Just six points separate the top nine sides in the division but Jurgen Klopp’s Reds remain very much the team to beat this season
At first glance, suggestions that this could be one of the most open Premier League seasons of all seem to have been accurate.
As we head towards the turn of the year, just six points separate the top nine teams in the division, while the gap between fifth and 15th is just eight.
The effects of the coronavirus pandemic – the shortened pre-season, that congested fixture list, the ongoing absence of supporters – continue to be felt. Consistency has been in short supply; no team has won more than nine matches so far, while 13 have conceded 20 or more goals. Arsenal are in the bottom half and Aston Villa are in the top six.
Everything has changed.
Well, not quite everything. Liverpool remain, in this craziest of years, the closest thing to reliability. They will end 2020 as they started it: top of the league and title favourites.
Having slipped up, surprisingly, against West Brom on Sunday, Jurgen Klopp’s side can move five points clear with a win at Newcastle on Wednesday night.
They, like everyone else, have had their issues – they have already failed to win as many games this season as they did in the whole of the last campaign – but they remain the team to beat.
Finish above the champions, and you’ll be the champions.
Who can do so, though? For all the talk of a wide-open title race, who are the sides that can really challenge the Reds in 2021?
The field has narrowed in recent weeks, surely. Tottenham, for example, started December on top of the pile, ahead of Liverpool on goal difference having embarked on a nine-game unbeaten run. They head into their final game of the month, at home to Fulham, seventh in the table and without a win in four.
Chelsea, too, have endured a miserable festive period. Frank Lampard’s men briefly hit the front when beating Leeds on December 5, but have won just one of five games since, losing at Everton, Wolves and Arsenal before drawing with Aston Villa on Monday. They are still, for the time being at least, within six points of Liverpool but the Londoners still look too brittle, too inconsistent despite their heavy summer spending.
The same criticism could, in fairness, have been levelled at Manchester United until recently, but it is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side that will end 2020 as Liverpool’s nearest challenger.
For a team that seems to live in a perpetual state of crisis, to be within two points of top spot is a more than decent outcome. Especially as they visit Anfield on January 17.
Manchester City, too, will be quietly satisfied with where they are at – positive Covid-19 tests notwithstanding.
Pep Guardiola’s team started the campaign indifferently, beaten 5-2 by Leicester in their first home game, but have added some much-needed solidity since. They have the league’s best defensive record, with summer signing Ruben Dias making his mark, and though they sit eighth, they have games in hand on all of the teams above them, bar fifth-placed Villa.
Villa are one of a host of surprise packages congregating in the top half. Dean Smith’s side remain the only team to have beaten Liverpool in the league this season, and have taken points off Leicester, Arsenal, Chelsea and Wolves too.
Only Liverpool have a better goal difference than the Midlanders, who would move up to third if they were to win their game in hand. Not bad at all, considering they only avoided relegation on the final day of last season.
Leicester, under Brendan Rodgers, sit third and will, with Jamie Vardy, always offer a potent threat in any fixture, while Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton are the league’s form side, overcoming an autumn dip with a run of four straight wins, prior to Monday’s postponement against Manchester City. The Blues, in Richarlison, Lucas Digne and James Rodriguez, have big players to return in the coming weeks, too.
Even Southampton, ninth in the table, are within six points of top spot, having matured impressively under Ralph Hasenhuttl. But while it is refreshing, to say the least, to see such teams in the mix, surely it is Manchester – and City in particular – who pose the biggest threat to Liverpool’s superiority.
Guardiola’s squad remains formidable, especially with the likes of Sergio Aguero still to return to full fitness. City, while nowhere near the level of recent seasons, have tightened up significantly at the back and have, in Kevin De Bruyne, arguably the league’s outstanding individual. Fixture congestion, though, will surely be an issue in the New Year, after the recent Covid-19 outbreak.
Can United sustain a challenge? They certainly have the talent, with Marcus Rashford, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani all benefiting from the continued excellence of Bruno Fernandes, but defensive (and goalkeeping) issues remain, and there are more than a few doubts about Solskjaer’s capabilities, especially when compared to the likes of Klopp and Guardiola.
Is the Norwegian really a title-winning manager? And what happens if Fernandes is missing for any length of time? So much of United’s play goes through the Portuguese star, it seems impossible that they would be able to replace him in the event of injury, suspension or otherwise.
Whatever happens, it promises to be an intriguing campaign. We haven’t seen the last of the surprises, that’s for sure.
In the meantime, Liverpool will hope to sign off 2020 with a win at St James’ Park. Klopp’s men may not yet have scaled the incredible heights of last season, but it will take a massive effort to dethrone them.
And at this moment in time, only City and United look capable.
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