The EPL's seven burning questions
The first half of the Premier League season has been as unusual as the winter weather in England. No team has pulled away from the pack, Chelsea has sputtered and Arsenal remains, frustratingly, Arsenal. As it stands, Manchester United and Manchester City are atop the table with 38 points each, but United leads the way on goal difference. The Red Devils have two games in hand over their rival.
On the flip side, West Ham is propping up the table with a meager 17 points. Joining the Hammers in the relegation zone are Wolves and Fulham. Meanwhile, Blackpool, most everyone's pick to go down, is flying high at No. 8. Heck, the Seasiders might be playing in Europe next term. In this Premier League season, anything seems possible.
Looking ahead to what's sure to be an exciting second half, we pose these burning questions.
Can the Gunners finally deliver?
Even though Arsenal finally beat Chelsea on Monday to end a five-match losing streak against the Blues, the answer to this question is, quite simply, no.
Arsenal's Achilles' heel remains the same: an overflow of young talent but not enough experienced players to see the side through tough matches. If Arsenal wins the Carling Cup, as it should -- the semifinals kick off next month, with the Gunners going up against Ipswich Town -- it's hardly a guarantee the Gunners will move up a gear and go on to win the Prem title.
The team has thrown away too many points at home, losing to West Brom and Newcastle and blowing a 2-0 lead against Tottenham. Manager Arsene Wenger hasn't bought a solid goalkeeper, and the team is naive defensively.
Wednesday, at Wigan, was another example of Arsenal's defensive frailty. Left back Emmanuel Eboue was caught upfield on Wigan's opener, and the Gunners, up a man, conceded on a set piece for the umpteenth time. Despite being surrounded by Arsenal players in the box, Wigan's Gary Caldwell still managed to cause havoc, forcing Sebastien Squillaci's late own goal. Keeper Lukasz Fabianski wasn't in the right spot, either.
What should have been a 2-1 win, at least, turned into a 2-2 draw. As a result, Arsenal trails United by two points, with a game more played.
Reports suggest the stubborn Wenger is ready to splash the cash on towering German international Per Mertesacker. Landing the center back would be a good start, but Wenger needed to make such a move this past summer.
Will Chelsea recover?
Well, the Blues can't do any worse of late. After earning 25 of the first 30 points available, Chelsea has been in crisis mode -- winless in its past six Premier League encounters before Wednesday's somewhat fortunate 1-0 victory over Bolton. Defender John Terry got away with another hand ball in the box against the Wanderers (see last season) that should have given them a penalty kick and a chance to even things up.
During its slump, Chelsea went from a five-point lead atop the division to six points behind.
There were reasons for the team's worst run of form in 11 years. Terry, the inspirational skipper, missed three games with a back injury; central defensive partner Alex hurt his knee and hasn't returned yet; midfield goal machine Frank Lampard didn't feature for about three months; box-to-box midfielder Michael Essien picked up a three-game suspension; and popular assistant manager Ray Wilkins got the boot.
Against Arsenal, Chelsea was caught snoozing more than once and appeared to lack drive and confidence. Still, there are small signs of encouragement. Terry, Lampard and Essien have resurfaced. And Chelsea has a winnable game this weekend when it hosts slumping Aston Villa. If the Blues are to get their title chase back on track, picking up all three points against Villa is a must.
Should Manchester United be considered the favorite?
The Red Devils endured Rooney-gate and missed England captain Rio Ferdinand for a while, but they lead the league and remain unbeaten. What's more, they have yet to hit top form.
Dimitar Berbatov and fellow striker Javier Hernandez have been bright spots, along with winger Nani and central defender Nemanja Vidic. And you know it's only a matter of time before Wayne Rooney nets from open play. When he does, the goals will flow. That's what United fans are hoping for, and what the opposition fears.
United has always been a second-half team under Fergie, knowing how to grind out results. And only a poor call by the ref on Tuesday denied United all three points -- and a chance to go two points clear of City -- in a 1-1 draw at Birmingham.
