EPL Midweek Notes: Chelsea still clear favorite, but race behind heats up
It seems reasonable to assume that Chelsea will not meaningfully fall back to the pack this season, with Wednesday's clinical 3-0 home win over Tottenham as the latest piece of evidence. Spurs had some good moments early, didn't capitalize on them, and then quickly were 2-0 down. At that point, against Jose Mourinho, a match is effectively over. The Special One decides what the final will be in those cases.
So while, yes, Chelsea likely will lose at some point(s) in this league campaign, and TSO himself saying this week that the Blues will be playing to win matches rather than preserve an unbeaten season, the level of intrigue in this Prem campaign will be highly determined by whether anyone else can get their stuff together to the point where the title race could become legitimately half-interesting.
By that metric, these last few days are hinting at more to come.
The league's best hope for a challenger has always been Manchester City, and in the span of two league away matches, that hope has been elevated to modest belief. By first going to Southampton and winning 3-0 on Sunday and then, after conceding first to Sunderland, running out 4-1 winners Wednesday afternoon.
Suddenly, City are four points clear in second and remain "just" six behind Chelsea, with Sergio Aguero making a very fine argument that he's playing the best soccer in the world. With today's brace, Aguero now has scored 30 goals in his last 33 league matches, and his first one today nearly exploded the Sunderland goal -- causing American striker Jozy Altidore to freak out on the Sunderland bench.
Meanwhile, Arsenal grabbed a crucial late winner against the aforementioned Saints, who were under duress after Olivier Giroud came on as a sub and spurred the Gunners into a more direct approach, and finally capitulated in the 89th minute to an Alexis Sanchez tap-in after being reduced to 10 men when injury felled center back Toby Alderweireld after Southampton had made all three subs.
While this still doesn't look like a side that will win a Premier League title within three seasons, points are points, and beating someone ahead of them in the table will help alleviate some pressure, for now, on Arsene Wenger. Maybe a bit more industriousness is what is needed in North London.
Perhaps the most interesting development, though, is Manchester United's surge. Even though Louis Van Gaal still doesn't think the Red Devils are playing that well, and they have been wracked by injury (in addition to faulty roster construction), it's now four straight league wins for them, and up into fourth place.
Of all the pseudo-contenders, United feel the most likely to do something(s) significant in January, so the upcoming five matches before the New Year could be really meaningful in terms of the potential chase. United is at Southampton next, then hosts Liverpool, and also goes to White Hart Lane during the Christmas period. United only has one away win so far, but if it can keep in touch until the window opens, the Red Devils could be the wild card no one's really accounting for at this point.
Hopefully, someone will be.
• Look who's unbeaten in four matches now, and no longer in last place in the table! That's right, it's Burnley, which drew at home to both Aston Villa and Newcastle in the last few days to move into 18th and be level on points with Hull City, which is the final team above the relegation zone in these still moderately early days.
Burnley goes to QPR this weekend in what may end up being a pretty crucial match for both five months from now. Currently, all three promoted sides sit in the drop zone, and Burnley's schedule for the rest of the month is pretty brutal.
• First, they learned to score again. Then they learned to draw again. Now Aston Villa has (finally) gotten a taste of winning again, with a valuable three points at Crystal Palace via a 1-0 win. The Villans went six full matches or so without a goal, not scoring in the entirety of October, before breaking that duck in a 2-1 loss to Spurs. Since then, they have notched three straight draws and then this win to drag themselves away, for the time being, from the danger end of the table.
This remains a highly challenged side offensively, but they're making their odd goal here and there count. Villa already has 13 points this campaign when they score one goal or fewer in a match. The lowest-scoring side in the league, they still only have eight goals in 14 matches, even after scoring in each of their last three.
• Tim Howard can think whatever he wants about Everton's top-four hopes–when he's not in a public spat with Brad Friedel, anyway–but Wednesday's 1-1 home draw vs. Hull was another notch in the "this doesn't look like their year" category.
That makes it just six points from the last five against a soft run of schedule, and the Toffees, after a frustrating start of the season where they hemorrhaged goals, still sit in 11th place and behind every other likely challenger for Champions League. Now they face trips to Manchester City and Southampton in their next three league matches.
We'll soon be at the midway point of the campaign, and Everton looks like it will have a very significant mountain to climb for a shot at the top four.