After a hectic festive period, we take stock of the year gone by and review the teams at the half-way mark of the season. In Part Two, we take a look at the teams outside the top six.
In a year when the big clubs threatened a change of guard at the summit, the rest more than played their part in the story, enjoying a share of the limelight with some stunning upsets, gritty performances and a relegation fight that went right down to the wire.
It was a year to remember for Fulham as they qualified for the Europa League, though avoiding relegation will be the main concern for new boss Martin Jol after Mark Hughes walked out at the start of the new season. Stoke City also made it to Europe after a 5-0 thrashing of Bolton in the FA Cup semi-final; and though they lost the final, a run of only one defeat in their 10 European outings shows they remain as difficult to beat as ever.
The story of the new season, meanwhile, have been Newcastle United who, at one point, found themselves third in the table, only behind the Manchester rivals, before settling at an equally credible seventh after 20 games. They may also have the signing of the season in Demba Ba, signed on a free transfer from the relegated West Ham, who has 15 goals in his last 15 games. The Magpies survived the loss of Carroll and Jose Enrique, and found new heroes in Ba, Yohan Cabaye, Chiek Tiote, Fabricio Coloccini and Tim Krul. Manager Alan Pardew also deserves credit for the turnaround in the fortunes of the modest squad, though owner Mike Ashley reignited his clash with the fans by changing the name of the historic ground from St James’ Park to the Sports Direct Arena.
Everton and David Moyes also maintained their top-eight spot despite a threadbare squad and a continuing lack of investment. Aston Villa, meanwhile, filled the void left by Martin O’Neill’s departure by smashing their transfer record to sign Darren Bent in January. An ill Gerard Houllier was then replaced by Alex McLeish – poached from derby rivals Birmingham – but the departures of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing have hampered his efforts to win over the fans. O’Neill, meanwhile, took over at Sunderland after a poor run of results ended Steve Bruce’s reign, and his arrival has raised hopes of another top-ten finish.
West Brom saw a similar revival under Roy Hodgon, whereas Wolves will not want a repeat of last year, when they ended Manchester United’s unbeaten run and beat Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, yet found themselves facing the drop right until the last day. Relegation, however, is a real worry for Wigan, Bolton and Blackburn Rovers. Such a scenario would be particularly disastrous for the latter and their new owners Venky’s, who have earned the fans’ ire at every step, be it sacking Sam Allardyce, making delusional attempts to sign Ronaldinho, giving the beleaguered Steve Kean a new contract, or making the team participate in a chicken ad.
PROMOTION AND RELEGATION
West Ham endured a miserable last season, much like Blackburn, and found themselves relegated despite having players good enough to avoid that fate. Blackpool, on the other hand, didn’t have the squad, but entertained on their way out in the first season itself. Birmingham City, meanwhile, went from triumph to tragedy – A year which began with a Carling Cup win over Arsenal, their first trophy since 1963, ended with relegation into the Championship and the bitter departure of McLeish.
Their replacements have fared better so far. Norwich City provided the fairytale story, having moved up from League One to the Championship to the Premier League in just two years. They are the only promoted side in the top half going into the new year, which reaffirms the excellent job being done by manager Paul Lambert. Swansea City are also living the dream after winning the play-offs to become the first Welsh side to reach the Premier League. Queens Park Rangers, however, will be disappointed to be the lowest placed of the three promoted clubs, after new owner Tony Fernandes’ takeover resulted in plenty of summer signings like Joey Barton and Shaun Wright-Phillips being added to the squad.
At worst, relegation, at best, a finish in the top-eight – The aims of these clubs are humble as they struggle to compete in terms of money and signings. Yet as an increasing number of matches over the year – such as Newcastle’s 4-4 draw with Arsenal, Sunderland’s 1-0 defeat of Man City, Blackpool’s double over Liverpool and Blackburn’s 3-2 win at Old Trafford –have shown, they are more than capable of matching the bigger teams on the pitch, even if such results are still more an exception than the norm.