Saturday, 7 March 2015

Four Give and Four Get

It takes something truly remarkable to bring a football writer on hiatus back to the pen and the blank page (or the Mac and the Calibri, whatever stirs the imagination). Something that shakes the very foundations of the footballing world.

Arsenal winning a trophy, Mourinho praising a referee, Zlatan scoring and not taking the credit, someone else scoring and Zlatan not taking the credit, Real Madrid lasting one week without being linked to a German, City lasting one week without being linked to an Arsenal player, Marco Reus lasting one week- all of these are fine examples of such oddities of the football universe.

This weekend witnessed one such outlier which has compelled me to get back to inflicting my opinions, such as they are, on my ten(s) of readers. A referee gave Manchester United a penalty at Old Trafford- and, unlike the red card that followed it, it was the correct decision.

The subsequent penalty was put away by defensive midfielder Wayne Rooney who was making a rare appearance in a forward role this season. He is now the highest scoring defensive midfielder in the history of the league.

The race for the top four places in English football has been a very forgiving one. Every team that gets up a head of steam seems to feel almost ashamed to be pulling away from its cohorts and takes it upon itself to slip up and let the others back into it.

If somebody had told Brendan Rodgers that Liverpool would be in with a shout of the top four after they lost 3-0 to United at Old Trafford earlier in the season, he’d have probably laughed politely and blamed Balotelli as he was wont to do back then. But the truth is, now, they really are in with more than a shout.

Many opined that with European football keeping the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal occupied, Manchester United would have an advantage with more resting time between games. But, Liverpool and Arsenal have done everything in their power to nullify that advantage.

Liverpool travelled to Turkish side Besiktas and did their best to lose in 90 minutes only to be thwarted into 30 minutes extra time and finally counted on ever-reliable latest failed signing Dejan Lovren to revitalize their campaign by knocking them out of Europe.

Arsenal, too, proved that the Champions League draw is totally irrelevant and that if they play badly enough, they can lose to absolutely any team in the Round of 16. Arsene Wenger relied on the clinical finishing of Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck who delivered, spurning sitter after sitter as Dimitar Berbatov’s blistering pace on the counter was far too much for the already sprightly Per Mertesacker.

Arsene is optimistic about the return leg, where he intends to use the experience of Francis Coquelin and Serge Gnabry to finish the job. Not to be left behind, Tottenham Hotspur is also a football club.

Southampton have no European football to be concerned about, but they do have European footballers to be concerned about- Graziano Pelle has had an awful time recently netting just thrice in his last 22 appearances. Koeman has been forced to ridiculous extremes and has reportedly even considered taking Radamel Falcao on loan from- oh wait, that’s for the other Dutch guy.

Louis van Gaal declared recently that Manchester United are the best in-form team in the league. Some have posited that that was actually heard wrong- he had said that Manchester United are the best INFORMED team in the league. While the latter may not make much sense, unlike the former it has a shot at being true.

United lumbered over the weekend to a 2-0 victory over Sunderland- relying on the ever-faithful Wes Brown and John O’Shea to get them over the line. The mid-week trip to Tyne-side was described by a fan after the game as “like watching paint dry”. United have defended themselves claiming that said fan is a painter and happens to love watching paint dry.

West Ham United have picked up one win now in their last 11 games and are just about still in the top ten. Big Sam maintains they are still on course for European football. The course just happens to be a long one, I suppose.

This race for the top four is so enthralling that Manchester City, too, decided to spice up their season by giving up the laborious and frankly pointless pursuit of Chelsea and throw themselves into it. From a seemingly unassailable 8 point lead over the team in third place, City have seen that reduce to just four. Pellegrini said recently that if Arsenal get any closer, they will buy Alexis Sanchez.

It all comes down to who can handle squeaky bum time. The final games are upon us and with them comes massive pressure, big performances, hilarious mistakes and plenty of stories for football writers to regurgitate. There couldn’t be a better time to get back to the old MS Word and font size 12.

The Premier League Grand Opera is playing its final symphony. But who is it four?

