.

Aston Villa

The Villains are in free-fall. Manager Paul Lambert’s experiment with a group of youngsters has backfired badly, and he’s desperate to bring in experience. His – and every other struggling teams’ – biggest challenge is simple: what player of true quality would want to play for a team embroiled in a relegation battle? Attempts to sign Manchester City’s Joleon Lescott and Nancy’s Massadio Haidara won’t pan out (see Newcastle below for Haidara). Other potential signings, such as Moussa Sissoko (Toulouse) and Derek Boateng (Dnipro) also seem unlikey, given the interest from other, better positioned clubs. Villa face the prospect of the drop without reinforcements, I’m afraid.

Chelsea

Chelsea were quick off the mark to pick up a quality player in Demba Ba from Newcastle. Rumors abound that Rafa Benitez is nowhere near done yet, either. Atletico Madrid’s in-form striker Falcao, Shakhtar Donetsk’s highly-rated midfielder William, Malaga’s Isco, Everon’s gifted Belgian Marouane Fellaini, and Real Madrid’s Luca Modric are all high-profile names linked with a move to Stamford Bridge. A surprise outside bet is also a move for Bayer Leverkusen’s Andre Schurrle. Some teams simply seem to have an open checkbook. Any Russian billionaires out there who want to buy love and attention?

Everton

The Toffees aren’t looking to add much to an already excellent squad. David Moyes has a penchant for finding players who fly under the radar of most clubs, yet come up big when it counts. The only likely move will be for Birmingham City’s goalkeeper, Jack Butland, who Moyes has tapped as a long-term replacement for the ageing Tim Howard. Perhaps one surprise could be a move for currently unattached Owen Hargreaves, although he claims not to want to play soccer this year.

Fulham

Mid-table anonymity is the best Fulham can hope for again this year, and to achieve it manager Martin Jol wants to strengthen both the defence and midfield. They’re looking at Roma’s goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg, along with defenders Stephen Warnock (Aston Villa) and Jores Okore (FC Nordsjaelland). In midfield, interest is strong in Ludovic Sylvestre (Blackpool) and Derek Boateng (Dnipro). A bid for the versatile Greek defender / defensive midfielder / right wing Vasilis Torosidis, who is forcing Olympiacos’ hand in not renewing his contract, also has Cottagers fans salivating in anticipation.

Liverpool

It’s been a poor start for manager Brenda Rodgers at Liverpool. They seem to be on the right track finally, but he’ll be looking to bring in lots of new faces to strengthen a disappointing squad. Philippe Coutinho (Inter Milan) is a firm target to replace the legendary (and ageing) Steven Gerrard, whilst moves for Blackpool’s Tom Ince and Wigan’s Franco Di Santo are possibilities also.

Manchester City

City is the least likely major club to make any moves this time around. They’re squad is already so strong that little needs to be done to improve it. Speculation that bad-boy Mario Balotelli might be shipped off to AC Milan abounds, with City then free to bring in Napoli’s bad-boy Edison Cavani as replacement – for an estimated $60 million. Other than that, the only other move might be for Malaga’s midfielder Isco – although that might just be to stop Chelsea from getting him.

Manchester United

United are another team where rumors swirl around like crazy during any transfer window. This time reports have them making moves for Dortmund’s Lewandowski, Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha, PSV’s Kevin Strootman, Porto’s James Rodriguez, and QPR’s Adel Taarabt. None of these are confirmed, though, so expect little activity out of the club.

One wonderful rumor is that Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo wants to go back to United. The superstar, who was famously “sad” earlier this season, is still unhappy with life. Poor boy; good looks, untold wealth and amazing talent must make his life unbearable at times. United would be crazy to take on the cost – financially and emotionally – but perhaps he’d fit right in at Chelsea?

Newcastle

Newcastle are in trouble. They’ve slipped ever closer to the drop zone in recent weeks and need reinforcements if they’re to avoid a battle the rest of the way this season. Losing Demba Ba to Chelsea and not getting Loic Remy are body blows to the Magpies. They have signed defender Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa from Montpellier, but they desperately need a striker. Swansea’s Danny Graham might be interested, though he’s likely to opt for Sunderland or Norwich before Newcastle. I’m afraid there’s trouble ahead for the north-easterners.

Norwich

The Canaries’ form has dipped recently, and there’s little money available to help turn things around. Apart from a move for the aforementioned Graham, or for Stoke’s Cameron Jerome, Norwich may well have to look to the lower divisions to bargain hunt for talent.

