Plenty to play for as Premier League enters crucial halfway stage

The all important Christmas period is considered to be a crucial time for football teams with the results of a congested fixture list said to go a long way in determining the fortunes of clubs in the second half of the season. The first half of the Premier League season has been eventful at both ends of the table and it’s time to look at whether the picture at the top can change between now and May and whether teams at the bottom can avoid the prospect of being relegated.

Having spent extravagant amounts of money, it is Manchester City who has so far dictated the pace at the top of the Premier League this season. However, the Blues suffered their first loss of the season last week against a troubled Chelsea team and for the first time since August have shown signs of vulnerability, giving the chasing pack hope of catching them.

They have a two point lead at the top of the table but with six tricky looking fixtures coming up before 11th January, there is every chance that they could be overhauled, particularly by rivals Manchester United.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have responding well after their shocking 1-6 reverse to City at Old Trafford in October, arguable the most surprising result in the first half of the season, if not for many years. Although not in top form, United has consistently won vital games in the wake of that defeat and despite getting knocked out of the Champions League the reigning Premier League champions look primed for an assault on City over Christmas and in to the new year. Their next five games all look winnable, playing Fulham, Wigan, Blackburn, Newcastle and Bolton – games you would expect them to take maximum points from putting them in perfect position to start 2012.

Harry Redknapp’s Spurs could well be described as the surprise package of the season so far, although that description could be argued as being harsh as Spurs have put together a more than capable team in the last couple of years and are capable of matching any opponent.

They sit in third place with a game in hand, which, should they win, would give them breathing space ahead of fourth placed Chelsea and put them within striking distance of the Manchester Clubs in the top two spots. Having been dumped out of the Europa League last week, Spurs can now concentrate on finishing in the top four. Tottenham’s next game is against Chelsea at White Hart Lane on Thursday, which should they win, would put them into a very strong position to qualify for the Champions League next season and even an outside chance of a title push, although the latest Premier League odds, which have Tottenham at 20/1 to win the title suggest it’s a two horse race between the Red and Blue halves of Manchester.

A poor start from Arsenal has seen the Gunners playing catch up but with striker, Robin Van Persie, firing in the goals, Arsene Wenger’s men are making up ground fast but did suffer a setback when going down 1-0 to Man City at the weekend. A first title since 2004 looks highly unlikely but a top four finish looks on the cards.

Inconstant performances have cost both Liverpool and Chelsea valuable points and both teams are guilty of dropping points to teams in the bottom half which could ultimately cost their chances of Champions League football next season. It looks like it will be a battle between the two in the new year as to who will claim that all important fourth place finish. Andres Vilas-Boas has come under pressure for results at Stamford Bridge since taking charge in the Summer and it will be interesting to see if the board back him in the January transfer window, equally Liverpool have spent big in the past two windows and whether they get the cheque book out again next month to try and help Kenny Dalglish consolidate a place in the top four come May remains to be seen.

At the bottom of the table, the ever present team in the bottom three has been Blackburn Rovers, whose manager, Steve Kean, has been under more pressure than any other manager. He at least has a chance of getting to the halfway point with his job intact and with at least one team below him in the table. That said, that other team is Bolton, who they play on Tuesday night in a game that is being billed as the final match for the losing manager!

Wigan, Wolves and Sunderland are also in the relegation mix just above the bottom two and know that even a couple of wins over this vital Christmas period would put them on the front foot heading in to the new year but with just six point separating Wigan in 18th and Aston Villa in 10th, anyone number of teams could face the drop if they fall upon a bad run of form.

Predicting the final standings at this stage of the season is not an easy task; however, it is very difficult to deny that one of the two Manchester clubs should end up in top spot. Much will depend on the game between the two on April 28th, which could well be the title decider and much will also depend on who splashes the cash in January in pursuit of the title. At this stage, City are the justified favourites to win the title but United are sure not to go down without a fight.

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