Friday, 14 November 2014

When Yellow Feels Blue

Borussia Dortmund is the most entertaining side in world football when they play their best. They run fast, press high and waste no time in useless possession- launching attack after lightning quick attack. To quote manager Jurgen Klopp, his side plays football “like a heavy metal band”. Carrying forward the analogy, they may be Metallica when at their best but they’re equally Justin Bieber (not heavy metal but the perfect euphemism for bad nonetheless) when at their worst.

Dortmund recorded their third win in the Bundesliga last week- a FIFA “Titus Bramble Own Goal of the Year” nominee sinking 3rd placed Borussia Monchengladbach at the Signal Iduna Park. This was the 11th game of the season. Dortmund have also won 4 out of 4 in the Champions League and look certain favourites to win a group that also has Anderlecht, Galatasaray and Alexis Sanchez. Now, this seems a paradox so complicated Christopher Nolan could make a trilogy on it. How on earth does the same team do so well in a tournament supposedly comprised of champion teams and so badly in their domestic league?

Many theories have been put forth and shockingly some actually have merit. This writer is going to look at none of them because, frankly, it doesn’t matter why they’ve done badly in the Bundesliga so far. A good football writer (like a good drug dealer) must be able to take you into the future and predict what’s going to happen. So I’m dusting off my crystal football and looking ahead to the end of the season.

Dortmund will finish 3rd in the Bundesliga.  Currently on 10 points, Dortmund sit a princely 10 points and 12 places off where I’m predicting them to finish. But they can only go up from here. They completely outclassed Monchengladbach which is probably why Christoph Kramer was so miffed he decided to help them. Key players are returning from injury- the biggest of which, in my opinion, is central midfielder Ilkay Gundogan.

Gundogan is one of the best defensive midfielders in the world and he is crucial to the way Dortmund play. Dispossessing opponents quickly and pressing high up the pitch is something the aging legs of Sebastian Kehl can no longer do. This subsequently restricts Sven Bender’s freedom to move forward and link midfield to attack. Gundogan’s burst of energy frees up space for other key players and allows Dortmund to break with greater speed and precision.

Dortmund have dominated comfortably in a lot of matches they have lost this season. They have had far more possession, shots and clear cut chances than their opponents but haven’t taken them. Part of the reason is the inconsistent form of Ciro Immobile- he’s clearly no Lewndowski yet. But with Reus’ return and Aubameyang finding some good form, the clinical and Germanic nature of their attack is slowly coming back. They’ve scored 13 goals in 4 Champions League games. Attacking like that has to translate into wins in the Bundesliga.

The defence has been weak because, frankly, there haven’t been enough Germans in it. Erik Durm has been terrific at left back. In fact, he’s so good that Bayern Munich will be buying him next season and keeping him on the bench. Mats Hummels has successfully returned from his injury about five times so far. One hopes he doesn’t end up like “that Arsenal player who is always injured”. One also hopes he doesn’t end up AS “that Arsenal player who is always injured”. Like Nolan, I like to leave things ambiguous.

All of this considered, they’ve still only conceded one goal in 4 Champions League games- the fewest of all teams in the competition. That kind of form difference doesn’t last long- eventually the scales tilt to one side. And this writer feels that side is the Champions League one.

“If this writer is so confident of an upturn in Dortmund fortunes why isn’t he predicting a higher finish? Why only third?” a curious yet annoyingly erudite reader may be fighting the urge to ask.  Well, the short answer is that I’m giving a pessimistic estimate. Dortmund will definitely finish 3rd or above.

They will also definitely not win the league. Pep Guardiola is already thinking of where to put his second Bundesliga winner’s medal. The reason I can’t be sure between 2nd and 3rd is the relative inconsistency Dortmund’s rivals have shown. Wolfsburg are currently 2nd and have looked good at times this season but they are almost professionals at slipping up when it really counts.

Then there’s Monchengladbach or, in the interest of both brevity and pure awesomeness, M’Gladbach who had been on an incredible 17 game unbeaten run before Christoph Kramer’s piece of brilliance. Hannover, Hoffenheim, Leverkusen and Augsburg all follow and have all looked patchy at best.

All of this means there’s room for Dortmund to make giant strides. The Bundesliga is very similar to the Premier League in that sense- it’s very competitive from top to bottom. And right now Dortmund are bottom but tomorrow they could easily be top.

