Down South

Last updated : 30 December 2008 By Little Boy Blue
They are getting a bit excited in Scouseland as, for the first time in yonks, Liverpool look like sustaining a serious challenge for the FA Premier League title but they would be daft if they over-indulged in any gloating at this stage of the season.  Chelsea and Man United are up there too, I still reckon it would be a mistake to write off Arsenal and, much as it pains me to say it, O'Kneel's Villa might just be capable of cashing in if the big boys start to cut each other's throats.
The hype surrounding 'the best league in the world' has pissed me off for quite some time but the current campaign has all the makings of being the most open ever and there are sure to be lots and twists and turns as things unfold after the turn of the year.  As it has been for the past few years, my money is on Chelsea but my forecast is backed up by nothing more than a hunch that so many top players are sure to gel as a unit sooner rather than later and by my all-encompassing affection for the blue jerseys. 
Chelsea's erratic home form has certainly done much to undermine their good start to the campaign.  Losing to both Liverpool and Arsenal at Stamford Bridge, whilst also being held by Manure, Tottenham and West Ham, has let their title rivals off the hook at a time when Scolari's men really should have been putting daylight between themselves and the rest of the pack.  Cech, Terry, Ballack, Lampard, Deco, Drogba and Anelka are all world class players so, although Big Phil is unlikely to be busy in the forthcoming transfer free-for-all, he has the strength in depth to finish on top of the heap. 
The biggest problem at the Bridge could be their determination to be crowned Champions of Europe.  If things are still as tight in April and they are caught between domestic and European commitments, the clever money would be on them focusing on the drive to lift the big one in Rome.  Given the choice, most Chelsea fans would give up success at home to match the recent Euro achievements of Man United and Liverpool and I'm sure they would also be quite happy to pass on our kind regards to Ratzi Der Nazi while in the eternal city.
On the Kop, however, having already won five European Cups, they would sell their grannies to win their first ever Premier League title.  Having carried enough luck to grab a few late winners in the early weeks of the season, the injury to Fernando Torres dealt a big blow to Liverpool and, as the likes of Fulham, West Ham and Hull have managed to get draws on Merseyside, Anfield is no longer the fortress it once was.  Much could depend on what sort of business Rafa Benitez does during the January transfer window. 
As always, Man United are well placed on the heels of the leading group with a couple of games in hand and no team is better equipped to hold things together both at home and in Europe.  Having won both the Premier League and the Champions League last season, the odds must be stacked against them doing it all again this time around but they are always capable of attracting the crème de la crème to Old Trafford and, if Chelsea stick with their intention to do no transfer business, both United and Liverpool could get a lift at this vital point in the campaign.       
Surprisingly, Arsenal have blown hot and cold for so much of the season but Arsene Wenger has an impressive array of talent at his disposal and, if they could string four or five good wins together, they would be right back in contention, especially if the current epidemic of draws continues elsewhere.  They too have Champions League ambitions which they may view as their priority but, with so many young players in the squad, they are hardly in the last chance saloon.  This Arsenal squad certainly has time on its side and, while the major trophies could be beyond them this time, they are sure to be leading contenders and consistent winners in the years to come.
Aston Villa's lack of strength in depth has been exposed when him that jumps up and down on the touchline has tinkered with his line-up in the UEFA Cup so they are unlikely to be genuine title challengers, although it would surprise nobody if they broke into the top four.  Similarly, Everton are in that area just bubbling under the Champions League slots and, with no European distractions, they are also perfectly capable of giving the top four something to think about. 
The label 'the richest club in the world' has done nobody at Man City any favours and Mark Hughes could surely have done without his chairman's recent vote of confidence.  But with their new Middle East owners having sent expectations soaring in August, the past few months have been very frustrating for the City faithful.  Robinho has shown he's got what it takes and, depending on what support they bring in for him in January, the second half of the season might deliver a bit more joy.  I reckon they could be a dark horse bet the FA Cup.
The emergence of Hull City as a team capable of holding their own with the big boys has been the story of the season so far but, with things being so tight throughout the league, Phil Brown won't need to read this to know that just three or four defeats on the trot could send his team plummeting down the table.  However, having worked so hard to get where they are and enjoyed all the praise which has been showered upon them (onfield rollickings apart!), the players aren't likely to let it go to their heads and might just hang on in there to push for a UEFA Cup slot.
Big clubs like Newcastle and Tottenham should never be caught up in the relegation
dog-fight and, while they have at last managed to show signs of climbing up the table, they have wasted half a season treading water and will be happy to consolidate their place in the Premier League, with an eye towards having a real good go next season.  Good FA Cup runs would get both sets of fans onside and it will be very interesting to see if Newcastle stick with Joe Kinnear in the manager's office beyond the end of the season.
On the managerial theme, Sunderland may well have missed the boat by allowing Blackburn to nip ahead of them and snap up Sam Allardyce as their new boss.  Although it didn't work out too well for him at Newcastle - Ardiles, Dalglish, Gullit, Robson, Souness, Roeder and Keegan did no better! - Big Sam strikes me as the sort of guy who will make things happen and, if any of the current strugglers are to beat the drop, I'd fancy Blackburn to pull clear.
So who will take their place down among the dead men?  Well, for years Wigan have punched well above their weight, Fulham enjoyed amazing good fortune to survive last season and Middlesbrough have been hovering perilously close to the drop since Steve McClaren took them to the UEFA Cup Final almost three years ago.  I've always had my doubts about Bolton and West Ham, while Stoke City will never feel safe until it is mathematically impossible for them to go down, but I see Portsmouth, having been ravaged by the loss of Harry Redknapp and likely to be plundered still further during the transfer window, as a team who will struggle in the new year, possibly sliding down the table to find themselves squeezed out amidst much end of season drama and trauma.
In previous years, the relegation battle has been no less exciting than the fight for the title.  Indeed, things at the top have tended to be done and dusted, while as many as half a dozen teams have still been playing for their Premier League future, but this time around I see it going right to the wire at both ends of the table, with just one iffy performance at the business end of the season proving ever so costly for one unfortunate team or another.  I'll stick with Chelsea to edge it at the top, with Pompey following West Brom and Sunderland through the trap door.
But I won't be rushing to the cream cookie's to put too much money on it.