The Premier League season is coming to an end and the race for first place is still up in the air.
Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool have surprised many (if not all) by defying preseason odds and rocketing to the league’s summit. Chelsea and Manchester City will still have a say as to who will be crowned champions in May.
Arsenal, once again, seem to be fighting for their Champions League lives until the last day of the season. The Gunners’ adversary for the final European position isn’t Manchester United or Tottenham; it is Roberto Martinez and his inspired Everton squad.
The Premier League relegation battle will be fought out between a number of teams, some of which were expected to be in their current positions by soccer experts prior to the start of the 2013-14 BPL season.
Last August, if someone were to tell you that Sunderland, Cardiff City, Fulham, and Norwich City were all expected to be struggling for their top flight lives until the dying days of the season, most fans wouldn’t be shocked.
What would surprise Premier League experts and fans is the omission of Crystal Palace from the relegation tussle. Especially after their manager, Ian Holloway, quit in October after eight league matches in which Palace only mustered three points (a home win against Sunderland).
But Crystal Palace’s start left no one astonished. The newly promoted side was unanimously expected to be sent right back to the Championship prior to the start of the season because most agreed that their squad was full of players who just weren’t Premier League quality. But London club’s current position on the Premier League table is absolutely staggering.
Three teams and three managers have propelled themselves to the back pages of newspapers (for the right reasons): Liverpool and Rodgers, Everton and Roberto Martinez, Tony Pulis and Crystal Palace.
As well as their on-the-field successes, these club and manager pairings will take center stage in one of the most competitive races for Premier League Manager of the Year in some time.
Here are the top three candidates:
Brendan Rodgers – Liverpool
Prior to the start of the season, Liverpool were expected to compete for a top four position. Aside from their Merseyside supporters, most expected the Reds to battle it out with Arsenal and Tottenham for fourth place and the final Champions League position. Whether or not, Rodgers had enough tactical ability or on-the-field quality to compete with Chelsea, both Manchester clubs, Arsenal and Tottenham was a source of constant debate.
And with Liverpool starting the season with their best player Luis Suarez suspended for the first six games of the season; it made things even more difficult for Rodgers.
But Liverpool did something untypical of squads previously managed by Rodgers — they grinded out results. And when Suarez finally returned from suspension, the goals began pouring in and the Merseyside club went on a run leading into its first top four encounter against Arsenal at the Emirates.
What followed was a disappointing 2-0 defeat to the Gunners. The loss cemented in many minds that Liverpool were still a club that wasn’t ready for a top four challenge and were in no way a challenger for the Premier League’s top spot.
The club moved on from the Arsenal setback with Suarez and Daniel Sturridge terrorizing Premier League defenders in the following weeks and months. The instability at Manchester United and Tottenham relieved some of the competition for European spots. But subsequent loses to top four challengers Manchester City and Chelsea left many feeling that Liverpool were at best destined to finish in fourth or fifth place.
But the Merseyside derby against Everton on January 28 was a turning point for Rodgers and Liverpool. The Reds blitzed their longtime rivals and ran away with a 4-0 victory. Rodgers had his squad playing with confidence and an attacking flair that hasn’t been seen for some time at Anfield.
A few weeks later, Liverpool trounced Arsenal in a match that was over after the first ten minutes. Rodgers was widely applauded for his tactics in the 5-1 demolition of Arsene Wenger’s London side.
Liverpool would later hand 5-0 and 3-0 defeats to Tottenham and Manchester United respectively. The club then capped off wins in 10 straight games (undefeated in twelve BPL games) by defeating Manchester City 3-2 this past weekend.
With four matches to play, Liverpool controls its own destiny and are on course to win their first-ever Premier League title (first English title since 1990).
No one predicted Rodgers would have his club in this position with so few games remaining in the season.
Roberto Martinez – Everton
Everton were another team that many experts predicted “could” challenge for a top four position at the start of the season. But whether Roberto Martinez could navigate his way through the sea of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham in his first season in charge of the Merseyside club (the Blue half) was a source of serious doubt.
But Martinez has taken the solid defensive principles left by David Moyes and infused his own attacking, possession-based philosophy to the club. The manager has brought something out of his returning players which must have been laying dormant for the past few seasons. Whatever the case, along with some shrewd transfer window negotiations which saw the arrivals of many players, including: Romelu Lukaku (on loan from Chelsea), Gareth Barry (on loan from Manchester City), James McCarthy (bought from Wigan) and Gerard Deulofeu (on loan from Barcelona); Roberto Martinez has had Everton play some exciting football over the course of this season.
The club began the season undefeated in its first five BPL matches, including a 1-0 over Chelsea at Goodison Park. But defeats at Fulham and Manchester City would dampen the early celebrations.