One thing’s for sure though: wherever Dortmund finish and however they play, Christoph Kramer’s own goal will go down as one of the best goals the world of football has ever seen. Yes, that’s what this article has been about all along. Pointing you in one direction and gently nudging you in several others leaving you confused until the end- which makes you want to give this an Oscar but you will not. I am now officially the Nolan of football writing.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Leagues Apart

When the Champions League returns, it brings plenty of talking points. And plenty of opportunities for cynics to criticize the English contingent. They are cynics, however, and must not be taken seriously. I am, by contrast, a relentless ball of sunshine.

I can confidently say that all the English teams did everything they could on Match Day One to portray themselves as mildly genuine “maybe quarter-finalists” of the tournament. Arsenal went to Dortmund and touched the ball five times in the first hour. Now, there are those who would interpret that negatively. But, I think that was a tactic- to not play like a football team at all. It’s much easier to beat a football team than whatever Arsenal was trying to be. That’s why Dortmund only won 2-0.

On a more positive note, Arsene Wenger’s defence after the game was only about half as transparent as his defence during it. “They scored two- we had three chances. If we had taken our chances, we could have won 3-2”. Granted, lamentations about missed chances are bound to appear more frequently in his post-match musings now that ace finisher Danny Welbeck has joined their ranks, it still begged a rather eloquent “Whaaaaa…” which Geoff Shreeves declined to provide.

Arsenal fans since witnessed their side “hammer” (yes, that’s what they’re calling it) Aston Villa and then put in a “spirited display” (yes, that’s what they’re calling it), bowing out of the League Cup to Southampton. There, MK Dons have gone further than Arsenal as well. All United need now to regain self-respect is for MK Dons to win at Stamford Bridge.

Let’s move beyond Arsenal now because I think we can all agree they were never in contention to win anything anyway. Except, maybe, the League Cup. Oh, wait.

Liverpool returned to “Real Madrid and Bayern Munich’s Premier Club Competition” at home to Bulgarian Champions Love-your-forests (close enough, don’t be a nit-picker). They created a number of tactically relevant “to-be-discussed-in-the-studios-later” almost opportunities (known colloquially as “Raheem Sterlings”) and finally broke the deadlock when Emile Heskey’s less successful cousin Mario did what Luis Suarez would have done about 9 times in as many games- score at the Kop and look ghastly celebrating.

Thankfully, that only took 82 minutes- which is not surprising because Liverpool are known for rapid starts at Anfield. They are also known for getting ridiculous refereeing decisions given in their favour. Love-your-forests goal-keeper *insert name here* really didn’t see that coming. Steven Gerrard stepped up and scored and promised that this year when he slips, they will be nowhere near the title.

English Champions Manchester City went to German Champions Bayern, who have started calling City their “best start to the group stages- let’s have them every year”. City created about half as many good chances as Arsenal did at Dortmund (I know what you’re thinking and yes, half of zero is still zero).

“They only beat us in the last minute of the game- I’ll take that”- this jubilant City fan celebrating the defeat against a depleted Bayern says everything I could ever hope to about the standards English teams are aspiring to.

But wait, let’s not get carried away here! There’s still hope for England in last year’s semi-finalists and this year’s Premier League Champions (was I not supposed to give that away?) – Jose Mourinho (formerly known as Chelsea Football Club). And, well, as luck (read Champions League group stage draws which are very obviously rigged) would have it, he ended up with probably the easiest group of the lot.

Maribor and Sporting are very good in their respective countries of *insert name here* and Portugal, which means they might as well step aside. Add to this “that-German-side-that-was-good-until-Manuel Neuer-left” and Jose must have been readying himself for a delicious second round tie with Love-your-forests.

But, things started sourly on Match Day One when Didier Drogba look-alike Didier Drogba took to the field and put on an utterly uninspired performance and Chelsea could only manage a 1-1 draw. Jose came out after the game and refused to criticize his team- I like to end every paragraph with a joke.

