By Joe Behan
The holiday season will, as usual, tell the tale. By now, it is possible to pick out the teams that will likely determine the run-in to the 2002 English Premier League title.
What a promising title race it is going to be, based on how the league stands at the moment. It’s no surprise that Liverpool, Arsenal and Leeds United are leading the way. Newcastle United is in fourth place, with the familiar Chelsea and Aston Villa still knocking on the door for European qualification. It’s not that big of a surprise to see Tottenham Hotspurs on the verge of getting into the hunt for Euro qualification, too.
Also, potential surprise package Fulham is up there with the big guns. In ninth place it’s Manchester United, and dare we write them off for the title?
It is during the holiday season that the real test will unfold for regaining their championship hopes and respectability. Right now it looks very bleak for the Reds. Four of the top nine teams will make that inevitable break away from the pack in 2002 and the aforementioned top three are at the moment are red hot favorites to do so.
Liverpool’s Michael Owen was quick to make amends with a cracker against Boro after failing to hit the net in the Champions League against Roma. The super striker has now scored 25 goals in his last 22 games for the Pool and if Owen remains healthy Liverpool will go all the way.
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The silky Patrik Berger also got on the score sheet, and if the talented midfielder remains on the side, Liverpool keep that flair essential for Championship success.
The return of Gerard Houllier after the break could entice Liverpool to run away with the league. Stand-in-manager Phil Thompson is doing a great job and if he continues to do so during the end-of-the-year run-in — why should he be replaced? This hand-back situation is Liverpool’s key to the title challenge or downfall.
Arsenal, in second place, are beginning to put some serious stuff together. After beating Man U. and Juventus, the Gunners found themselves two down at halftime against close rivals Aston Villa. Thierry Henry hit the winner and his second in the 90th minute to convince Arsene Wenger that the Gunners “can do it.” And by that he must mean winning the premier title.
Arsenal support got a huge boost when Wenger committed to a four-year deal and the French manager will see this season his best opportunity to win the title simply based on current form. The stability Wenger has given to the Gunners may well come through, long term. Short term, it is the reshaping of his defense that is taking time to settle.
In third place is Leeds United, who beat Blackburn 2-1 with Harry Kewell hitting a brace. It is a result Leeds badly needed after only winning one game out of seven, and the win was achieved on a Robbie Fowler debut. Leeds ambitions are leaning more toward a Champions League spot by the end of the year, according to Dave O’Leary, but spending _11 million pounds on Fowler suggests otherwise. O’Leary’s outfit needs one more piece in the puzzle and that’s a midfielder, a world-class one.
Once that player is put in place Leeds will no doubt be in the hunt. Indeed, staying in touch with the top flight is a Leeds goal as the Champions League may take its toll on Liverpool and Arsenal.
As far as Newcastle is concerned, Bobby Robson is capable of a Euro berth. Chelsea is more of an unknown entity than Villa and that makes Stamford Bridge very dangerous. Spurs will get better and better and will keep everybody honest in top flight. For Fulham, it is about the mastermind of Tigana, capable of becoming a top manager in the EPL but not winning the title with this club, at least in 2002.
As far as Manchester United are concerned, they must concentrate on the C.L., even though David Beckham believes his team can still win the title.
After these top nine positions it will take a miracle for the rest to get involved in top-flight and Euro competition. Maybe a team will come out of the mid-table section with a run while one of the top nine falls apart, and right now that’s Man U.
As much as the top is taking shape, the bottom it also following suit. Ipswich is rock bottom after a great return to the premier last year. That spark of promotion has been put out very rapidly this season, and if the Blues do not pull their socks up over the next few weeks, they are gone.
Just above them in second-to-last place is Leicester, who has gone from bad to worse since Martin O’Neill’s departure. Leicester has gone from top flight and European stature to very much a potential relegation battler. Next is Derby, the masters of avoiding relegation, so teams above are always in danger and better watch out. Southampton, West Ham, Middlesbrough, Blackburn and Bolton are by no means out of trouble, with Sunderland looking to get some points over the holidays to stay out of the relegation zone.
The holiday season has in the making one of the most exciting stages yet to be seen in the premier for a long time. Football supporters will want to see Manchester United staying in the hunt, which can only add to the excitement. However, the holidays could see the new beginning of Liverpool, Arsenal and Leeds joining Man. United as an EPL force that could take over Europe for the next 10 years.