Saturday, December 29, 2012

The BPL, as the Year Changes

The BPL, as the Year Changes
By Jordan Katz

2013 is upon us. A new year has begun, filled with resolutions, optimism, all those positive things. Now seems like a good time to take a look at the various storylines that have come up in this year in the BPL.

Manchester United, The Comeback Kids: Sitting atop the table at this time is Manchester United. After losing the title famously last year to Manchester City, this season United have been sticklers for late game luck and heroics. Starting with Robin Van Persie scoring twice in five minutes to bury Southampton, United have been able to consistently pull off come from behind wins to place themselves at the top of the table. They overcame a 2-0 deficit to Aston Villa to win 3-2, and beat Manchester City with a last second free kick to give them a 3-2 win at the Etihad. United’s many close wins have proven that they have a champion’s pedigree. No lead is too big for them to overcome as they have proven time and time again this season. Law of averages says that they’re bound to lose some close games and get some unlucky breaks by the time the season is over, but I somehow doubt that will apply to Sir Alex Ferguson’s men.

Manchester City, Ups and Downs: Sitting at second place is the defending champion, Manchester City. The “Noisy Neighbors” of Manchester haven’t done anything outstanding in how they win games. They’ve lost twice; first to Man U, and then surprisingly to Sunderland, but have generally been in a good form. The reason for their second place ranking is their penchant for coming away with draws in games that they should win. If they could’ve turned road draws against Stoke and West Ham into wins, they’d be in first place, two points ahead of United. On the field performance in the BPL has been mainly smooth sailing, with the loss to Sunderland being the only real exception. The problems for City lie in European play and off the field. City bombed out of the Champions League after failing to win a game in six tries in another unsuccessful attempt in club football’s finest competition. City also has its share off the field problems, and by problems, I mean Mario Balotelli and Roberto Mancini’s spats. The two Italians have feuded all throughout the season, which culminated in Balotelli’s subbing off in the Manchester Derby. Balotelli was taken off, and immediately went down to the tunnel, which earned him a fine from City. There are strong rumors of Balotelli being sold to AC Milan come the January transfer market, which could benefit both the Italian and Manchester City.

Chelsea, Two Spaniards, An Italian and a Russian: When Chelsea brought in Eden Hazard over the summer, it surely seemed like the Belgian international’s performance would be the biggest story for Chelsea this year. But people forgot that Roman Abramovich owns Chelsea, and that Fernando Torres, despite having a successful Euros, has yet to be consistent for the club. Abramovich, never shy to fire managers, fired Roberto Di Matteo after the defending European Champions got shellacked 3-0 by Juventus. Less than 24 hours later, the man who scored 26 goals for Chelsea was sacked, and Rafa Benitez was then appointed to interim manager, his first gig after being in charge of Liverpool. The response to the new Spanish manager at first was harsh, but has since warmed up as Chelsea has been playing better. In correspondence with Benitez taking the helms at Chelsea has been the improved form of Fernando Torres. The Spanish striker, who since joining the Blues has had more ups and downs than an extreme roller coaster, seems to have finally found his comfort zone . In his most recent four games, Torres has three goals and an assist, once again prompting whispers of “Torres is back.” If Torres’ continues at this rate, he will help his fellow countryman, Benitez, in putting the interim manager in good standing with the supporters, and winning games for Chelsea.

The Wild Tie for Fourth: There’s three teams tied for fourth, and there could be four if not for the London subway cleaners going on strike. Tottenham, Everton and West Brom are all tied at 33 points while Arsenal has 30 points on one less game. Arsenal and Tottenham fighting for fourth place is not surprising at all. They finished 3th and 4th last year, and find themselves in the same position However, Everton and West Brom being in this position is far more interesting. The Toffees finished 7th last year, while the Baggies finished 10th. For Everton, the driving force has been the big Belgian, with the even bigger hair, Marouane Fellaini. Fellaini has 8 goals, which is more than Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, and Fernando Torres, among others. Whilst other players have been making major contributions to Everton’s campaign, Fellaini has been pivotal towards Everton sitting tied at 4th. West Brom has taken advantage of Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku and Shane Long, as the two have combined for 11 goals. West Brom dominated in November, winning 4 in a row to shoot them up to the table, which included beating Chelsea. While it’s quite likely the Spurs and Arsenal will hold their positions around 4th place all season, you’ll have to watch to see if Everton and WBA can keep up their good form all way into May, and qualify for European competition.

Ugly, But Effective, Stoke City: Tony Pulis’ men of Stoke are infamous for playing “anti-football”. They play physical and don’t focus on trying to play with an aesthetically pleasing style, rather the use one that prevents them losing games, which shows in their record. They have only lost 3 games, the same amount of losses suffered by both Chelsea and Manchester United. They have a league-leading 10 draws. Stoke is a team that will happily take an ugly looking 0-0 draw over a thrilling 5-4 loss. And that kind of attitude has been working for Stoke. They only lead the league in only conceding 14 goals in 19 games, less than a goal per game. No one likes to play Stoke, and they’re fine with that, as they could sneak into a Europa league spot with such a strong defense. Stoke currently sits in 8th place, but if Everton or West Brom begin to fade, they could sneak into 7th place and play in the Europa League.

The Surprise of Michu: Raise your hand if you expected a Spanish striker to be the leading scorer in the BPL in December. Okay, you probably thought that would be Fernando Torres. Would you have expected Michu, previously of Rayo Vallecano, to be that striker? Doubtful. Michu has caught most people by surprise. The striker, who scored 15 times in Spain last year, has already scored 13 times this season for Swansea. He has been one of the biggest surprises of the BPL, and massive credit must be given to Michael Laudrup and Swansea for finding such a gem in the rough.

A Pair of Disappointments, Newcastle and Liverpool: The two parties involved in Andy Carroll transfer have both had lackluster seasons thus far. Newcastle, who last year finished 5th, is now sitting in 15th place. Demba Ba has been just about single handedly keeping the Magpies out of a relegation battle, with 11 goals, good for second in the BPL. Injuries to two of Newcastle’s top players, Frenchmen Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa has hurt them thus far. The Newcastle squad from last season has hardly changed, as the Ba and Cisse striker force is still in tact, yet Newcastle has been performing much worse. Injuries have been hurting Alan Pardew’s men, but a drop of 10 spots in the table is surely not at all expected. Liverpool has also been disappointing, but that really depends on what you expected from Brendan Rodgers’ men from Anfield. They currently sit in 10th place, a meager fall from last season’s 8th place finish. It’s clear that Rodgers doesn’t intend to return Liverpool to a dynasty overnight, but rather rebuild the squad. Luis Suarez, much like Demba Ba, has been doing the majority of the scoring with 11 goals to his name. While expecting Liverpool to make the Champions League is ridiculous, it’s fair to think the Reds could make the Europa League. Still, unless they improve their play in the second half of this season, the only chance Liverpool has at European competition is winning the FA Cup.

Bound for Relegation, and Who Saw it Coming?, QPR: Last season QPR needed Bolton drawing with Stoke just to stay in the BPL. In response to that they made moves in the off-season to bring in some more talent. Stephane M’Bia, Granero, Julio Cesar, and Junior Hoilett, were among the several players QPR acquired to ensure that they wouldn’t be facing relegation again this season. That backfired. They have won just a single game. Even if the firing of Mark Hughes, and the hiring of Harry Redknapp, QPR still sits dead last in the table. It’s sad to see, as QPR tried to spend to improve their team, and seemed to make some smart signings, but instead, they’re in the relegation zone, and it’s highly unlikely that Harry Redknapp can “wheel and deal” his way out of QPR’s tough situation.