“There are still 5 games to go” echoed around England after Match Day One and, while gauntlets haven’t been thrown down, towels remain firmly in place as well. There will be a resurgence, one wagers. So let’s come together and hope that I’ll be back soon blogging about a resolute Chelsea totally outclassing Maribor one nil, Danny Welbeck scoring his second Champions League goal in the same tournament and Liverpool winning comfortably against 8-man Basel thanks to a Steven Gerrard hat-trick of penalties.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Louis van, what the Gaal?

It’s the end of an era at Old Trafford. When Manchester United confirmed Patrice Evra’s transfer to Juventus on Monday, they officially declared to the entire footballing community that they will, in fact, have a left back next season.

If that wasn’t enough, they’ve brought in England’s fourth choice left back and Spain’s eighteenth choice central mid-fielder for a paltry 60 million quid while Real Madrid have spent more (yes, more!) on World Cup winner Toni Kroos and World Cup top scorer James Rodriguez, who we all know are average at best.

There is optimism in the United camp about the new signings reminiscent only of the kind of optimism that accompanied the arrival of Belgian stalwart Maroune Fellaini last season. This optimism propelled him to a mighty seventeen almost-goal-but-actually-zero tally that left United almost-champions-maybe-top-four-no-well-how-about-Europe-not-even-that-screw-it-lets-get-a-new-shirt-sponsor seventh in the league standings.

 But, this year will be different. This year will be their year. Louis van Gaal comes to Old Trafford off the back of a World Cup campaign with the Netherlands that saw them fly into the semi-finals and then let Ron Vlaar send Argentina into the final.

Vlaar magic aside, van Gaal was tactically brilliant at the World Cup and United will be hoping he brings that sharp acumen to Manchester and doesn’t play Ashley Young, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck in the same team. Given the decision to sell Evra and Rio Ferdinand, one wagers that acumen is in action already. 

Can he really bring glory days back to United? His record would suggest he can. The current squad’s record would suggest he would have been better off joining Southampton. But if there’s one thing van Gaal is known for, it’s making bad players play mediocre. And that’s exactly what the Old Trafford faithful has been pleading for from Tom Cleverley- please be mediocre.

There are, however, major gaps to fill. With Shinji Kagawa, Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Adnan Januzaj all wanting to play in the same position, one wagers a couple of those may have to warm the proverbial bench and a couple may be played out of position. With Evra leaving, United have also now lost their best winger and must rely on the combined expertise of Nani, Valencia and Ashley Young- which has historically managed an average of 0.5 accurate crosses per game.

The most major of said gaps is now at the heart of what will be a drastically different back line. Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand have left for pastures anew. Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans have collectively ensured the retirement of United’s head physio Rob Swire and their current most experienced centre half Michael Carrick is out with an ankle injury.

Rumour has it, though, that van Gaal has lined up key signings in these areas. Mats Hummels, Angel Di Maria and Arturo Vidal are strongly linked. There is also the contingency plan of buying Edinson Cavani and (I’m guessing) keeping him on the bench to establish psychological dominance over Chelsea and Manchester City by demonstrating that United too can buy expensive players and ruin their careers by never playing them.

If the transfers (minus Cavani) go through, United may have a playing eleven that challenges for the dizzying heights of fourth, maybe even higher! Without the useless distraction of Champions League football, they can now focus on what matters most- winning the Manchester derby.

It all comes down to these next few weeks. Partly because that’s always a neat way to end an article, but mostly because David Moyes arguably got the entire season wrong in these very weeks last year.

Calamitous dealings in the transfer market eventually saw the coup of Fellaini to rapturous applause from the Everton faithful. Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck were regular features on the MU Tour. And, to cap it all off, Arsenal were spending money. It was, in summary, an absolute nightmare of a month for United and Louis will be hoping for no encores.

With players leaving and transfers hanging, there seems to be an Arsenal-like air about United that evokes an understandable sense of trepidation. What should be the target, then? Top six? Top four? Title? Let’s keep it realistic. Finish above Spurs.

Lo! The transformation is complete.


Sunday, 27 April 2014

Some Noise for Mr. Moyes

It was a tumultuous Monday afternoon for the English media as news started to flow in through the proverbial “in-the-know” circles that there was to be a significant managerial re-jig in the ranks at Old Trafford. “The Chosen One” was to be, well, not chosen anymore.

