What a season, what a title race, what a year for stadiums to be left empty. The Premier League table is as competitive and punishing as ever in 2020/21.
Just four points separate first from seventh, while the gap between fourth and 14th is seven points. Every goal means more, every error hurts more, every team has something to fight for. The season is shaping up beautifully.
But who are the true title contenders? Until a couple of weeks ago, the table looked like ‘it would be stupidly exciting should Liverpool cease to exist’ and though the red half of Merseyside remains physically present, their all-conquering spirit has dissipated somewhat.
A number of teams are within – or close to – touching distance of the summit with almost half of the season etched into the history books, but how many could legitimately lay claim to the crown?
A Game of Thrones scramble for the throne is shaping up, and RadioTimes.com can see five realistic contenders with credible evidence to suggest they have what it takes and what they must do to bring ambitions into reality.
The reigning champions must be the favourites to triumph again, right? They have to be. Little has changed from the rampant Liverpool squad of 2019/20 other than a few hot-shot youngsters such as Curtis Jones stepping up to impress in the first team.
Arguably the only thing missing has been, well, an unquantifiable dash of luck. Defensive injuries have plagued Jurgen Klopp’s men so far this term with Virgil van Dijk’s lengthy absence proving costly and several 50:50 decisions tilting against them.
What do they need to do? Take their chances. Since a riotous display of finishing in a 7-0 rout of Crystal Palace, the Reds’ have taken 45 shots in three games with just one goal to show for their efforts.
Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have formed one of the most potent trios in world football and must rediscover their clinical edge. Deploying Jordan Henderson and Fabinho at the back may seem like an obvious weak spot, but Liverpool’s alarming lack of goals in recent weeks is a greater concern right now.
City are purring back into contention following a muted start to the campaign. The post-David Silva era was always bound to begin on shaky ground, but Pep Guardiola’s men are finding their stride with plenty of road left to run.
Their most impressive aspect in 2020/21 has been at the back. City have kept eight clean sheets in their last 10 games across all competitions, with a resurgent John Stones at the heart of the change. Guardiola’s side have only lost two competitive games in 2020/21 and are hot on the heels of Liverpool.
What do they need to do? Stick to defending. It may not be very ‘Pep’ but building from the back has worked superbly so far.
Ruben Dias has took to the Premier League like a duck to water and Stones has been terrific alongside him, to the point of ousting world class centre-back Aymeric Laporte. Sergio Aguero will return to full fitness soon and provide an extra slew of goals, but that shouldn’t distract from the fact that City’s best hope of sweeping trophies this season lies in a steely defence.
United are firmly in title contention. Didn’t expect that, did you? Granted, it took a poor run of Christmas form by Liverpool to make it happen, but credit to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his men for sticking to their task and quietly picking up solid wins.
Bruno Fernandes is a true contender for Premier League Player of the Season so far, and his influence continues to inspire his team in almost every game. His razor-sharp passing, telepathic vision and devastating final products – crosses and shots – are crucial to success.
What do they need to do? Focus, focus, focus. You’d expect me slap a sweeping statement of ‘be more consistent’ for United, but the truth is, they already are. United haven’t lost a Premier League game since the first day of November, winning eight of the 10 since.
Admittedly, there are still issues rooted in this United team on an individual level. Costly errors have littered their path in 2020/21 – from the goalkeeper to the forwards. Individuals in this United team must focus, concentrate and keep their decision-making in check – on and off the field. Do that, and their technical ability will shine through.
Jose Mourinho is having the time of his life. He just looks happy, doesn’t he? Fighting on all fronts in the Premier League, Europa League, Carabao Cup and soon to be FA Cup, with a talented squad and phenomenal facilities to extract the most from them.
Harry Kane has evolved into a ‘quarterback’ role, his distribution and playmaking skills as highly rated as his marksman finishing, while Son Heung Min has been a major benefactor and takes his chances superbly. Tanguy Ndombele has also been a revelation in midfield this term, though Mourinho’s defensive nature has sometimes resulted in perceived ‘dropped points’ by fans and pundits.
What do they need to do? Complete the trio. We have seen the havoc wreaked by Kane and Son throughout the season, now it’s time for a third musketeer to join them.
Steven Bergwijn has been the preferred third wheel, but he’s felt like exactly that. The Kane-Son love story continues to blossom, while Bergwijn flutters around the outskirts and – more often than not – misses big opportunities that fall his way.
Lucas Moura hasn’t fared any better, while it appears Spurs only managed to re-sign The Shadow of Gareth Bale as opposed to the real deal so far. If one of Bergwijn, Lucas or Bale hits top gear without skimming goals off the Kane-Son partnership, those occasional drab draws will turn into wins.
If you’ve ruled out Leicester City at this point, you simply have not learned a thing from 2016. This is a club that knows what it takes to go the distance, and, while they are clear dark horses, they’re still galloping. As long as that’s the case, they’re in with a shot.
Jamie Vardy has forged true Premier League legend status over the past few years and he remains as pesky as ever leading the line ahead of flourishing stars James Maddison and Harvey Barnes, both of whom must produce the form of their life to land a place in the Euro 2020 squad.
What do they need to do? Keep Vardy fit. This feels simplistic, but ultimately their title charge lives or dies with the energy in their talisman’s legs.
If Vardy goes down, so will Leicester, but while he remains a threat, so do Leicester. The Foxes also appear to have freak off-days, occasional blips that seem to defy the form charts. They mentally checked out of the 2019/20 campaign after Christmas and must ensure they stay fit and fresh to fight on until May.
It would be wrong not to mention three other teams who could launch the most unlikely of assaults on the Premier League summit.
Southampton are an incredibly tidy outfit this season with a solid defensive line, Oriel Romeu the Destroyer in the middle, James Ward-Prowse’s foot turning the ball into a goal-seeking missile and Danny Ings in deadly form up top. It would take a massive shift for them to gain on the leaders, but stranger things have happened.
Everton are also much-improved from last term, though they are more solid than spectacular. I don’t see enough explosive or airtight displays to suggest they can launch a streak capable of winning the title, but they still have a shot at landing a European place.
Chelsea cannot be ruled out due to the overwhelming potential they boast in their ranks, though unfortunately Frank Lampard is struggling to make it all work. Kai Havertz and Timo Werner should have been the final pieces of the puzzle for Chelsea, a new spine, to be supported by Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic on either flank, with Mason Mount and N’Golo Kante sitting reassuringly behind. They are yet to find a ruthless streak though, and it may cost Lampard his job if he can’t inspire a reaction soon.
For the full breakdown of what games are coming up check out our Premier League fixtures on TV guide.
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