This week in: English Football – London Plays Catchup

The two Manchester clubs have occupied first and second in the Premiership for about as long as the “99-percenters” have resided in Zuccotti Park.  Now Newcastle United, still unbeaten this season, have moved into third place, meaning the five Premier League clubs from London find themselves playing catchup.  Chelsea are in 4th place, ahead of Tottenham in 5th on goal difference, though Spurs have a game in hand; Arsenal reside in 7th; QPR in 12th; and Fulham, the lowest side from the capital, in 15th.  Over the last decade, the quest to be London’s top team has been between Arsenal and Chelsea – Spurs have not finished above either of them in that period – but this season is looking like a three-horse race.

While Chelsea may still harbour ambitions of breaking up the Manchester hegemony in the title race, they are more likely to find themselves in a battle to remain in the Champions League by the end of the season.  Last week’s 5-3 defeat to Arsenal showed the weaknesses in Chelsea’s defence – in particular John Terry’s positioning and lack of pace – which Robin

Arsenal and Chelsea have to also fight Tottenham now to be the Pride of London

Van Persie and Theo Walcott were able to exploit effectively.  In attack, Juan Mata was an astute signing and gives them a player capable of changing the games – but outside of that. the options are lacklustre.  Fernando Torres has finally found some level of scoring form, yet still looks like a shadow of the striker who won Euro 2008 for Spain.  Neither Drogba, nor Anelka, look capable of leading the line in the way they have done in previous seasons, so the best option for Chelsea’s manager, Villas-Boas, appears to be Daniel Sturridge – the youngster has scored four goals in just six league appearances so far this year.  In the midfield, Frank Lampard is enjoying a renaissance this season and Mata is providing the creativity, but the Blues miss Michael Essien – a tough tackler, who adds grit and balance to their team – they hope to have him back by the end of next month.  Chelsea’s top four position to this point of the season, has come via wins over teams who they would expect to beat (West Brom, Norwich, Sunderland, Swansea, Bolton, and Everton), while they were held to a draw by Fulham and lost to Manchester United, Arsenal, and QPR.  Before the turn of the year, they have to play Liverpool, Newcastle, Manchester City, and Tottenham – should they lose two or more of those games, any title aspirations will have to be forgotten and the battle for fourth will be their focus.

It is hard for Arsenal fans to accept that their, seemingly perpetual, dominance over local rivals Tottenham may be overturned this season – like people who persist in calling the cute and furry creatures from down under, “Koala Bears,”  because they have always thought that to be true (they’re marsupials, it’s just “Koala”).  While Spurs may have been the lowly neighbour for a long time – it has not always been so.  Tottenham were the first club in the 20th century to win the League and Cup double; the first British team to win a European trophy (the Cup Winners Cup in 1963); and, finished above Arsenal five times in the 1980s – things do change.  Looking at the teams this year, Spurs can argue that they have at least as good a playing squad as their North London rivals.  The first choice goalkeepers are pretty much a wash – with Szczesny playing as well as ever for Arsenal, and American Brad Friedel providing Spurs with a much more reliable pair of hands than Gomes gave them last year.  Neither team’s defence is the strongest part of their squad, though the Gunners will be hoping that a partnership of Mertesacker and Vermaelen will help the ratio of goals they give up – so far this season Arsenal have conceded 21 in 10 games, more than the rest of the league other than Bolton and Blackburn.  Tottenham have been missing Michael Dawson, who is out with an Achilles injury, and Ledley King is hampered by having only one working knee – but other than the two Manchester clubs, teams have been scoring an average of less than one a game against them.  While the full-backs are of a similar standard (Kyle Walker and Benoit Assou-Ekotto for Spurs, Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs, when fit, for Arsenal), it is in the midfield that Tottenham have the clear advantage.  For their rivals, Theo Walcott plays well once every four games, Arteta was last good in 2009, Frimpong times his challenges about as well as Paul Scholes did, and Rosicky and Arshavin are washed up and now fringe players at best.  With Jack Wilshere out with an injury, Arsenal’s strongest midfielder this season has been Aaron Ramsay, but he had an awful game at White Hart Lane, where he gave the ball away many times.  In contrast, Tottenham are struggling to fit all of their good players in a packed midfield – Scott Parker has added the grit that has been missing for so long and freed up Luka Modric and Rafael Van der Vaart (who has scored in five consecutive league games) to play more attacking roles.  On the wings, Aaron Lennon has been providing better end products to his dashing runs than he has done in previous years, and Gareth Bale continues to destroy right backs with a combination of speed and strength.  With Sandro, Huddlestone, Krancjar and Pienaar more than capable fill-ins, should there be injuries or suspensions, Spurs have strength in-depth in the middle of the park.  Up front, Robin Van Persie is the most in-form player for either of the two clubs, but other than that, Arsenal do not have a reliable striker – Chamakh and Gervinho are both wasteful in their finishing.  Tottenham look much more of a threat with Adebayor leading the attack than they did with Peter Crouch, and Defoe has improved his all around game and remains deadly with half a yard of space anywhere around the penalty box.  Overall, Spurs have looked the more balanced team with a quarter of the season gone – which is reflected in their position three points above Arsenal, having played a game less than their rivals.  For the first time since 1995, there may not be a St. Totteringham’s Day this season – the point of the season that Arsenal celebrate that their rivals can no longer mathematically finish above them in the league.

Outside of London last weekend, both Manchester United and City picked up three more points, away to Everton and home to Wolves respectively.  Norwich came from 3-1 down to draw with Blackburn at Carrow Road; Liverpool beat West Brom at the Hawthorns; Newcastle continued their good form thanks to a hat-trick from Demba Ba, helping them win away at Stoke on Monday night; and Bolton’s wretched season continued as they lost in Wales against Swansea.  Wigan remain bottom of the table, after losing at home to Martin Jol’s Fulham, and Sunderland and Aston Villa shared four goals and the points in a match at the Stadium of Light.

Predictions

Last week 5-5, season 38-31

Newcastle vs Everton – Home win

Arsenal vs West Brom – Home win

Aston Villa vs Norwich – Draw

Blackburn vs Chelsea – Draw

Liverpool vs Swansea – Home win

Manchester United vs Sunderland – Home win

QPR vs Manchester City – Away win

Wolves vs Wigan – Home win

Bolton vs Stoke – Away win

Fulham vs Spurs – Away win

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