David Moyes, four days before his 51st birthday, was subsequently thanked for his integrity and asked to pack off by the English Champions (much as expected) on Tuesday morning. Now the English media, rather unlike the Manchester United hierarchy it would seem, have been divided on the decision.

Sky Sports expert and former United legend Gary Neville claimed to be appalled that Manchester United hadn’t let a man on a six year deal even finish 12 months on the job. To counter, there were plenty who said his teams’ performances were simply not good enough to merit leadership of this historic institution for another year.

It’s been a while since I’ve chimed in on something, but this merited chiming. While it is true that David Moyes had probably lost the backing of the Board, most of the players, the media, the fans and, well, everyone except Liverpool and Man City supporters, it has to be noted that he was in probably the simplest footballing job in the world.

Sir Alex Ferguson, as we know, was an average manager with no real record or credentials. So, it was an extremely simple task to take up the mantle post him and handle similar expectations. Let’s not forget the team of former and future Ballon D’or winners he was left with. A left back who is always named on the team-sheet but never seems to be there, a mid-field with former Barcelona youth player Tom Cleverley and the pace and energy of Michael Carrick and a front-man with an exemplary, injury –free track record. Thankfully, he had an experienced and wily Chief Executive with him who could make all his transfer wishes come true. Wait, didn’t he always want Marouane Fellaini?

Looking at that mix, one wonders why Moyes even took the job in the first place. He came out recently and said even Sir Alex wouldn’t have finished top four with that lot. To be honest, it was basically that lot last year but then Sir Alex is like Dumbledore while Moyes is basically a muggle.  Not sounding right? How about Gandalf and Gollum? You evil lot!

One mistake (well, the biggest one) that Moyes has only himself to squarely blame for is his exquisite decision to dispense of the entire backroom team at a lowly Premier League winning club  and bring in the Champions-League winning Everton back-room team. Steve Round and Jimmy Lumbsden really looked the part as they scratched their heads in unison wondering how City were beating them by 3 goals. Again.

Of course, Rene Meulensteen’s decision to rebel against the eviction by taking up management hardly helps make my case given the top 4 team he turned Fulham into, but as a coach, he knew these United players. He knew what made them tick, what made them work well together and, most pertinently, what made them win! Needless to say, if a guy knows how to make a side with Tom Cleverley, Ashley Young, Rio Ferdinand and captained by Patrice Evra win, you hold onto him.

So, what next for the Red Devils? Well, the Glazers have played a perfect tune by putting Ryan Giggs in charge to appease fans and, well, Ryan Giggs. For the time being, it’s likely to work. Giggs has four games coming up which are all exceedingly winnable and which will give the Glazers time to kidnap Jurgen Klopp’s family and force him to move to Manchester.

Louis Van Gaal was on a flight to London when he jumped off without a parachute on Tuesday morning. Thankfully, he landed on Jose Mourinho’s ego so he’s fine but he can never come down now. Carlo Ancelotti will likely only win the Treble at Real Madrid so his time could be up. Then, of course, there’s the more conventional option of continuing with Ryan Giggs and getting Sir Alex Ferguson to Video Conference the half-time team talks. Anyone think it’s maybe fair to let David Moyes pick his successor? Isn’t that what United do? Isn’t that their “thing” now?

Who’s the right man? Well, this is a question that maybe should have been answered before packing off the wrong but integrity-filled one. The Glazers have clearly done their homework which is why we’re all so much closer to knowing who the person will be.

Many opine that the man should embody the United philosophy of playing attractive, attacking football. Nonsense. The United philosophy is winning. They are a match-winning, league-winning, cup-winning club. That comes before all else. “Make them win” would pretty much be a coherent, very “united” (do you see what I did there?) cry from supporters all over the world. Let’s not forget Manchester United is still the most widely followed football club in the world and Manchester City still has empty seats in their stadium even when they’re supposedly in a title race.

So where does all this take us? It takes us to another interesting, paradigm-shifting summer at Old Trafford. Men will come, men will go and if there’s a sacking, the English media will know. Who will it be? Giggsy, Fergie? Klopp, Louis? In good time we’ll know, in good time we’ll see.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Juan Transfer to Rule Them All

When it became apparent in the wee hours of an otherwise sombre Thursday morning that Chelsea were contemplating selling one of their best players to a direct title rival (or a would-be-maybe-next-year direct title rival), astonishment abounded in football media.