QPR

Harry Redknapp is at it again. His magic touch has seen QPR pull themselves at least into survival contention since he took over as manager. With Loic Remy’s signing already proving successful, “Arry” wiil want to bring in more quality at a bargain price if possible. Two West Brom players are definite targets; striker Peter Odemwingie and defender Jonas Olsson. Also in the mix are Moussa Sissoko (Toulouse), Yann M’Vila (Rennes), Florent Malouda (Chelsea), and Michael Dawson (Spurs). Again, whether any of these players would want to join QPR is highly debatable.

Reading

Despite staging some impressive comebacks, Reading look doomed for the drop. Plenty of names have been linked with the Royals and there’s money to spend, but will the players come? Celta Vigo striker Iago Aspas and unhappy Arsenal attacker Andrey Arshavin might be tempted, but it’s a defender they really need, and none seem available.

Southampton

The sacking of Saints’ manager Nigel Adkins came as a shock to many people. His attacking style and the great improvements made recently looked likely to keep the team alive for another season in the top flight. With a new manager coming in, little transfer action will happen until the last few days, although the talented young defender Vegard Forren has already put pen to paper. Watch for some surprise action as the window starts to close.

Stoke

Stoke City – perennial mid-table finishers – aren’t likely to do much buying this time around. Their top target, American Brek Shea, now looks unlikely to move from Dallas after MLS insisted on a higher fee. Moves for Lazio’s Zarate and Southampton skipper Ricky Lambert are unlikely to happen, either. Meanwhile, the Potters might be forced to sell, especially if new rumors of interest from Manchester City in goalkeeper Asmir Begovic are real. In addition, Swansea are said to be keen on acquiring striker Kenwyne Jones to replace Danny Graham if he moves.

Sunderland

The Black Cats need to strengthen all areas to avoid being sucked into the relegation battle even further. Swansea’s Graham is a top target, as is Sissoko from Toulouse. A move for New York Red Bulls’ Tim Cahill, however, looks to have ended in failure.

Swansea

Sensational Swansea continue to impress, despite dire prediction of second-season failure. Manager Michael Laudrup has refined the tactics and the squad, which was greatly strengthened over the summer. The focus now is on Jonathan de Guzman, whose loan move is expected to become a permanent one, although Villareal may not wish to sell him given the form he’s displayed this season. Laudrup’s intimate knowledge of La Liga is evident as he’s brought in Osasuna’s Roland Lamah and is chasing Celta’s striker Iago Aspas and Real Betis midfielder Jose Canas. Add in a bid for Stoke’s Kenwyne Jones and the ambitions at the Welsh club seem obvious.

Tottenham

Spurs won’t be doing much this January either, mainly due to their prime targets costing too much or being courted by bigger clubs. The only move expected is for Alvaro Negredo. Sevilla may have no choice but to sell him to help balance their books, but he won’t come cheap.

WBA

West Brom, with their attractive style and winning ways, have been a real surprise this campaign. As a result, the Baggies will spend January fending off attempts to poach their best players instead of adding to the squad. Look for little or no movement here.

West Ham

The Hammers don’t look like they’ll be adding to their squad, either. They’re trying to hold on to midfielder Mohamed Diame, but are unlikely to prevail. The biggest talking point is a move for David Beckham, though this appears to be less likely as the deadline draws closer. Still, it would be an interesting move if it happened. Could “Becks” have anything to offer at this late stage in his career? We might never know.

Wigan

Can Wigan stage another great escape this season? Boss Roberto Martinez has defense in mind, and is looking at a loan move for Liverpool’s Sebastian Coates or a permanent deal for Wolves’ Ronald Zubar. The priority, though, is keeping both James McCarthy and Franco di Santo at the club, despite interest from several clubs for both players.

Who’ll end up with the best deals? We’ll need to wait and see. One thing is guaranteed; there’ll be a few surprises before the window slams shut on January 31st!

United Look to Extend Their Lead Away to Spurs

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This weekend in the Barclay’s Premier League has a full program of all 20 teams playing over Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, including two exciting fixtures when Tottenham and Manchester United square off, and a London derby when Arsenal and Chelsea go head to head.

