Premier League Preview: What challenges await 'Big Six' in remainder of 2019/20 season
Ahead of the Premier League's resumption, we at Firstpost take you through where the self-proclaimed 'Big Six' (and Leicester) currently dwell in the standings, what they need to do to ensure their respective seasons are a success and what they've been up to in the break
At last, the Premier League is back. No longer must we must suffer the indignity of watching Schalke and Bayer play out a drab 1-1 draw, like drug-addled junkies desperately searching for sweet relief from the anguish of withdrawal. No more. For despite the ever-growing threat of COVID-19 , despite the logistical difficulties and despite the lack of any real atmosphere in the stadiums, the tantalising allure of TV rights money has ensured that viewers across the world finally have something to look forward to in the temporal nothingness that is our current state of existence.
So ahead of the league's resumption, we at Firstpost take you through where the self-proclaimed 'Big Six' (and Leicester) currently dwell in the standings, what they need to do to ensure their respective seasons are a success and what they've been up to in the break:
Liverpool — 1st (82 points)
Next fixture: Everton (A)
On the face of it, it really couldn't be simpler. Liverpool need two wins out of nine remaining matches to secure their first Premier League title since the 1989/90 season. There is no asterisk on this. Their fate is entirely in their hands. It doesn't really matter what anyone else does, as long as Jurgen Klopp and his side can do their job and get across the finish line. Sure, there are records to think about, most of which are still very attainable for Liverpool, like City's record of 100 points, and some of which are less attainable, like the record for most goals in a season, a feat that would require them to score at a rate of 4.5 goals per game from here on out. But everyone who's watched a single Premier League match this season will know that all of that pales in comparison to the trophy, because to Liverpool, its players, its fans and its stakeholders, this means more.
Liverpool's next two fixtures see them make the short trip to Goodison Park, before hosting Crystal Palace at Anfield in what could be the title-winning match. While the Premier League is definitely one of the most competitive leagues in the world where anyone can beat anyone, it's worth noting that Palace last took three points from Liverpool in 2017, while Everton last beat Liverpool in 2010, so this should be pretty straightforward.
Manchester City — 2nd (57 points)
Next fixture: Arsenal (H)
Ah, how the mighty have fallen. This time last year, Manchester City were flying high, having won the title for a second year in a row despite Liverpool's nagging presence constantly looming over them. A year on, and things are looking quite bleak for the Abu Dhabi-owned outfit; their inability to pose any real threat to Liverpool's Premier League hopes is the least of their concerns at the moment. City have been entangled in legal proceedings for the past few weeks, with CAS currently considering their appeal against a two-year ban from all UEFA competitions for violating Financial Fair Play, and are looking at a possible exodus of players if their ban is upheld.
However, there's always the possibility that City's highly-paid lawyers will be able to explain away those financial irregularities and have their ban repealed, and of course, a team like City are unlikely to rest on their laurels, so they probably won't be taking their remaining matches lightly. They return to action with a headlining clash against Arsenal on Wednesday night, and also have tough contests against Chelsea and Liverpool to look forward to in the near future. However, perhaps their most exciting fixture of all is the second-leg Champions League knockout tie against Real Madrid. Having done all the right things in a 2-1 victory at the Santiago Bernabeu, they could try to go for broke and focus all their efforts on winning the one trophy that has eluded Pep Guardiola during his time in Manchester.
Leicester City — 3rd (53 points)
Next fixture: Watford (A)
Brendan Rodgers was brought in to Leicester with the singular objective of snipping off the 'one-season wonder' tag that has been stuck to them like white on rice since their title win in 2015/16, and as things stand, he's about to come good on his promises. With an eight-point lead over fifth-placed Manchester United, Leicester are well-positioned in the race for European football, but by no means should they take it for granted. The three most difficult fixtures that await them are against Tottenham, Arsenal and United, all of whom will be gunning for those Champions League spots, and they would do well to tread with caution. On a side note, Jamie Vardy is currently primed to take home the Golden Boot, and if he continues his goalscoring form, Leicester will be lining up against a little-known Central European side at next season's group stage in no time.
Chelsea — 4th (48 points)
Next fixture: Aston Villa (A)
Chelsea have a problem. They look like they're about to go on a massive spending spree and have been linked with a whole host of impressive players like Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Ben Chilwell and even Cristiano Ronaldo. The thing about world-class players, however, is that they really do love a bit of Champions League football. And Chelsea, at the moment, are perilously close to missing out on their coveted top-four spot. Prior to the COVID-19 break, the Blues' league form took a real hit, and they've only just about managed to prevent a rejuvenated Manchester United side from leapfrogging them in the table.
