Are the Premier League and SPFL Title Races Already Done and Dusted?

Deputy sport editor Harry Dean recaps an entertaining first half of the season in both the English Premier League and SPL.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

For years now commentators have argued that the competitiveness and (relative) parity of the Premier League is what has set it aside from its counterparts on the continent and made it the world’s best league. The fact that at the start of every season they argue, there exists a handful of clubs with genuine title ambitions distinguishes it from the leagues in for example Germany, Italy and Spain, which are generally characterised as duopolies or even monopolies, dominated by an elite few clubs.

This season so far however has seen the dominance in the Premier League of one particular club make a mockery of this long-held theory. Manchester City, under the guidance of Pep Guardiola in his second season in charge of the team, have embarked on a ruthless dash to the title which evokes memories of the way Guardiola’s former team Bayern Munich would so clinically dispatch all other competition in the Bundesliga during his glorious reign in Bavaria. At this current point, City’s record reads an incredible Played 22, Won 20, Drawn 2. Not even Manchester United during the height of the Ferguson era or Arsenal during their “Invincibles” season ever came close to this kind of dominance. Put simply, City’s attacking prowess driven by the likes of Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane have proved irresistible and their 15 point lead over second place ensures that barring a spectacular collapse the title will be returning to the Etihad Stadium this May for the first time in four years.

Below first place however, an intriguing battle is developing amongst the other members of the top 6 for the remaining Champions League places next season with just 8 points separating second and sixth place. Manchester United seemed like the most likely side to challenge City in the early stages of the season yet some costly dropped points in recent games has led to them sliding out of the title picture and seen their coach Jose Mourinho revert to his familiar tactics of blaming refereeing decisions and instigating spats with other managers, most recently Antonio Conte, as a means of diverting attention from his side’s faltering performances. Sitting in 3rd, Chelsea’s ambitions of retaining the title appear all but over yet it would have been unfair to have expected them to repeat their remarkable success during Conte’s first year in charge owing to their much more demanding fixture schedule this year. Tottenham have shown flashes of the swashbuckling side that ended up second last year but ultimately their struggles in adapting to temporary home Wembley Stadium have seen them dragged back into a battle to finish in the top four. Elsewhere for all their attacking talents, both Arsenal and Liverpool have been hampered by substandard defensive displays although the latter will hope that the recent signing of Virgil Van Dijk from Southampton will alter their fortunes in this area of the pitch.

Away from the battle for the European places, Burnley have undoubtedly been the surprise package of the season so far. Under the guidance of perennially underrated manager Sean Dyche who has squeezed every last ounce of talent out of a squad complied with resources much diminished in comparison to their current rivals in the league, the “Clarets” have quietly compiled a very impressive first half of the season. As recently as last month they were as high as 4th in the league and at present lie 7th through their deploying of uncomplicated tactics and the utilisation of home ground Turf Moor as a place away teams hate to visit. Should their form continue, expect Dyche to be linked with a number of glamorous job vacancies next summer.

Towards the lower reaches of the table, the race to avoid relegation is still very murky with no obvious candidates thus far to be plying their trade in the Championship next season. Indeed at the current moment just 9 points separates the bottom 11 teams and this uncertainty for so many clubs has surely contributed to the trigger-happy approach many owners have taken towards the job security of their managers in a bid to secure their place at the top table for another year. Seven managers have already been relieved of their duties this year by clubs under a real threat of going down, the most recent of which was Mark Hughes, whose 5 year reign at Stoke City was brought to an end with the club languishing in the relegation zone and their 10 year Premier League spell now under serious threat. With the race for the title seemingly already resolved, the battle to avoid the drop will probably be the topic harbouring the most drama as the league campaign reaches its climax in the coming months.

North of the border in the Scottish Premier League, it’s business as usual for Celtic, who appear destined to secure their 7th consecutive league title, with cornerstones of the team such as Scott Brown, Leigh Griffiths and Moussa Dembele leading their charge to glory. Brendan Rodgers’ men are at present 8 points clear at the top of the league yet perhaps more significantly are still participating on the continent, and a deep run for the club in the Europa League would go a long way to bolstering their image in Europe as well as that of Scottish football as a whole after a lean few years.

However to suggest Celtic have had it all their own way in the league so far this year as they did last season would be disingenuous. Their record 69 match unbeaten run was ended abruptly in December courtesy of a 4-0 thrashing at Hearts whilst Aberdeen in particular have shown an unexpected level of resistance in the face of Celtic’s domineering hegemony. Rangers’ early season dreams of challenging their “Old Firm” rivals again proved woefully naïve and former boss Pedro Caixinha paid for their poor start by losing his job in October. After a very public pursuit of Aberdeen boss Derek McInnes proved fruitless, Caretaker Manager Graeme Murty was charged with turning their fortunes around between now and the seasons’ close.

Elsewhere, Hibernian have enjoyed an impressive return to the top flight, currently sitting in 4th and could yet push for an unlikely European place. In contrast however Dundee, the most local side to St Andrews in the SPL, seem destined for a tough relegation battle, although an upturn in fortunes in recent games has lifted them off the basement of the table. In contrast their City rivals Dundee United have enjoyed a good season in the Scottish Championship thus far and will hope to secure their place in the top division next year with a strong finish to their campaign.

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