Wednesday, October 29, 2008

England: EPL Race Takes Shape

The English Premier League season is roughly one-quarter done, and the results of the last four days have brought some separation at the top. The leaders are Liverpool, and if a September home win over Manchester United didn't establish the Reds as leading contenders, Sunday's shock win away to Chelsea certainly did. In his previous four seasons at Anfield, Rafa Benitez has made his name through Liverpool's Champions League success. But the message from fans this season has been clear: win the league, something Liverpool has not done since the dawn of the Premier League. Liverpool are pulling out come-from-behind wins and late victories this season in the types of games that ended in draws or losses last year. That form has resulted in a three-point cushion atop the table.

So which team's will mount the biggest challenge? Chelsea, despite the end of their 84-match home unbeaten streak, have used superior firepower to overcome early injuries and should still be considered the favorites. Unlike Liverpool, Chelsea have buried weaker competition and are building a sizable goal differential advantage (currently nine goals better than Liverpool) that could be critical in a tight race. And after last season's slow start/fast finish, no one will discount Manchester United, especially now that the Cristiano Ronaldo saga has simmered considerably.

The member of the Big Four most likely to fade from contention is Arsenal. Wednesday's home draw to Tottenham put the Gunners six points off the pace, but the psychological impact of the match may prove more damaging than the loss of two points. Hosting their bottom-of-the-table arch rivals, Arsenal allowed two goals in the final two minutes of the match for 4-4 draw. Arsenal's November slate includes ManU, Chelsea and Aston Villa, so Arsene Wenger should know by the December if his men have the mettle to stay in the race.

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