What to watch for in the second half of the EPL season
Tim Keeble, Soccer Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
With the busy holiday period having just ended, the Premiership campaign has reached the halfway point, so it's time to take a look at what to watch for over the remaining four months of the season.
CAN LIVERPOOL ACTUALLY HOLD ON AND WIN THE LEAGUE?
You have to go back to the 1996-97 season to find the last time that Liverpool was on top of the league heading into the month of January, while it has been 19 years since the club actually won the league. This season, the Reds take a three-point cushion into 2009, and while history may not be on their side, fans around Anfield may still have plenty of reason for optimism.
The first is that the team has surged to the top of the table despite the injury problems that have plagued last season's leading scorer, Fernando Torres. The Spain international scored 24 goals for the Reds last season, but he has been limited to just nine appearances because of a troublesome hamstring injury. If Torres is able to return to health and regain his scoring touch from last season, Liverpool's attack will receive a huge boost, which will also take some of the scoring burden off of captain Steven Gerrard.
If Fernando Torres is able to return to health and regain his scoring touch from last season, Liverpool's attack will receive a huge boost.
The team also has a favorable schedule in the second half of the season on its side, with the toughest road contest coming in March at Old Trafford against Manchester United, while rivals Everton, Chelsea and Arsenal will all visit Anfield.
The other thing Liverpool has going for it is that the usual title challengers each have had problems of their own this season.
While Chelsea is just three points back and has the edge in goal difference, the Blues have dropped points in four of their last seven games in the league, and their usually dominant form at home has disappeared with just four wins in 10 games at Stamford Bridge this season.
Arsenal has even bigger problems with captain Cesc Fabregas out until the final month of the season with a knee injury, while the Gunners also have a 10-point deficit staring them in the face.
This leaves Liverpool's old nemesis, Manchester United, as the most difficult challenge facing manager Rafael Benitez and his team.
United is seven points back entering the second half, but they have two games in hand and will host the Reds in March. However, a tough month of January that will see the Red Devils play seven times on three different fronts could take something out of them.
HOW WILL THE SAGA AT MANCHESTER CITY PLAY OUT?
The situation at Manchester City is a lot like an eight-car pile-up on the highway. It certainly isn't pretty, but it is almost impossible to look away. What makes City such an interesting team is the huge infusion of cash the club received when the Abu Dhabi United Group took over in September, promising a turnaround to rival Chelsea's at the start of the century.
However, the team has floundered in the bottom half of the table for most of the season, and currently sits in 13th place, just two points above the drop zone.
The signing of Brazilian star Robinho was a good start, but the team's back line has been its biggest issue. However, the January transfer window is expected to bring in another wave of talent, and manager Mark Hughes did well to land Chelsea defender Wayne Bridge for nearly $15 million, with more signings expected in the coming weeks.
How effective Hughes can be in the transfer market will have a big impact on how secure his job is, although the team's overall play must improve.
City has won just once in its last six games in league play, and although Hughes has guided the club into the knockout round of the UEFA Cup, where they will meet FC Copenhagen, the Citizens have already been knocked out of both domestic cups by lower-division opponents.
Brighton bounced City from the Carling Cup on penalty kicks in September, and Hughes took another hit on Saturday as he watched his team fall 3-0 to Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup.
The Abu Dhabi United Group has shown a great deal of patience to this point with Hughes, but you have to think it is only a matter of time before they get tired of seeing limited returns on their hefty investments.
WHO IS THE FAVORITE TO WIN THE SCORING RACE?
Nicolas Anelka is the Premiership's top scorer with 14 goals, but it would come as no surprise if he was not on top in May. The Frenchman has turned in a great performance through the first half of the season in the absence of Didier Drogba, who was limited to just three starts and nine appearances because of injury and suspension, but it is Drogba's return that might keep Anelka from remaining on top.
It is hard to see manager Luiz Felipe Scolari keeping the Ivory Coast international on the bench, and with Drogba on the field, Anelka is not the top target for the Blues anymore.
Robinho is just three goals behind Anelka, and unlike the former Bolton sniper, he is the unquestioned top target on his team.
The Brazilian has scored 11 goals in 15 games since joining City from Real Madrid in September, and with the possibility of more players being added to the squad to improve the attack, Robinho may be the favorite to claim the Golden Boot.
Not many people knew who Amr Zaki was before the month of August, but you can bet that is not the case now. Zaki joined Wigan on loan from Egyptian side El Zamalek prior to the start of the season, and all he did in his first eight Premiership games was score seven times. It would be unrealistic to expect the Egyptian to continue at that clip, but with just three goals in his last eight league contests, the pressure of carrying the Latics offense could be getting to him.
Cristiano Ronaldo ran away with the scoring title last season as he bagged an amazing 31 goals in the league, but after an ankle injury limited him to eight goals in 15 appearances this season, he is poised for a big second half. Everyone saw last season what can happen when Ronaldo gets going, and if that is the case over the final four months, he will have a good chance to repeat as England's top scorer.
WHO'S GOING DOWN?
Over the past two seasons we have been able to pinpoint at least one team that was well on its way to relegation, with Derby being doomed at the midway point last season and Watford on its way down the year before. However, this season has given us no sacrificial lamb halfway through, and with the bottom 10 teams separated by only five points, it's still wide open.
West Bromwich is currently on the bottom, but the Baggies have won two of their last three games in the league and are just three points from safety, while Blackburn is also on 18 points, in 19th place.
Rovers endured an 11-game winless streak from October to the middle of December to fall towards the bottom, but new boss Sam Allardyce has guided the team to five points from its last three games.
Middlesbrough would be the most likely candidate to drop based on its current form. Boro is mired in an eight-game winless streak which has dropped the club from the middle of the table towards the bottom, and with midfielder Stewart Downing seeking a transfer from the Riverside, things don't look like they will be getting better for manager Gareth Southgate, who could be the next boss to lose his job.
Stoke City joined West Bromwich in the top flight this season, and while the Potters own a win over Arsenal and nearly got a draw from Manchester United last week, they too look likely to be headed back down.
Stoke enters the New Year on a six-match winless skid, and the schedule does the team no favors with games against Liverpool and Chelsea in the league to open 2009.
Tottenham's dreadful start saw them sink to the bottom early on, but although they have rebounded under manager Harry Redknapp, Spurs still sit just above the drop zone on goal difference. The team has more talent than any of the other relegation-battling teams and should do enough to stay up, but if the first half has taught us anything, it is that this relegation tussle is likely take a while to sort out.