For the first few months of the season, it looked like Manchester City was going to run away with the Premier League. Fresh off a record-breaking title win last season, Pep Guardiola’s men looked more dangerous than ever, refusing to let a World Cup hangover or injuries slow them down. Sure, Liverpool was keeping up with them, but City just looked that much better than everyone else.
But December came, and with it a serious wobble in City’s form — three losses in four games —created an opportunity that Jurgen Klopp’s side pounced on.
Early in the month, they leapfrogged City after the defending champs lost to Chelsea 2-0. Then came the festive season schedule crunch, when every team in the league plays four games in little over a week-and-a-half. It’s trying time for everyone, but City got off to a particularly nightmarish start, losing their first two games to Crystal Palace and Leicester City. They dispatched relegation-threatened Southampton with ease, but that didn’t stop everyone from assuming they were reeling.
In the meantime, a Liverpool team that had quietly gone about its business for the campaign’s first three months hit its stride just as December arrived. The Reds put together a tremendous seven-game stretch in which they won every game by at least two goals, including a 3-1 mauling of arch-rivals Manchester United that cost Jose Mourinho his job. Even the crush of the holidays failed to get to them, as Liverpool easily cut through its first three opponents, including top-four hopefuls Arsenal. With a seven-point cushion between them and second place City, it looked like Liverpool might have the chance to basically sew up their first title in 29 long and agonizing years when the two teams met on Jan. 3.
There was one problem, though —City wasn’t ready to give up its crown just yet. Over the course of 90 thrillingly brutal minutes, City and Liverpool showed just why the Premier League is so popular. It was hard to keep track of the action at times, with play whipping from one end of the pitch to the other at startling speed and tackles frequently resembling car wrecks, but when it was all said and done, it was City who walked away deserving 2-1 victors, thanks to goals from Sergio Aguero and Leroy Sane. Neither team was at its best—the result of two teams so evenly matched—but with a loss all but ending their title defense, City bore down and gave itself a chance.
But a City doesn’t mean they’ve taken back all the momentum. Liverpool’s four-point lead is far from insurmountable, but if they continue to play the way they have the first half of the season they might not even drop that many points before May. But should they slip up, City will be ready to take advantage. Regardless, with just 17 games left, it looks like the Premier League just might have an actual title chase on its hands.
Manchester United’s season might not be a complete waste after all
As good as Liverpool and City are, a title chase would be more exciting if another team was involved. Unfortunately, the rest of the traditional top six sides are a level or two below them. Tottenham doesn’t have the depth or experience, while Chelsea and Arsenal are clearly teams in transition. And last year’s second-place side, Manchester United, will be lucky to even make the top four and qualify for the Champions League at this point.
Of course, they do now have a shot, something that seemed impossible when they fired manager Mourinho on Dec. 18. Since his firing, the Red Devils have looked like a team reborn, winning all four of their Premier League matches, and doing just enough to get past Reading in the FA Cup on Saturday. Interim manager Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer failed in his first attempt at managing in the Premier League with Cardiff City in 2014, but the former United star has gotten undeniable results by letting his immensely talented team do what it does best – attack.
But while the top four is now a possibility, fans might want to rein in their expectations a bit. Solsjkaer was by an incredibly soft schedule, having only played teams outside the top half of the Premier League table. Be that as it may, the team is also playing exciting soccer for the first time since legendary manager Alex Ferguson retired. That and the fact that there is some reason for hope is more than enough for the Red Devils and their fans right now.
The FA Cup is back
Having reached the third round, at which point Premier League teams start playing, the FA Cup is finally back.
Since the formation of the Premier League in 1992, the biggest knock-out tournament in English soccer has lost some luster, especially to the country’s biggest teams who care more about Champions League qualification and the money that comes with it than a domestic cup trophy. But the Cup, which dates back to the 1871-72 season, still means something, especially since technically any of the Football Association’s 737 teams can win it.
Of course, this year one of the Premier League’s top six sides might want to try and win the tournament. Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy’s years-long plan to turn his team into a winner faces its greatest threat this upcoming summer, with both Real Madrid and Manchester United eyeing manager Mauricio Pochettino as their next skipper. In recent years, the worry was that Spurs’ many young stars might start to wander away if trophies continued to elude them. But might the same apply to their manager as well? The FA Cup isn’t the Premier League or the Champions League, but it’d be the biggest thing Spurs have won in three decades.