Everton would draw with Liverpool in the first Merseyside derby and later play to a standoff against Arsenal at the Emirates. Results would remain steady over the course of the following weeks, but Roberto Martinez’ side were left reeling after Liverpool ran rampant over Everton in the January 28 return encounter of the Merseyside derby.
That loss was followed by defeats to Tottenham and Chelsea on the road. Everton were outside of the top four looking in and most experts had come to the conclusion that Martinez’ club were heading for the Europa League in 2014-15; which would still be a major step forward for a side that finished in sixth place in 2012-13.
But following a 4-1 FA Cup defeat to Arsenal, Everton began a run six straight Premier League wins which put them right on the tails of Arsenal for fourth place and the final Champions League position. Within that stretch was a rousing 3-0 win over Arsenal which saw Roberto Martinez’ men pull within one point of top four.
What set that match aside from others was the fact that the Spanish-born manager completely outwitted the longest tenured manager in the league, Arsene Wenger. Everton scored two goals in the first half and could have had more. It was a complete demolition of a Champions League-tested squad and one of the better managers in Premier League history.
Everton would briefly take four place following a win over Sunderland. But Arsenal’s 3-1 victory over West Ham and Everton’s home loss to Crystal Palace this week has seen the Gunners remain a point ahead of Martinez’ side.
Again, with four games remaining, Roberto Martinez has Everton exceeding expectations and barring a complete collapse, the club will be playing European football next season. The first-year manager deserves recognition for the job his has done over the course of this season.
Tony Pulis – Crystal Palace
If it weren’t for Sunderland, Tony Pulis would have taken over the worst team in the Premier League when he signed up for the job in November.
Crystal Palace were sitting on seven points after twelve matches when Pulis finally took his place on the touchline. The newly promoted club had been unanimously picked to be sent straight back down to the Championship at the conclusion of the 2013-14 BPL season.
Ian Holloway had “quit” after eight matches because he felt he had “lost the respect of the squad”. Following a 4-1 defeat to Fulham on Monday Night Football, Holloway addressed the media to say: “We’ve lost five games since we named the [squad of] 25 and there’s something wrong there,” he said. “I don’t feel we have the same spirit. That squad is what we’ve got till January, so they better buck up and learn to stick together.”
Shortly thereafter the manager held a meeting and offered his resignation.
Weeks went by and Crystal Palace remained “rudderless”. Keith Millen was named caretaker boss while the club looked for a new leader. Millen actually was able to hold Everton to a 0-0 draw and beat Hull City, 1-0, in his final match before handing over the reigns to Tony Pulis.
Pulis had to be convinced to take the job. It has been reported that it was offered to the 56-year-old manager only to be turned down. Later, after conversations with other managers (including Sir Alex Ferguson), Pulis decided to take on the challenge of saving Crystal Palace from relegation.
What most expected from Pulis was more of the same footballing philosophy he used while keeping Stoke City in the Premier League for many years. But his Crystal Palace side has slowly grown into something more than the “kick and hope” style that Stoke City striker Kenwyne Jones referred to in September.
Pulis has brought organization and structure to the club, bringing discipline to a team that recognized its own limitations.
With that said, the manager has played to his team’s strengths. He has admitted that he has different types of players at Palace as opposed to the squad he had with Stoke City.
Pulis has worked more at taking opposing midfielders off the ball when they are stretched and the manager has utilized the pace within his squad. Also, Palace’s passing and movement leading in to the final four games of the season has been shockingly fluid and efficient.
But what Pulis did from Day One was infuse confidence into a defeated group of players. The manager let it be known in his first meeting with the players that he has never been relegated as a manager.
When Pulis was named manager, Crystal Palace were sitting on four points after eleven BPL matches. Since that time (23 matches), the club has taken 36 points and sit more than comfortably in eleventh place in the Premier League.
On March 29th, Pulis handed Jose Mourinho an unexpected loss and dealt a huge blow to Chelsea’s title charge. Following that match, Palace defeated Cardiff City and Aston Villa to further distance themselves from the bottom three.
While many fans and experts thought Crystal Palace would be relegated or (best case) counting down the days until they returned to the Championship by this point of the season; after yesterday’s 3-2 defeat of Everton, Pulis was acknowledging that his side is “safe” and players now “have a responsibility to the Premier League to ‘turn up’ for the next four games.”
It’s an astonishing turn of events at Crystal Palace…and Tony Pulis has been the catalyst for his team’s springboard from relegation.
Not many have guessed that these three managers would have their clubs in this position nearing the conclusion of this season.
Who do you think will be named Premier League Manager of the Year?