As we approach the midway point of a remarkably strange Premier League season, a few recent observations (or overreactions) have led me to come up with three predictions for what should be a fantastic 5 month build-up to crowning another champion. I am not responsible for any gambling losses on these matters, but any discussion is welcomed!
1. Aston Villa will finish comfortably mid-table
It’s amazing to see how far Villa have come over the past year. Marred in a relegation battle for most of last season with everyone’s favorite Midlands manager Alex McLeish, the youth movement that Paul Lambert is instilling at Villa Park finally paid off with a signature 3-1 victory at Anfield on Saturday. Lambert’s success has come in the face of criticism for benching the highly paid Darren Bent and underperforming Charles N’Zogbia. He has stuck to his principles of getting the best out of young players that don’t demand high wages. Villa boast the third youngest average squad age in the league at 25.8 years old.
The spine of this team is what has stood out the most so far. Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker are putting in some top performances in front of the ever impressive Brad Guzan in goal. The industry of Barry Bannan in the center of midfield has also been extremely effective, but the recent efforts of the attacking partnership of Andreas Weimann and bargain summer signing Christian Benteke have given Villa the added goal scoring threat that Lambert was missing early on in the campaign. If this side can stay together for a couple of seasons, it could bring Villa back towards being a top 10 side in the table.
2. Chelsea will mount a serious title challenge under Rafa’s guidance
As a Chelsea fan, the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo came as a complete shock and was completely undeserved. Having said that, I fully believe that the slight tactical changes that Benitez has employed are getting more out of this group of players. Under Di Matteo, a lot of Chelsea’s attacking play seemed very labored and congested. Teams were keeping the play in front of them and the lack of cutting edge runs behind defenders was not creating enough concrete chances. Having the trio of Oscar, Juan Mata, and Eden Hazard all playing at the same time was creating a severe lack of width in the attacking third.
Under Rafa, there has been a marked difference in the organization of the team at the back and up front. The main difference has been the structure of the front four. The introduction of Victor Moses as a squad regular wide on the right allows Hazard to occupy his favored position wide left. This has given Mata the ability to play directly behind Fernando Torres, operating as a true number 10 and directing traffic like a maestro. If John Terry is able to stay on the pitch for the majority of the next few months and a few squad depth signings are made in January, this is a side that could at least make things interesting for United and City come the end of the season.
3. Tottenham will claim the final Champions League spot
In the midst of extreme criticism, undeserved booing, and key squad injuries, AVB already has this Spurs side in the coveted fourth spot. Scott Parker and Younes Kaboul have been on the sidelines all season, while early injuries to key signing Moussa Dembele and Benoit Assou-Ekotto left Villas-Boas scrambling to keep his side in a decent run of form. He has done just that, including one of the most impressive victories of the first 17 rounds of games, the thrilling 3-2 win at Old Trafford. Despite some of the early season blips, there is nowhere to go but up for this young but talented squad. Jan Vertonghen and Steven Caulker look like an excellent center back pairing, while Dembele and Parker offer unlimited energy in the middle of the park. If Clint Dempsey continues to find his feet, coupled with the return of Gareth Bale, I see a very good side that is capable of having an extended run of excellent form. However, as Morgan Green would so readily admit, it is all dependent on AVB learning how to close.
What are your predictions for the second half of the Premier League season?