Table at halfway should give us a clearer picture
It can be dangerous to read too much into the league table too soon, as Norwich City fans will know only too well from seasons past.
Only when every team has played each other once can we perhaps start to assess who are the real challengers for honours and who looks destined for a relegation battle, but even that formula is not wholly reliable.
After the last round of Premier League matches in December 2010 – the halfway stage of the campaign for most but not all clubs – the bottom three places were occupied by Wigan Athletic, West Ham United and Wolves, with Fulham fourth from bottom. Only one of those four clubs ultimately went down.
Blackpool were a very healthy eighth in the table, still two matches short of the halfway mark, with 25 points. The momentum from their promotion charge had not yet subsided, but they were to collect only 14 more points from the final 21 games, winning just three of them, as they slid back into the Championship.
Birmingham City were 16th, level on points with third from bottom club Wigan, but with games in hand on two of the sides below them, there was no immediate hint of the calamity that was to follow their Carling Cup triumph.
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It’s fair to say that the Premier League was much tighter last season, with only 10 points separating the top six teams from the bottom three at the end of December.
That same gap is already 16 points this season with every club still five matches short of the halfway stage – six in the case of Tottenham and Everton as they still have to play the fixture postponed because of the summer riots.
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It means that the points total needed to stay up looks likely to be lower this time. Birmingham and Blackpool were relegated with 39, Wolves stayed up with 40.
But it’s still probably safer to wait at least until the turn of the year before trying to draw too many hard and fast conclusions about who will end up where after the second weekend in May.
The mid-point of the season will be upon us soon enough, though, with the Canaries facing five games in the next three weeks. After the New Year’s Eve visit of Fulham, we should have a better idea of what Paul Lambert’s men need to do in the second half of the campaign to guarantee another year in the top flight.
So far, their progress has been encouraging, though three defeats in the last four games – and 14 goals conceded in the last five – will perhaps serve as a gentle warning to any fan whose sights may have wandered on to a comfortable top half finish.
The first of the remaining five December matches brings Newcastle United to Carrow Road tomorrow and if there is such a thing as the right time to play one of the top six, this could be it.
Alan Pardew’s team defied the predictions of most of the experts, and doubtless confounded many of their own fans’ forecasts, by staying unbeaten until mid-November, but there was always that tough three-match sequence lurking on the fixture list and if collecting just one point from games against Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea on successive weekends has not damaged morale, the fall-out in terms of injuries has left the Magpies a little vulnerable as they head south.
Skipper Fabricio Coloccini has an outside chance of playing tomorrow after suffering a thigh injury in last Saturday’s 3-0 home defeat by Chelsea, but the Argentinian’s fellow centre-back, Steven Taylor, is out for the season after an Achilles operation, Mike Williamson is still not ready to return after a broken arm and ankle problem, and midfielder Danny Guthrie is sidelined for up to six weeks by a groin injury.
Pardew admitted yesterday that the absentees made him less confident about the games ahead.
He even suggested referee Mike Dean’s decision not to send off Chelsea defender David Luiz for a last-man challenge on Demba Ba early in the game had contributed to his team’s injury problems.
“We ended up with 10 men with not a centre-half on the pitch. I don’t ever remember being in that situation before,” he said.
“To concede two late goals on the back of that made it even more galling, but I think we’ve got enough players in the squad to make sure we put in a creditable performance at Norwich.
“I’d have felt very confident going into this period if I had all my squad available, but I haven’t.
“The biggest problem from the weekend, and perhaps the decision by the referee that changed the game, was that we put in more effort against Chelsea than we’ve done in any other game this season, and that’s cost us injuries to Guthrie and Taylor.”
One could point out that the Canaries have had to manage for most of the season without three of their centre-backs, with Elliott Ward, Zak Whitbread and Daniel Ayala making just three Premier League appearances between them so far, while Ritchie de Laet has been troubled by a back problem.
Striker James Vaughan and midfielder Korey Smith have also been long-term casualties, but Lambert has not wasted any nervous energy bemoaning City’s misfortune on the injury front.
If last week’s hammering at Manchester City has not dented City’s generally upbeat mood, and just a hint of Pardew’s frustration is transmitted to his players, it could just be a good time to play Newcastle.