Luckily for Lampard, this break in play has allowed a string of injured players including N'Golo Kante, Mateo Kovacic, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Christian Pulisic to return to fitness, giving the Chelsea boss a number of options at his disposal. Chelsea's first match back sees them take on Aston Villa in what should be a fairly simple affair, before they have a couple of challenging fixtures in quick succession against Manchester City and Leicester. There is also the small matter of an away tie against champions-elect Liverpool on the penultimate day of the league. All in all, Chelsea are really up against it, and they'll need their best players firing on all cylinders if they want to retain their big-club appeal in the transfer market.
Manchester United — 5th (45 points)
Next fixture: Tottenham (A)
Apart from Liverpool, Manchester United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer probably had most cause to be upset with the suspension of the league due to COVID-19 . Things really were starting to look up for the Red Devils, with new signing Bruno Fernandes inspiring a dramatic uptick in form. Since suffering back-to-back defeats at the hands of Liverpool and Burnley in January, United have gone on a 10-match unbeaten run, which has included victories against top-four rivals Chelsea and Manchester City.
While they might not have particularly wanted to take a break, United do have one reason to be thankful for, because the delay has allowed their star footballer to regain his fitness. Yes ladies and gentlemen, this is not a drill, Paul Pogba has returned and by all accounts, he's fit as a fiddle, he's raring to go and he finally has someone to spur him on with a bit of friendly rivalry in the shape of Fernandes. This midfield pairing could go on to be one of the best in the world, or it could fail spectacularly, but either way, there's a lot to look forward to when this reinvigorated United side travel to London on 19 June to take on Tottenham in their opening fixture.
Tottenham — 8th (41 points)
Next fixture: Manchester United (H)
Has Jose Mourinho lost his mojo? There was a time when the Portuguese manager just could not stop winning, but over the course of the last few years, his powers seem to have waned. His arrival at Tottenham has not inspired a change in fortunes, and Spurs have looked weary and impotent on several occasions in the league. If you add to that their insipid performance against RB Leipzig in the Champions League, and the fact they were eliminated from the FA Cup by Norwich, it's obvious they're nowhere close to where they would have hoped to be at this point in the season.
Of course, it's unfair to level the blame solely on Mourinho's tactics, because he has been incredibly unlucky with injuries. After losing talismanic striker Harry Kane to a hamstring injury in January, Mourinho has watched in frustration as the likes of Son Heung-min, Steven Bergwijn and Moussa Sissoko succumbed to various wounds of war. On that front, the break really has provided some much-needed respite for Spurs, with most of these players back to full fitness, and has also given Mourinho a little time to acclimatise the squad to his style of play. Could this be a turning point in their season? If so, they'll need to make that turn quickly, with fixtures against United, Arsenal and Leicester still in store.
Arsenal — 9th (40 points)
Next fixture: Manchester City (A)
Arsenal, the perennial stragglers of the big 6, yet again find themselves furthest away from the leader of the pack. This season has been a nightmare for the Gunners, beginning with their abysmal performances under Unai Emery, a run which was plagued by numerous draws, a couple of high-profile defeats and the particular brand of mediocrity that has become synonymous with their name in recent years. That was followed by the whole Granit Xhaka debacle, and then compounded by the confusion at the club in the early days of coronavirus , where Mikel Arteta was one of the first prominent faces in the league to test positive.
So what next? Can they defy expectations to rise like a phoenix from the ashes? At this point, what exactly would be considered a success for Mikel Arteta's side? Maybe Champions League football is a bit far-fetched as an aspiration, but the Europa League is definitely within reach. There are a few hurdles that Arsenal will need to jump through, with fixtures against Manchester City, Leicester, Liverpool and rivals Tottenham still to come, but should they navigate their way through these perils unharmed, playing European football on Thursday nights is not the worst thing in the world.
Bruce, who left his job by "mutual consent" two weeks after a Saudi-led takeover, admitted he could walk away from the game, such was the level of vitriol directed at him and his family.
A share of the spoils moves Arsenal up to 12th, but the performance did little to suggest they will trouble the contenders for places in next season's Champions League come the end of the season.