Sky Sports commentator Gary Neville opined that he wasn’t sure how much Manchester United needed Mata but he was extremely sure Chelsea wouldn’t be likely to sell to a rival. The Daily Mail and the Mirror concurred- it would be outlandish to even think of it! called it “The January Window’s most ridiculous transfer”.

 Three days later David De Gea was pictured ushering Juan into training and introducing him to the Manchester United first team. That’s what this writer loves about football- ridiculous things happen, and usually ridiculous people are involved.

Jose Mourinho was about as clear as he could be about the fact that Juan Mata was no longer his first-choice number ten.  The sniffing began with PSG and Real Madrid rumoured to be among those interested. The price would be heavy- that was clear, but it was also clear that English teams were not in contention.

So what changed? Well, to put it simply, Jose needed to do something Jose-like. He needed to set a precedent. Wayne Rooney wasn’t sold to Chelsea in the summer under the safe and reasonable pretext that a club doesn’t sell to a direct title rival.

Well, conveniently as things transpired, United fell far short of being title contenders and Jose saw a golden opportunity to make some money, get rid of a player he didn’t want and demonstrate to United that “some clubs do sell to title rivals”. His ulterior motives (if any!) are things he is best aware of but one thing is certain- it sends a powerful message about how confident Jose is in his current squad of players.

The truth is that’s a hallmark of all great managers. Sir Alex Ferguson achieved astonishing things with a group of players who, in the present season, have been astonishing in an entirely different way. Injuries plagued his teams as well but that never stopped him from keeping the bigger picture in mind and taking difficult calls- like saying goodbye to David Beckham when he was at the top of his game or spending close to 30 million on Robin Van Persie when many thought he was past his prime.

And it’s in pursuit of that very same well-timed wisdom that David Moyes has hauled Juan Mata to Old Trafford. Mata may not be the solution to United’s problems (this writer doesn’t think so) but he’s certainly the solution to Moyes’. In a season peppered with losses and less-than-perfect performances, fans are losing patience in their so-named “chosen one” and he needed to make a serious statement of intent in that window.

So, on paper the Mata transfer seemed to be a win-win for all concerned. Jose got his money and proved his point, Moyes appeased some of the growing Red Devil animosity towards him and Juan finally got a chance to play some football. How long would the sunshine last, though? Well, about seven days if you’re Manchester United.

Juan Mata was voted Man of the Match for his performance against Cardiff City, where he helped propel United to a 2-0 win. Joy abounded as many in the red of Manchester could finally see the light at the end of a pretty dark tunnel.

Cut to three days later in the windy plains of Stoke. Former Anfield “legend” Charlie Adam (err, well he is today anyway) returned to haunt the Devils of Manchester with a little help from the world’s slowest moving footballer Michael Carrick. Juan notched up another assist but it didn’t Mata.

Beyond anything else, that game proved what most in football already know. Manchester United’s problems go beyond the hunt for a midfielder, a defender or a centre forward. The problem is not with the people not signed yet. The problem is with the attitude of those currently in the team.

David Moyes was quick to come out and say they were unlucky. They created chances but somehow couldn’t finish them. And they conceded from a set-piece. Again. Clearly unfortunate. There’s no other conceivable explanation. Except maybe lazy defending, a lack of belief and abysmal finishing but we dare not venture there.

Alex Ferguson’s success mantra was always “focus on winning”. It’s never about how you win. It’s about winning. A team that gets remembered is one that wins. Many times his sides embodied that philosophy in its entirety and churned out woeful displays, somehow picking up the three points.

Moyes’ philosophy seems drastically different. He seems to be narrowing down on playing attractive football. There are many occasions this season when we’ve seen United play decently well without scoring and get caught out at the other end. One wagers United fans would prefer their players be the ones doing the catching out.

