Heavy December schedule likely to take toll on some Premier League pretenders

Can Tevez save City during brutal December?; photo by Dull Hunk

It’s far too early to give the title to Chelsea, but their remarkably simple win over Arsenal on Sunday certainly puts them in the driver’s seat. But it’s a few notches down the table where the race for the last few Champions League places is getting very tight that could see the most turnover in the packed holiday fixture list. Just four points separates currently third-placed Tottenham from seventh Manchester City, and it seems likely that at least one Premier League pretender will be exposed by the time the calendar reaches 2010.

Five straight wins, including two over big rivals Man U and Arsenal, have opened up some space at the top of the table for Chelsea. The Blues lead Man U by five and it’s a further five points down to third place Spurs. Chelsea appear hard to beat at the moment (although they have fallen to Villa and Wigan), but champions aren’t crowned in November. Man U were seven points adrift of Liverpool at this time last year and still won the title by four. Chelsea are sure to go through a rough patch, the question is whether any of their pursuers will be in position to pounce.

But we don’t have to wait for a Chelsea stumble to see a real dogfight shaping up for the coveted Champions League places. We’ve said before that this season is likely to be more wide open than any Premier League battle in recent memory and Liverpool’s disastrous start and strong early showings from Spurs and Man City have proven that prediction correct. A real scrum is shaping up between Spurs, Arsenal, Liverpool, Villa, and City for a top four place. But one of those teams will likely fall back after a brutal stretch of five games in 17 days.

Spurs find themselves third and have by far the easiest of December schedules. They just pumped nine goals past Wigan, snagged a draw at Villa Park (a Michael Dawson wonder goal after he might have pulled an Henry), and key midfielder Luca Modric is likely to return in the coming games. This is the most complete Spurs team in many years and should not be troubled by the usual pitfalls other teams face in December. Spurs will be battling for a top four place all the way to the end.

Arsenal’s season is at a critical point. Humming along in brilliant form, they lose Robin Van Persie to injury on international duty and the Gunners grind to a halt. Their possession game has looked directionless without Van Persie pressing for goals. Even injured Nicklas Bendtner would add some bite to Aresnal’s attack, which hasn’t scored in two successive games after starting the season at record-shattering pace. Tough matches away to Liverpool, and at home to Stoke and Villa, will test the resilience of Arsene Wenger’s men. This side has too much talent to drop too far back, but a couple more loses in the coming weeks could spell crisis in northeast London.

Surprisingly, Liverpool’s win against Everton make them the form team of the bunch, albeit narrowly, with eight points from their past five games. And the deflected goal that fueled the derby win may signal that luck is turning their way. It looks like they may be getting Fernando Torres back soon and the they get Arsenal at the right time and at home (Dec 13), while also facing bottom-dwellers Blackburn, Portsmouth, and Wolves. Liverpool fans have to be wary of another false dawn, but if the Reds are going to turn their season around, this is the time.

Aston Villa have been here before, battling just outside the top four the last couple of seasons. Last season, they made it well into the new year in contention for a Champions League place, but their lack of squad depth hurt them badly as they limped home. They didn’t really address their squad issues in the transfer window and now they face by farce the toughest schedule of December matches, playing at Man U, Arsenal, and eighth place Sunderland, and hosting Liverpool and ninth place Stoke. A wobble in December could imperil their season.

What to make of Man City? After a promising start to the season, City are on a Premier League record run of seven consecutive draws. That streak could end, but in the wrong way as they host in-form Chelsea in their next match and have pretty tough run against Spurs, Sunderland, and Stoke before Christmas. Unless Mark Hughes can right the ship quickly, December could pile on more misery after the Citizens grabbed just four points in November.

Spurs look best-placed to keep their insurgent run at a top four place going, while Liverpool seem poised to rebound and jump start their season. Both Arsenal and Villa face a tricky month that could cut either way. But high-priced City seem most likely to be exposed as a Premier League pretender in its most cruel month.

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