In recent weeks, a lot has been made of the Premier League potentially losing its fourth Champions League spot to Serie A and the need for our clubs to start performing and producing results in Europe. However, should the current top 6 have concerns nearer to home with Crystal Palace, Leicester City and West Ham United all producing great starts to the season to sit among the Premier League elite?
One cliché says never look at the table until 10 games into the season, another suggests ignoring it until Christmas, but 8 games in, and things aren’t as they should be or normally are. A couple of the usual suspects now find themselves at the top of the league, but none have been convincing so far.
Manchester City have looked imperious at times this season, but have also lost at home to West Ham and were humbled at White Hart line; the sort of inconsistency you expect from mid-table teams, not title contenders. Manchester United have been winning unconvincingly whilst Arsene Wenger’s future continues to be the topic of speculation after a stuttering start to the season.
However, none of these have had it as bad as defending champions Chelsea. Jose Mourinho’s men have already lost four games this season, one more than the whole of the 2014-2015 campaign. The Blues currently find themselves languishing in 16th place, only outside the relegation zone due to the incompetence of Villa, Sunderland and Newcastle, and already seven points from the Champions League spots. A good winning run would mean that isn’t too hard a mountain to climb at present, but with player’s confidence extremely low and a manager as prickly as ever in press conferences, that’s something that doesn’t look like happening.
Most worryingly for Chelsea is that they have conceded 17 goals in 8 games, the second worst record after Sunderland. For a manager who prides himself on defensive solidity, the statistic is staggering, but with 3 more goals conceded against Southampton, the increase in the conceded column shows no sign of stopping.
If Chelsea are unable to sort out their defensive frailties and their form doesn’t improve then there will be plenty of teams who fancy their chances of gate-crashing the top 4 party. However, usual suspects Liverpool and Tottenham have been enduring struggles of their own. Spurs failed to win any of their first four games of the season with last season’s star man Harry Kane struggling to find the net whilst Liverpool’s problems have been well documented with Brendan Rodgers’ position coming under increasing scrutiny.
This all leaves the door open for one of the country’s lesser lights and presents them with the best opportunity to qualify for Europe in many years. At the start of the season, Swansea and Stoke would have been among the favourites to be pushing for Europe but both have suffered stuttering starts to the season, failing to capitalise on other’s poor beginnings. Instead, the mantle has been passed to Palace, Leicester and West Ham who have electrified onlookers with a series of dazzling attacking displays so far this season.
Football has become more attacking in recent years, with more goals being scored every season. The Foxes and Hammers have both embraced this under new managers Claudio Ranieri and Slaven Bilic, with only Manchester City and their array of attacking talent having scored more goals then either side. Jamie Vardy has gone from non-league to Premier League top scorer with 7 strikes in 8 games this season and Riyad Mahrez scored 5 and assisted 3 in the opening 6 games as Leicester’s creativity was too much for many to handle. For West Ham, Cheikhou Kouyate, often utilised in defence last year, has scored 3 goals, highlighting the club’s transformation and Dimitri Payet has immediately settled in the Premier League, having a hand in seven goals in his opening 8 games
On the other hand, Crystal Palace’s early season success has been built on defensive solidity with only Manchester United and Tottenham conceding fewer goals so far this campaign. The pace on the break of Yannick Bolasie, Wilfried Zaha, Jason Puncheon and Bakary Sako will cause all defences problems this season, making opposition managers extremely weary when coming up against them.
All have had their blips though; only the bottom six have lost more games than Palace, Leicester keep falling behind and received a footballing lesson from Arsenal whilst West Ham have dropped points at home to newly promoted Bournemouth and Norwich.
With four more inviting games to come, Leicester’s chances of qualifying for Europe could rest on a tough 1 month period from the end of November to the end of December. The foxes face Manchester United (h), Swansea (a), Chelsea (h), Everton (a), Liverpool (a) and Manchester City (h) in a spell that could make or break their season.
Meanwhile, West Ham have recorded stunning victories at Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City but only won one of their other five fixtures. If the Hammers have serious ambitions of qualifying for Europe through the conventional league route –rather than last year’s fair play – then picking up 3 points against bottom half teams is imperative, something the side have struggled with so far this season.
In contrast to the Hammers, Palace have been impeccable against the bottom 10 with four wins from four. However, against the traditional top 6, a stunning win against Chelsea aside, the Eagles have struggled, losing by an odd goal at home to Arsenal and Manchester City as well as at White Hart Lane. If the Selhurst Park outfit are eyeing European football, this is something they will need to address and a three game spell against the two Manchester clubs and Liverpool in late October and early November could be the perfect barometer for Palace’s abilities.
Despite these flaws, the three clubs all find themselves in the upper echelons of the league table with the potential to upset the apple cart come the end of the season. If one of the established sides continues to struggle then one of these three teams could be the one to capitalise, and if not, the Europa League is a realistic aim for all three.
Featured Image: All Rights Reserved by Alex Hannam
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