Five games have been played by most clubs since my last football-related update, so I might just stick to more general analysis.
Manchester United are unbeaten in that time, despite their best efforts on occasion. Games against Swansea, Newcastle, West Brom, Wigan and West Ham have all been characterised by the same traits United have had all season: an incredibly potent attack and a very lacking defence. Goals were given up all too easily to Michu, Ba, Cisse and Collins, while Van Persie and Hernandez were scoring them all too easily at the other end.
That imbalance in form was briefly rectified in the last two league games, the first consecutive clean sheets of the league season, with the return of Nemanja Vidic being key. While he may have lost a step and remains injury prone, his availability has already improved United’s back line immeasurably. Players like Evans and Evra continue to lack stable form, with Evans badly at fault at many times over the last few weeks, especially against West Ham. Rafael’s return from a brief injury should also help matters.
The midfield has been efficient enough, helped by the return of Kagawa and a good showing from Michael Carrick, who has been getting more plaudits recently thanks to his ever-presentness in the team, his consistent passing ability and his assists, such as the one that allowed Hernandez to hit the winner against Newcastle. The midfield is actually doing just fine as it stands, though you worry about the sustainability of the whole affair. Players like Scholes, Fletcher, Anderson, Giggs and increasingly Young and Nani don’t have the same reliability – in terms of form, age and injury – as they once did.
The FA Cup seems to be more of a distraction than usual this year. The tertiary prize for United, there are many who almost have preferred RVP missed the target in the 91st minute rather than add one more game to a packed fixture list. West Ham battled well against United, and were well worth the victory they were heading for, but the Dutchman has been a marvel in the last few weeks, with his positioning, his ability to switch feet in an instant, and his targeting. It has rapidly become a tale of who gets to partner with him, with Hernandez, Rooney and Welbeck scrapping it out to be second, in that order.
United remain top, with a bigger lead than I would have given them credit for at the start of the season. Provided the standard Spring form comes in, they are in a great position to kick on and regain the league title. A crucial period awaits now, with a home game with Liverpool, an FA Cup replay and an away contest with Spurs.
It’s been a case of varying fortunes for so many others. Manchester City have slipped many times, but have maintained their second place position and are not so far behind the red side of their city. The loss of Aguero will hurt but Dzeko’s form should make up for that, for the moment. City’s defence, still reverting back to this three-man idea after a host of bad performances, needs to sharpen up. Internal problems at the club are a different kettle of fish, and you never know how much of that is real or media invention.
Chelsea looked to be falling out of contention rapidly, but several good results and the capture of Demba Ba might yet prove crucial. Ba will be off for a month in a little bit, but looks easily capable of replacing Torres as the clubs main striker of choice. With more transfers to come, it is impossible to rule the Londoners out of the running at this stage.
Arsenal have bounced back from numerous disappointments, even if the team routinely seems to be missing something. There is a lot of excess fat in that squad, and the turbulence surrounding Walcott, a very over-rated player in my experience – is an example of that. Wenger might be better served wielding the knife rather than shoring up contracts.
Spurs have impressed even more in the Christmas period, but that is to be expected. They aren’t capable of challenging for title yet, and this summer could see the team fall apart through transfer dealings, but it cannot be denied how well they are doing. A double against Manchester United might well be coming up.
How about the rest? Everton are looking good for a high finish, a testament to the squad-creation abilities of David Moyes. West Brom are in the middle of a fall to mid-table that was utterly inevitable. Liverpool continue to be erratic, but the work and goals of Suarez is keeping them above the mid-table mess. Swansea are clearly reliant on Michu to too much of an extent, but as long as he plays they’ll keep at a high point in the table. Newcastle are in big trouble, giving up points left, right and centre and now losing one of their best offensive options. Aston Villa are undergoing a significant decline, and I would favour them now to fall below Southampton, who have undergone a huge improvement, evident in their hard fought draw at home to Arsenal. QPR, despite a famous win against Chelsea, remain as doomed as they come.
Back on Irish matters, and more and more stories are being written about the possible return of Shay Given. Such an eventuality is a negative for me, as Given is too old, too little played and too injury prove to be considered the better of Westwood, Forde or Randolph anymore. The cord has to be cut with this older generation of players, with the likes of Given, Duff, Dunne and Keane. They can’t prop the team up forever, and can’t prop it up at all on the showing in Poland. It’s time to let them go and to stop hoping others will come back.
Limerick have a manager and have begun to re-sign players and generally act like a club that knows what it’s doing. It would be remiss of me to offer commentary before the appointment is made public, but that should be the state of affairs come Thursday or so. Until then.