Repeated defeats sap self-esteem. And belief. And erode the core of what may otherwise be a good team. A perfect example is Arsenal post “The Invincibles”. Seasons of no trophies have seen many players leave, and one fears the same may happen if United don’t change their philosophy. It’s all well and good to try and play attractive football. It’s imperative to win. That is the Manchester United way.

If the philosophy is the problem, signings Juan Mata much. A paradigm shift in thinking and strategy is the need of the hour for the Red Devils. Motivation must return because that will propel them to play the “winning way”.

Else, their wives may wear Prada but the Devils will get nada.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Best Race Ever

A couple of months ago, I introduced you to the “8-horse race”. I felt absolutely certain even then though, that we would eventually end up watching two or three clear favourites battling for the ultimate prize in English football and that the others would simply wither away.

Months later and here I am again with the awkward pleasure of communicating that we are nowhere closer to knowing who those two or three contenders will be. In fact, if anything, I’m more confused now than when I churned out the last one.

Arsenal were in rampant form then- they were so good that Olivier Giroud was scoring goals. Alright, that was an easy one. But, unlike Giroud, I didn’t miss it. Aaron Ramsey’s brilliance seems to have waned slightly, but Lukas Podolski’s timely return means Arsenal are still more or less on track.

They should probably sign a centre-forward- unless Walcott thinks he’s ready to don the avatar of “Theo”ry Henry and take up the mantle himself. Then they most certainly must sign a centre-forward.

Manchester City are continuing to dismantle teams at home. It’s probably the most convincing title charge by a home team ever- they’ve scored 38 goals and conceded just 6 in 10 games at the Etihad. Away form, though, leaves much to be desired. With just 4 wins in 9 away games, they’ve scored a measly 16 goals and let in 15.

They remain title favourites but they’re bound to get found out and drop points at home eventually so the dismal away record remains a concern for Pellegrini.

Chelsea under Jose are doing exactly what the cynics expected- picking up points. It isn’t pretty but let’s face it, it never was. Jose’s teams are efficient, hard to break down and uncompromising. Most importantly, they pick up points and win titles.

The only loser in the long run is football but that hasn’t really ever mattered to Jose Mourinho. I’m also certain that isn’t the only thing that doesn’t “Mata” to him.

Liverpool were top at Christmas and 5th 3 days later. Consecutive defeats to title rivals have left Rodgers’ men a bit off the pace but good performances in both those games will encourage him.

The imminent return of Steven Gerrard and the less imminent but still early return of Daniel Sturridge may take some pressure off Suarez, especially if Sturridge finds the kind of form he was in at the start of the season. Suarez’s new contract bodes well too- always nice to see players willing to di(v)e for their clubs.

Everton continue to be the most impressive team in the league for this writer. Martinez has taken talents like Seamus Coleman and Ross Barkley and turned them into household names. The best part about this Everton side is that they are an absolute treat to watch!

They keep the ball expertly and move it around with supreme confidence. They have Chelsea’s best centre-forward and Man United’s first choice left back and are currently more pleasing to the eye than both those sides put together. More power to them, I say!

Coming to the defending champions, they seem to have found a bit of form at absolutely the perfect time. The latter half has always been the United half of the season and the red half of Manchester will doubtless feel they’re still in with a shout. After all, if Danny Welbeck is scoring consistently, something wonderful must be happening.

The uncertainty over Wayne Rooney and the certainty over Patrice Evra will be equally worrying the Old Trafford faithful, though. Signings are a must if a serious title challenge is to be mounted and centre midfield remains the biggest gap in need of filling.

Sneijder? Koke? Gundogan? Time will tell. An absolute certainty is that Tom Cleverley and Anderson will never form a Champions League (or really any league) winning centre midfield.

Newcastle and Spurs are the polite pretenders but remain within touching distance. Keeping hold of Cabaye will be Newcastle’s biggest challenge and keeping hold of clean sheets will be Spurs’, but this writer can’t see either finishing in the top six.

A veritable nail-biter of a league finish awaits us and forms the perfect curtain-raiser to Brazil, 2014. They call this league the best in the world but, quite frankly, the charm lies in the fact that the best are no longer better than the rest. In fact, pretty soon there will be no rest.

The most competitive league from top to bottom is churning out another classic title race- quite possibly, the greatest ever.