Saturday’s games are led by Liverpool playing host to Norwich City. Liverpool’s controversial striker Luis Suarez 15 league goals far exceed the team’s next highest league scorer, Steven Gerrard, who only has 4. Even when he isn’t scoring goals, Suarez is the man to watch, able to turn nothing into a moment of brilliance. Norwich will have to mark him out of the game to be successful. Having lost four of their last five games (and the other one being a draw), Norwich have started to slide down the table. Chris Houghton’s boys will be hoping to cause a surprise and turn their season around. They have only won once on the road this term (a 4-3 victory over Swansea), and Grant Holt and company will look to prevent Liverpool’s push for Europe.

Manchester Ciy will be hosting Fulham, sitting seven points behind league leaders Manchester United. City have one of the most impressive strike forces in the league, with Dzeko (10), Agüero (8), and Tevez (7) combining to score 25 goals between them. The reigning champions will be looking to close the gap on their cross-town rivals Manchester United against a Fulham squad that has only taken 5 points from their last six games. Fulham are in a dangerous position, sitting 6 points above the drop and 4 points from the top half of the table. They will continue to rely on Dimitar Berbatov, who has scored 7 times this season. The Bulgarian continues to be Fulham’s main point of attack, and will be looking to exploit the City defense. It doesn’t take much for him to put a dangerous ball in.

When Newcastle United take on Reading, it will be a true relegation six-pointer. Newcastle have had an awful time of it this season, not getting anywhere near the high-flying form that lead them to a fifth place finished last year. They have lost four of their last six games, and that kind of form will only take them back to the Championship. Having sold Demba Ba to Chelsea, we will now see if the Magpies have what it takes to remain in the Premier League. Meanwhile, Reading, who is flying high after an impressive win over West Brom in their last league game, have yet to win on the road. This would be a fine time for them to change that.

Swansea and Stoke face off in a mid-table match-up of contrasting styles. Swansea play a free flowing, pass happy attack, with £2 million man Michu being the surprise player of the season, with 13 league goals being good enough for fourth. Stoke, meanwhile, play a physical, more traditionally “English” style with a target man up top. Only one point separates these two sides in the table, and this should to be an exciting match to follow.

West Ham United will be trying to turn around recent form against bottom club Queens Park Rangers and avoid being dragged into a fight. Big Sam’s men are coming off a heartbreaking loss to Manchester United in the FA Cup, and will want to give the home crowd something to cheer about. QPR are in last place, needing 5 points to drag themselves out of the drop zone at the moment. They have looked much, much better under Harry Redknapp than they did before, but it might be too little too late. New signing Loïc Remy could make his debut this weekend for QPR.

Wigan and Sunderland will be a match-up of two teams who are struggling as of late. Wigan, yet again, find themselves towards the bottom of the table. Year after year, they flirt with relegation, only to escape at the last moment. Could this be the year that finally sends them down? Sunderland will continue to rely on Steven Fletcher, whose 8 goals lead the team, as they try to avoid being dragged closer to the bottom three.

Saturday’s late game sees West Bromwich Albion host Aston Villa. West Brom were flying high at the start of the season, reaching as high as third, before sputtering as of late, having lost their last three. Loan signing Romelu Lukaku leads the team with 9 goals. Aston Villa are in 18th place right now, and are in severe danger of going down. To win this game, they will need a good performance from Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann.

Sunday’s early game will be a London derby featuring Chelsea playing host to Arsenal. Chelsea blew a two goal lead to draw 2-2 with lowly Southampton, and will need a win here to keep pace with United and City at the top. Demba Ba was an excellent signing, and he will need help from the midfield trio of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, and Oscar. Arsenal are trying to push into Champions League places. They have plenty of fire power in players like Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla, and Lukas Podolski, but their inconsistency from week to week is their biggest downfall.

The late game on Sunday is Tottenham Hotspur hosting leaders Manchester United. Gareth Bale is a constant threat for Spurs, always looking like he could score a goal. Tottenham will be hoping to climb to third place, if results go their way. Manchester United will be boosted with Wayne Rooney’s return from injury. Robin van Persie will continue to lead the line, having scored a league-best 17 goals this season. This will be an exciting match to watch, and should be end-to-end stuff. It will be one for fans and neutrals alike.

Monday caps off an exciting weekend of action, when Southampton hosts Everton. Southampton have been in good form late, including that come from behind 2-2 draw with Chelsea, to escape the bottom three. They are fighters, and will continue to turn in tidy performances as they try to secure survival in the Premier League. Everton, currently in fifth, are just three points behind Tottenham and a spot in the Champions League. Marouane Fellaini and Nikica Jelavic have been impressive for Moyes’ men this term, combining for 14 goals and 5 assists.

