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All Things Footie | Sunday, December 30 | Jordan

The Ghost Of Christmas Future

It's Christmas 2002; United (managed by David O'Leary) are struggling to pick up points at home to the teams they're battling with against relegation. England have nearly finished parading the World Cup around the country, and �60m world record signing Patrick Vieira is having a great season at Arsenal (after an unsuccessful spell of three weeks at Real Madrid—for tax purposes.) It's a dream, but the way this season is going I'm forced to suspend my disbelief every Saturday as the results come in.

The way it's all unfolded couldn't help but conjure up the old cliché regarding fat ladies and singing — I was one of the many writing off Manchester United's season only a few weeks ago. I stand by my comments, a team that defends as badly as United will not win the league, but the important point is that anything can and will happen. Liverpool, who've looked unstoppable most of the season, are dropping points and playing poorly. Leeds have been battling away but the quality of their performances switch between sublime and clueless in an instant.

It seemed after their defeat at home to Newcastle that it was the same old story for Arsenal — second place here we come. Uncharacteristic wins over Liverpool, Chelsea and Middlesborough have put to bed any ideas that it's under-achievement on the menu again. Newcastle have suffered a touch of vertigo and slipped up, but they are now considered contenders more seriously than when they reached the summit.

For me the title race is as open as I've ever seen it, I do think that simply looking at the sides will clarify the real competition though. The most serious challengers are Arsenal and Liverpool; both have winning squads and in Thierry Henry and Michael Owen they have the two most potent attacking forces in the country. With truly world class players in midfield and defence to compliment the forwards they are the two best footballing teams in the country and only nuances will separate them.

Chelsea and Leeds are only a fraction behind though. Both have good all round squads, and players capable of winning matches are all over the pitch; however they both have similar flaws. Both have rock solid defences, Chelsea in particular, and Ian Harte just manages to counter his defensive frailties with his aggression going forward. Prolific scorers are not in short supply for the two either, in Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Robbie Fowler, Chelsea and Leeds have proven finishers at this level and players capable of winning a game single handedly. The weakness' that I believe will foul up their challenge are a lack of true strength in depth and key midfielders that don't really cut it in the illustrious company of Vieira and Gerrard (think Petit, Lampard, Batty, Dacourt.)

Outsiders in my eyes are Newcastle and Man Utd. Both have serious deficiencies in crucial areas, United's defence is poor at best in comparison to any of the other contenders. The quality which separates Premiership sides from their poorer counterparts in the Nationwide league is the defensive rigidity. United can just about muster a Nationwide defence and if it wasn't for Giggs, Beckham, Keane and Scholes, they would be in very dire straits.

Newcastle have a more general problem of players that just fall short of their contemporaries at the other top clubs. Craig Bellamy is in the midst of a spell of good form but in comparison to Owen, Fowler, Henry and Hasselbaink; he's simply not up there. Shearer is goalscoring personified, but no longer world class, and the Magpies can't rely on his goals all season (especially with his dodgy back). Players like Nol Solano, Gary Speed and Laurent Robert are all quality but fall short of the likes of Giggs, Pires, Gerrard, Kewell, Keane, Vieira etc.

The way this season is panning out anything could happen, Leeds' togetherness could overpower the big(ger) guns, Chelsea may string together three wins, Laurent Blanc may try defending. Whatever happens it will fun to watch, and highly stressful if you support any of the top six.

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