PAT NEVIN: WIDE OPEN
For his column this week, Pat Nevin takes a wide view of the contest at the top of the table, and our former player advises against entering the prediction game…
I sat way at the back of the main stand at Sunderland's Stadium of light on Sunday afternoon. With 15 minutes to go and the home team leading 1-0, something began to happen. The home fans actually started to believe they might just hang on to beat Manchester City, a team packed to the gunwales with superstars and world-class internationals. Before that I suspect they would have been thinking a point would be perfectly fine even while they were a goal up, as City were surely going to start playing sooner rather than later and nick at least an equaliser.
The onslaught eventually did come; I timed the start of it at just on the 78th minute. For 12 minutes plus injury time Pellegrini's team threw everything they had at the home side. When I say everything I mean they got down the right-hand side and put a few crosses in, and Aguero had a decent shot. To be honest all they had was a bit of huff and puff. Sunderland battled well while scarcely getting out of their own half in the second period, but there was something very, very familiar about it all. The week before just a few miles up the road Newcastle United fans had a very similar experience when Chelsea came to town. There were the same low expectations, a decent amount of fight and not a lot of possession, but in the end three points for the home side.
Just look around a little further and you see Manchester United have had many similar experiences already this season and suddenly Spurs, who started the season looking very dangerous, are losing at home to Newcastle, after another fine defensive effort from Pardew's boys, Tim Krul in particular being world-class at regular intervals.
Every time someone suggests one side is favourite to win the title they seem to collectively go into their shells. I went to Everton v Spurs and came away thinking neither team looks like a top-four side this season after a decent amount of hype beforehand. Man City looked miles from a top-four side at the weekend, having looked world beaters in the previous two games. Man Utd looked relegation fodder when they were thrashed by their near neighbours early on and we ourselves have had more strangely subdued performances than most would have suspected, Saturday being a case in point.
So what about Liverpool, are they contenders? Well against Arsenal they were outclassed for long periods and then the Gunners themselves fluffed their lines against Man United, just when they had the perfect opportunity to put some impressive distance between them and the rest.
In short this is among the oddest seasons there has been since the inception of the Premier League. I have long been suggesting that the others are a little closer than before because they have more strength in depth, due to the increase in finances available this term, but there has got to be more than that surely.
There has to be something in the fact that so many sides in the Premier League are now set up to be counter-attacking outfits. When you find yourself with all the possession in the opposition's half, it can be easy to run out of ideas. Everyone seems to park the bus and plenty of teams seem very comfortable doing it, knowing that they have pace to break with and plenty of space to run into when they do get their opportunities.
Certainly Newcastle did that to Chelsea in the first half on Tyneside last week and Sunderland did it perfectly against City on Sunday. It is no longer particularly uncommon for a team to have 30 per cent or less of the possession and still win the game; in fact no one seems to bat an eyelid. Of course this tactic can backfire if you lose an early goal, there is no use sitting back then, you are immediately drawn out. Steve Clarke's West Brom showed that they at least were well capable of adapting throughout the game and will count themselves unlucky to have not taken all three points. On the other hand Chelsea were unlucky not to score a few more as well.
I've said from the start of this season that this is going to be the most open and unpredictable title race for decades and I intend to enjoy it for just that reason. There have been too many processions in the Premier League over the years. Even the two-horse races have only really been interesting to those backing either horse. As it is Liverpool, Everton, Man City, Man Utd, Spurs, Arsenal, Southampton even, and of course ourselves, all now believe that top four is a reality and the prospect of actually winning the title still a possibility. The problem is every time you slip you feel that is your chance gone. It isn't, all the old clichés about how many games you can actually lose and still win the title have gone out the window, in fact this season may see the lowest ever number of points to win the Premier League.
With European football still to really start taking its toll as well on the big clubs, I've decided that anyone betting on Premier League scores every week is either mad or has more money than sense. Never has the horse racing analogy been more apposite. What you need to do is get tucked in with the pack just behind the leader, don't get tailed off and make sure you have plenty in the tank for the home straight, even this early on it looks like it is going to be a mad mass sprint for the line come April and May.
Last week I asked how many games did you think I covered last season with my various media hats on? Well I'll be honest with you, I didn't know either so I had to go and count them via the old diary. So whereas the season before had been over 100, this time round it was actually 89, though this didn't count pundit shows and highlights programmes in case you think I was slacking! There were plenty of close guesses but only one person got it absolutely spot on. The winner is Meshak Muli from Nairobi in Kenya. Well done and the prize will get shipped out as soon as possible.
So for this week's poser, if you want a chance of winning a Season Review DVD signed by one of the players, here is a less self-indulgent question. It is another guess I am afraid, the ever popular quiz, could you tell me how many goals Chelsea players will score in full internationals before next Tuesday? Players out on loan are not counted. Answers as ever to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Good luck with that and for the lads on international duty. And another thing, Is it me or are these international weeks never ending at the moment? I reckon there will be a huge number of injured or exhausted players at next year's World Cup, no one at international level seems to be even considering resting their players, even those who have qualified.