A fourth title in the past five seasons looks to be on the way for United.
Are Manchester City's millionaires serious contenders?
All the money in the world can't buy unity.
Indeed, the first half of the season has seen plenty of in-fighting at Eastlands. Yaya Toure and James Milner quarreled; Emmanuel Adebayor and Vincent Kompany went at it; pivotal striker Carlos Tevez isn't a fan of manager Roberto Mancini; and Mario Balotelli still has trouble written all over him. Balotelli finally smiled Tuesday, and why not, after netting one of the easiest hat-tricks in history against Villa.
When Tevez threatened to leave the club this month, only to rescind his transfer request, the controversy affected preparations against Everton. The Toffees won 2-1 on the road Dec. 20, preventing City from leading the standings on Christmas for the first time since 1929.
How can a team win the title when it's so busy fighting itself?
City resembles the Chelsea of 2003-2004, its first season under ultra-rich owner Roman Abramovich. There were too many players, and manager Claudio Ranieri was trying to figure out who he wanted and who he didn't. He couldn't keep everyone happy. But Chelsea won the title -- the following season.
Flux at the top of the league has allowed City to stay close, but the Citizens will probably drop off the pace.
Can anyone else challenge?
Based on its roster, Tottenham should be up there on anyone's list of title contenders. Spurs possess depth at virtually every position, and in Gareth Bale they own one of the best wingers in the world. And Dutchman Rafael van der Vaart has been a revelation. The midfielder has scored eight league goals, thanks to his vision and ability to show up late in the box to pounce.
Suffice to say, scoring won't be a concern for Tottenham during the second half of the season. Keeping the ball out of its own net is another matter.
Spurs undoing stems from a shaky defense. Goalkeeper Gomes, who had a breakthrough 2009-2010 season, has seen a dip in his form. Both starting fullbacks, Alan Hutton and Benoit Assou-Ekotto, don't exactly inspire a lot of confidence. And injuries have led to a multitude of pairings in the center of defense.
Tottenham is fifth in the league, five points behind United. It's close enough for manager Harry Redknapp to believe that his players have a legitimate shot at the title.
In the end, however, you get the feeling that the title race will come down to the Big Three -- United, Arsenal and Chelsea.
Will Sunderland or Bolton snatch a Champions League spot?
Wouldn't it be nice if one of those sides could nab the fourth spot and qualify for Europe's premier competition?
Bolton sits five points outside the top four, with Sunderland a further two adrift. Managers Owen Coyle and Steve Bruce have done great jobs.
Sunderland's attacking trio of Darren Bent, on-loan Danny Welbeck and Asamoah Gyan has impressed; on another day, Sunderland would have scored six or seven against Blackpool, rather than lose 2-0 on Tuesday.
Gone are the days of Bolton solely using the long ball. Striker Johan Elmander has awoken, Kevin Davies continues to shine and central defender Gary Cahill should be at a bigger club. In the middle of park, U.S. international Stuart Holden has barely put a foot wrong in his first full Premier League season. Holden almost scored Bolton's leveler against Chelsea (his header was tipped over the bar by keeper Petr Cech).
Sunderland and Bolton are overachieving. They'll finish in the top 10, but not top six. The battle for fourth will probably be contested between Tottenham and Man City.
How much chance do the Hammers have of escaping relegation?
History isn't on West Ham's side. Only one team in last place at Christmas, West Bromwich Albion in 2004-2005, has ever stayed up in the EPL.
West Ham has more depth than fellow strugglers Wolves, Wigan, Fulham, West Brom and Birmingham, so the Hammers shouldn't be in dire straits. Injuries have resulted in too many changes in the team. You also have to question whether manager Avram Grant is the right guy to lead West Ham out of danger.
The good news for West Ham is that, if it strings together a few wins, it can move up fast because of congestion around the relegation zone. Only five points separate West Ham and 11th place Everton.
In short, the Premier League promises to be exciting at both ends of the table as we head into the business end of the season.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.
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