By Joe Behan
Manchester United are 13 points clear in the Premiership, and if it wasn’t for the massive EPL interest from the Irish contingent here in the United States, "Soccer Scene" would consider another focus.
The EPL is without doubt one of the best leagues in the world to watch particularly for its fast moving pace and sheer entertainment. Most readers have a background with the league, which was probably "Match of Day." Nowadays we are making it to the local for the atmosphere and home TV does work. It’s in our blood, we love the game, and it’s probably the one thing English, even for the staunch Irish supporter, that breaks the barriers of our long time disregard for anything British.
"Turn that TV off," our fathers would say, "watch an Irish sport. Turn on the
radio and listen to the GAA or hurling game. The ‘Late Late Show’ is on now,
turn that foreign game off, let’s watch Gaybo."
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By the time the 1980s came around, Liverpool were all over the league and
Europe and fans in general were OK with that. For Manchester United it is somewhat different. There is a concern now that the league on the whole is becoming more and more psychologically inferior to the Red Devils. The past weekend results are an indication of how little United are being challenged for the title.
We have to go to sixth place, Newcastle United, to find the nearest team to Manchester with a win. While Ferguson’s machine beat Villa 2-nil and Robson’s Toon Army beat Leeds 3-1, the group in between failed miserably to keep Teddy Sheringham and Co. honest. Sunderland, Arsenal, Liverpool and Ipswich were simply not good enough to keep the pressure on and this coming weekend may indeed narrow the chasers down.
No disrespect to Sunderland and Peter Reid, but this in not the outfit we expect to lead the pack behind the Devils. Indeed, it’s just as well they are up there because Arsenal are now 15 points off the pace. That’s five games, five games that the Gunners must win and five games that United must lose. It’s not looking good. Arsene Wenger is pleading that his team is looking to be perfectionists in front of the goal. He claims his side is not willing to graft a goal out of a hard work ethic. And all the while Mr. Wenger has not set up experienced replacements for Tony Adams and Martin Keown.
That is the most important area for Arsenal to secure before they can talk about perfectionism. It now looks like the Gunners have to depend on United falling apart to make ground. They need a sure 15-point gift from Ferguson and then there are 27 more points to battle out for the title. Arsenal drew nil-all with Leicester who has fallen by the wayside also.
Utd. fall or clubs catch up?
Liverpool is in fourth place 16 points adrift of United. Pool’s match in hand
at the minute does not look like any kind of advantage. During the holiday season promises of the league opening up seemed very possible when Liverpool beat United and Arsenal back to back. While Gerard Houllier insists that Liverpool have a few years to catch up with United, does he think that United are not looking to catch up with the rest of Europe?
Many clubs and supporters may fall into the trap that when Alex Ferguson leaves, things will even out. That Old Trafford will come down a notch or two. Jaap Stam believes it will challenge the club and players even more so to maintain their dominance. So Houllier may want to change his strategy in promising things a few years from now. It is really about how to beat United presently.
There is talk at Anfield of buying new strikers. They should be buying, like Arsenal, world-class central defenders. In fact, defenders across the board are needed there and a couple of outside midfielders wouldn’t go astray. The Pool drew nil-all with Middlesbrough, yet another brilliant result for El Tel, and he’s probably the more interesting story than the Premier title itself.
Ipswich are in fifth place also 16 points in arrears, but Liverpool get the
nod over the Town to close the gap. Look, anything can happen, we know that, but this is the Blue’s first year back in top flight and they may need more experience. It is essential to see the likes of Ipswich and Sunderland up there with Arsenal and Liverpool, but to see them surpass United is indeed a stretch of the imagination. Newcastle with 37 points is 19 behind United and now we are reaching to suggest a challenge from this position and anything
that’s under them. While Leeds have fallen by the wayside, Chelsea have put a good run together and are knocking on the door for a Euro qualification.
By the week, it’s looking more likely that we may be talking about the Euro spots instead of who will actually challenge United. The other scenario for the gap to close is Old Trafford falling apart, and that’s unlikely even though they are not playing well.
Just before the holidays, there was a bad spell of football in the EPL and it was difficult to get some inspirational games. The holiday games started off with some cracker games but Middlesbrough and Terry Venables ended up stealing all the gifts and became the club to watch. And now just as things settle down after the break and we hope the gap will close across the table it looks like the league has become a one-horse race. When we hear talks that Dwight Yorke may be on his way out of Old Trafford it becomes quite obvious that Sir Alex Ferguson is just as much about discipline as he is about attacking football.
Of course, there is still a lot to play for, but the concern isn’t, will clubs catch up?, it’s the possibility that United may open up a ridiculous gap that may embarrass the EPL. If this happens, while
clubs talk about needing more time to groom teams and players, guess who will be playing for Manchester?
Stories, not the title
One has to look up the table to find the football strories that at the moment are taking the eye off the one-horse race developing up top. At a glance, the most interesting clubs in the premier are: Manchester City’s essential need to survive their first year in the Premier, not only for the club but for the league itself and, of course, for the Manchester derby. Middlesbrough’s revival under the best character in the Premier at the moment, Mr. Venables. Southampton’s slow climb up the table alongside the return of Glen Hoddle to English football. The downfall of Leeds United’s hopes of matching Manchester United, and can Dave O’Leary take his team back into the top six?
Also, Chelsea’s good run up the table under the influence of Claudio Raneiri. Can the m’stro, Bobby Robson, take Newcastle into Europe next year? Will Ipswich stay in top flight? Can Liverpool and Arsenal stop United? Not now but for the next decade of the EPL. Sunderland is doing it again; they are in top flight, and can Peter Reid stay there?
Finally, there is the Manchester United story. Who will take over when Ferguson leaves?