European Soccer Round-Up: Holiday Edition

 Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Norwich City v Manchester City - Carrow Road

With most of Europe’s top leagues shut down for their annual winter break, attention turned squarely to the Barclays Premier League over the holiday period. It proved to be an exciting one, with tight games, surprises, and controversial refereeing decisions a-plenty to keep fans arguing for weeks to come. Now, as the dust settles on the frenetic, four-games-in-ten-days period, the shape of things to come is becoming clearer at last.

The Usual Suspects

The top of the table has a very familiar look about it. Both Manchester clubs, United and City, have pulled away from the rest of the league. Only Chelsea, newly returned from their shock defeat in the Club World Cup final, has a realistic chance of catching them. The stinging defeat inflicted by Corinthians, far from blunting the Blues’ edge, seems to have made them more determined than ever to put up a solid title challenge. The thumping 8 – 0 win over Aston Villa early in the holiday period proved they are in a mean mood after the final loss, and they continued their winning ways with away wins at tricky teams Norwich and, most impressively, Everton. Always looking to strengthen their squad, news is breaking that they have triggered the release clause in the contract of Newcastle’s Demba Ba, and are already in talks with the player to bring him to Stamford Bridge.

Manchester United had a typically solid run of games. Although they dropped points to a Swansea side who matched them for style and ability in the first game of the holiday crunch, their subsequent performances see them now seven points clear of city rivals City. As every follower of English soccer knows, United tend to grow stronger as the season progresses. However, they have been clear at the top at the start of the New Year before and been pegged back, so not all is lost for the chasing pack. After yet another wild comeback, this time winning improbably 4 – 3 against Newcastle, their confidence is be sky-high; the pounding they game Wigan proved that they are the form team, and the clear title favorites at this stage.

City, meanwhile, continue to plod along in second. Already their fans seem resigned to surrendering their title to archrivals United. Any loss at this stage in such a tight race is difficult to overcome, and the one against Sunderland, coming on the heels of a poor display at Norwich, which saw them grasp the latest of winners, cast a deep gloom amongst the long-suffering supporters. An easy home win against Stoke has done nothing to lift the spirits, and, with Chelsea breathing down their necks, it is going to be a long second half struggle for the Blue Moon faithful.

The fight for the fourth and final European Champions League slot is, as usual, one of the most interesting in the entire league. At the turn of the New Year, only ten points separate third from tenth place. Tottenham and Arsenal seem to be the most likely contenders, but both have enough frailties that any of the current top ten could mount a realistic challenge. Spurs, although sitting in third now, have a horrible tendency to implode when faced with a chance to recapture former greatness. They have done it for so many seasons by this point that no one, least of all their fans, expects anything less than a dramatic late season slide down to fifth or sixth place at best.

Arsenal, meanwhile, are in a state of turmoil. All the great performances of late went out the window in the last game against Southampton, where they failed to find a winner. Whilst the stellar wins against Reading (5 – 2 away) and 7 – 3 home to Newcastle were scintillating, it will be the struggles against Wigan and Southampton that the Gunners’ fans will remember. Arsene Wenger has probably done enough to secure his job for yet another season, yet it is more of the same frustration ahead for Arsenal fans, despite looking likeliest to secure that fourth spot again.

The Drop Zone

Despite the efforts and pledges of new manager Harry Redknapp to keep QPR in the top flight, the Londoners already looked doomed to relegation. They have turned in some woeful performances this season and, although they fought bravely against both Newcastle and West Brom, they still lost both games. This is what happens to teams with a sense of doom hanging over them. Good performances fail to bring results; dubious decisions go against you; and the players and staff begin to believe in the inevitable. The collapse against Liverpool in the last game highlighted how fragile any improvement has been

Reading seem destined to join QPR in the Championship next season. Collecting four points over the period was decent considering they only have 13 for the season. This kind of form does not guarantee safety, however, especially as the other teams in the relegation battle keep picking up points as well. Reading will struggle to move out of the bottom three and remain one of those clubs who are too good for the Championship but not good enough for the Premiership.

The third relegation spot is wide open at this stage. Wigan, Southampton, and Aston Villa are most likely to be embroiled in a second half struggle to survive, though only ten points separate eleventh place from the third relegation spot in eighteenth. All of the teams in the bottom half of the table have enough problems that any of them could easily find themselves sucked into an unwanted struggle for survival.