LONDON: Somewhere, just still visible on the horizon, there is a distant speck of sky blue: Manchester City are so far ahead of the pack that barring the most extraordinary and unexpected of collapses, the Premier League title is theirs. Their lead going into the new year is 15 points and all that remains is to see if there are any records for dominance they leave unbroken. Which leaves the other five members of the Big Six in an awkward position. The battle for the top four and Champions League qualification will be frantic and enthralling — but is that really enough?
That now has become the fascination of the second half of the Premier League season. While City, with the league all but sealed, can focus on winning a first Champions League, or perhaps going unbeaten through the league season or even winning an unprecedented quadruple, everybody else has to readjust their targets. There may be a general acceptance that this City team are exceptional and that to fail to beat them is not failure, but the modern world of football is rarely patient for long. If the status quo involves City winning the title with ease, inevitably in time there will come calls for change if only because if one thing isn’t working there is a sense you may as well try something else.
The pressure is perhaps greatest at Manchester United. They have not won the league since 2013, in Sir Alex Ferguson’s last season, and with each passing year the statistic that they have only ever won the title under three different managers will become more pressing. Jose Mourinho has toppled Guardiola before, but his best season has historically tended to be his second one at a club. Before this year, he had always won the league in his second season at a club, from Porto to Chelsea to Inter to Real Madrid to Chelsea again. That, it’s been generally considered, is when he has had time to reshape his squad to his specifications and before the abrasiveness of his personality had begun to grate.
The third season, the great Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann always said, is fatal, and for nobody has that been truer than Mourinho. On the three previous occasions he’s reached a third season at any club — at Chelsea twice and at Real Madrid, the result has been discord and departure. Perhaps he has changed, perhaps maturity and experience have brought a less confrontational style but there’s been little sign of that yet, and there must be concern at United that, if they don’t win the league this season, then they never will under Mourinho.
That means that 2018 at Old Trafford will be a year of sifting through the omens. There could be a great Champions League success to steady the nerves and offer vindication but if there is not, the question will be whether there is any evidence of United progressing and how long the present situation can be allowed to endure. United, after all, have had more backing in the transfer market than anybody other than City.
But there will be pressure at the other big clubs as well. Antonio Conte’s time at Chelsea has been fraught since last summer as he has complained about a lack of backing in the transfer market. Again, the Champions League could offer redemption for the league, but the probability is that he will leave in the summer, probably to return to Italy, and will do so with few regrets.
Tottenham, with a move to a vast new stadium, look to be on an upward trajectory, but their wage structure is problematic. Mauricio Pochettino has crafted a young and committed squad but the cracks are already beginning to show as players consider more lucrative opportunities elsewhere. If there is sufficient evidence of progress this season — again the Champions League, having already offered a glorious victory over Real Madrid, seems to most likely source — perhaps players will be persuaded to give it one more go next season, but the fear must be that this summer sees an exodus.
There have been enough signs of progress at Liverpool this season to keep criticism of Jurgen Klopp largely in check, but defensive errors continue to blight them. If they fail to qualify for next season’s Champions League — and at least two of the Big Six won’t – dissatisfaction at Klopp’s apparent inability to eradicate those mistakes will mount. And then there’s Arsenal, apparently trapped in a limbo of frustration until Arsene Wenger finally leaves.
City’s excellence, their domination of the league, has changed the picture. Success and failure cannot simply be measured by titles. There must now by a genuine assessment of press and what that means. That battle for the top four will not just be about Champions League qualification; it’s likely also to have a major impact on a number of managers’ futures.
Nobody, surely, doubts any longer that City will win the league. It is just a question of when and by how many points. The real battle is for the top four and the likelihood is that Europe will be a major factor, whether as a distraction or a morale-booster. The Big Six always in truth, had two tiers, with City, United and Chelsea in the upper and Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool in the lower and it looks as though that’s how it will play out. Although there is a possibility of meltdown at both United and Chelsea, realistically they should come second and third, leaving a three-way battle for fourth. Tottenham are probably the best-balanced of the three, but the thinness of their squad is a major issue. Liverpool can tear sides apart but they can equally tear themselves apart. Arsenal’s in-built flakiness is augmented by the uncertainty over the futures of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.
WINNER: Manchester City
SECOND: Manchester United
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: Chelsea, Tottenham
After a 3-0 victory in the Clasico, Barcelona’s lead at the top in Spain is now nine points and they are 14 clear of Real Madrid, having played a game more. The title, surely, is theirs, an astonishing turnaround given the mess they seemed to be in at the beginning of the campaign as they lost Neymar to Paris St-Germain and were beaten 5-1 over two legs by Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup. With Valencia fading – three defeats in their last four games – it looks as though the most serious challenge may come from Atletico, particularly if, as seems likely, Madrid decide to focus on the Champions League and their attempt to become the first side to win three in a row since Bayern Munich in 1976. Atletico remain unbeaten and the arrival in January of Diego Costa may give them the edge, the lack of which has led to them drawing so often.
Italy offers the greatest hope for a title race, although Juventus are beginning to look ominous in their pursuit of a seventh straight title. They’ve beaten both Napoli and Roma 1-0 in recent weeks and although Inter held them to a goalless draw, they do seem to have a knack of beating their title rivals. It’s still Napoli, though, who hold the lead, a point clear of Juve, with Inter four points further back and Roma two behind them with a game in hand. There’s no doubting the heights Napoli have hit this season, and nobody has so unsettled Manchester City as Maurizio Sarri’s side, but there’s a sense that the serious knee injury suffered by the full-back Faouzi Ghoulam has left them a little unbalanced. Inter’s wobble is entirely characteristic, although an absence of European football may yet benefit them. Juve, though, are looking stronger and stronger.
As domestic leagues become coronation processions, the Champions League becomes the key testing ground, although it is distorted by the fact that so many sides are tested so rarely at home. Paris St-Germain, for instance, are clearly a supremely gifted attacking side, but can they defend? Perhaps they can, but the truth is we have very little evidence either way. Are Manchester City dominating the Premier League because they’re good or because the Premier League is weak? Can Real Madrid, miles adrift in la Liga, raise themselves to win three in a row? Are Barca and Bayern just benefiting from a lack of competition at home? And what of this doughty Juve team? Or can one of the English sides, out of the title race at home and forced to focus on the Champions League, save their seasons with a slightly unexpected success? With perhaps eight or nine sides in with a decent chance of success, this looks the most closely contested Champions League for years.
WINNER: Manchester City
There will be much talk about Brazil and the need to bounce back from the 7-1 defeat to Germany in the semi-final in 2014. The truth, though, is that it took two further disappointing performances in the Copa America in 2015 and the Copa America Centenario in 2016 before reality set in and the old-fashioned stodginess of Luiz Felipe Scolari and Dunga was discarded. In its place has come the modernity of Tite, an open-minded, progressive coach who has ended the reliance on Neymar and created a side that is balanced and presses high.
Germany, the defending champions, have extraordinary strength in depth, as they showed while winning the Confederations Cup with what was essentially a second string, while Spain have rejuvenated under Julen Lopetegui and will be far more of a force than they were in either 2014 or 2016. France have an extraordinary squad but a largely ordinary manager, while Belgium’s golden generation have a far better chance of delivering on their promise now they’ve ditched Marc Wilmots for Roberto Martinez. The romantic choice, meanwhile, is Argentina who struggled through qualifying to such an extent they sacked two coaches and got to Russia thanks only to the excellence in the final qualifier of Lionel Messi. This may be his last World Cup; certainly it will be
his last at the highest level and probably a final chance of glory.