The EPL Returns!
The English Premier League has reached the mid-season point and has been on their short holiday break. They return to play today with a full slate of matches for their traditional Boxing Day. And it has been an interesting season so far. So lets take a look back over the last four months and recap what’s happened then look to the rest of the season and what to expect.
Prior to the start of the season the big question mark wasn’t who would win the EPL this season. It was more would Manchester City win in a runaway again? Well in their first 18 matches they won 14 while losing just twice with two draws. But shockingly that’s only good for second place. Liverpool, the team suggested as the one most likely to push Man City has been good the first half. Very good. In their 18 matches they have won 15 to go with three draws. And in the all telling goal differential statistic, Man City leads the league at +37 followed by Liverpool at +32. The next best Chelsea at +20.
So half way through the season the top seven look like this:
2) Manchester City
6) Manchester United
What is key about seven? The top four in the EPL qualify for next year’s UEFA Champions League with the next three qualifying for the UEFA Europa League. So there is a strong desire to finish in the top seven to garner the additional matches and money that goes with that. So how has the first half gone compared to the season preview? Well the top six from the preview are indeed the top six. Not in order but they are still the same six. The outlier is Watford. Clearly one of the surprise sides the first half of the season. In the preview I had Everton slotted in the seventh spot but they currently sit in eleventh but only three points, or a single win, out of the magic seventh spot. It will be interesting to see if Watford, one of the smaller clubs in the EPL, has the staying power to finish “in the money.” While I’d love to see that I wouldn’t put any money down on it! So what else stands out from the first half?
Manchester United Canned Jose Mourinho
Not a surprise and many Man U fans had been calling for them to sack Mourinho for some time. Sports are a fickle business and very much one of what have you done for me today. Simply put, for a club of Man U’s resources, being a paltry 8-5-5 at the midpoint is not acceptable. So Mourinho was fired and the club hired long time player Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (pictured above) as their interim manager. During his playing days he scored an astounding 126 goals for the club the most memorable being the game winner in the 1999 Champions League Final. Man U fans have plenty of reason to be excited about with Solskjaer at the helm. Under Mourinho it seems like the last two seasons they have played not to lose rather than playing to win. Not acceptable for the richest soccer club in the world and one that has forked out over $156M this season in its payroll. In their one match under the new coach prior to the break they beat Cardiff City 5-1. The FIRST time they have scored five goals in a match since Sir Alex Ferguson departed. That is more like the Man U fans are used to seeing. Only time will tell if the hiring of Ole was a boom or bust move but so far so good.
Yes the same team that was oh so close to winning the UCL last season. They have simply been playing incredible soccer. At home, on the road, attacking, or defending, it hasn’t mattered. They have just been a marvelous side to watch. Manager Jurgen Klopp has them firing on all cylinders and they look to earn him his 100th victory as their manager when they host Newcastle United tomorrow. Seeing how they haven’t lost yet it would be a fairly safe bet to make. Klopp will get his 100th tomorrow. But what really is of interest is can they keep this level of play up? Can they manage to finish strong in both the EPL and the UCL. Certainly Man City will be pressing them hard the rest of they way in the EPL. And they did fare well at all in their draw for the Round of 16 in the UCL drawing Bayern Munich. While Bayern may not be having their normal outstanding season in the Bundesliga they sill won their UCL group without suffering a single defeat.
Sitting in second place isn’t a bad spot but the surprise is they are actually closer to third than first. And they took a real punch to the gut in their last match losing at home to Crystal Palace, a team currently sitting well down the table at 14th. And to make matters worse they allowed three goals at home. Almost unheard of under manager Pep Guardiola. However, its important to note that star midfielder Kevin De Bruyne has missed six weeks and has just returned to full strength. His leadership on the field will raise Man City’s play the second half. Will it be enough to catch Liverpool?
Many pundits believed that the Spurs lacked enough depth and talent surrounding Harry Kane as to make a serious challenge at the top of the EPL. Well at the halfway point they find themselves sitting pretty in third and a mere six points behind Liverpool. The head into the second half having won eight of their last nine matches and Kane, Son Heung-MIn, and Deli Alli are all playing lights out. They could make it interesting especially if kepper, Hugo Lloris can keep the opponents to a goal a game or less. His front runners will score.
Other First Half Tidbits
– Many were saying that perhaps Mohamed Salah, and his 44 goals last year, was a one year wonder. Mo shut that up with a hat trick performance at Bournemouth on December 8th
– Chelsea manager, Maurizio Sarri, was literally laughed at last Saturday when the lineup was announced for their match against Man City on December 8th. Comments like he doesn’t know what he is doing using one of the world’s best holding midfielders (N’Golo Kante) in an attacking role. Yeah well Kante’s run in the box and finish late in the first half was the game winner. Now whose laughing? Certainly not Man City!
– The last four seasons the team in first place at the break won the EPL. Will Liverpool make it five?
– Liverpool’s 48 points at the break is second all time only behind last years Man City run.
So the matches restart tomorrow and there will be lots of Boxing Day soccer on the tube. NBCSports will be televising a handful of games to give you something to watch besides college football bowl games. Shoot the only bowl game tomorrow worth watching is the Boise State – Boston College…..shameless plug for the Broncos.
Steve is an avid fan of all things soccer and the O's. Originally from the west, he grew up in the Baltimore area. He returned to the west for college where he earned a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Montana State University and spent 36 years working at the Idaho National Laboratory prior to retiring in 2013. It was during his school years in Baltimore where he learned to play soccer and that developed into a life long passion. He played competitively for over 40 years and was a four year starting goalkeeper at MSU. He also coached and refereed in the Idaho premier soccer and High School programs for many years.