Midway though the Premier League season, West Brom take the plaudits but festive fixtures are changing views at the top of the table
Manchester United are seven points clear at the halfway stage of their Premier League season, and still people are asking the same question. Can a team who keep coming from behind and staging dramatic late recoveries really keep it going for a whole campaign, or at least long enough to secure another title?
A glance at the table would suggest the answer might be yes. All Sir Alex Ferguson ever asks for at the turn of the year is to be there or thereabouts, so to be in a position where the lead could be extended to double figures with a home game against West Bromwich Albion and a trip to Wigan Athletic in the next few days allows a healthier outlook than anyone would have dared hope for a team with a leaky defence and a midfield that keeps being overrun.
For while United may not be in the very best of health, they are clearly in better shape than their neighbours, who managed to drop three points at Sunderland after labouring all afternoon before coming up with an injury-time goal to beat lowly Reading. As long as you stick to the view that the title is a two-horse race and the Premier League trophy is likely to remain in Manchester, United's goal-scoring ability and knack of winning games by sheer force of personality will probably be enough to keep them in front.
Although City looked impressive as recently as a fortnight ago at Newcastle, when even Ferguson congratulated them on a performance that showed they were not about to relinquish their title without a fight, Roberto Mancini's players seem to be suffering too many ordinary days to keep up the pressure on United, hence the situation at the top of the table.
City visit Norwich City on Saturday, where United and Arsenal have already lost but where Chelsea picked up three points on Boxing Day with a quiet, unflashy 1-0 victory to put themselves within four points of the defending champions with a game in hand.
This is where earlier assumptions of a two-horse race may have to be revised. While Chelsea are still a long way behind the leaders they could certainly catch City, and with the talent at his disposal it would not be the greatest surprise should Rafael Benítez coax more consistency from his side than Mancini can manage.
The consistency City showed in winning the title last season has not been as much in evidence this season, and neither have goals been as easy to come by. The two sides below City in the table, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, both climbed back into the top four by scoring goals a plenty over Christmas, and though that may be more of an indication of Aston Villa's current feebleness than the potency of the London challenge, with half a season still to go it is now much less certain that Manchester teams will finish first and second.
That is what festive fixtures have always been able to do, alter the whole outlook within the space of a few days, and though this is the exact halfway point for most Premier League teams, by the time the New Year programme has been completed two more rounds of games will have been played and the focus will have subtly started to shift to the number of games that remain.
Already it appears there will not be enough games left for Reading and Queens Park Rangers to save themselves, and if Harry Redknapp is going get his side off the bottom again this week he will have to do it the hard way, with a home game against Liverpool and the short trip to Chelsea. Reading have a home game against West Ham before a trip to Spurs, and though Brian McDermott keeps saying there are plenty of games left for the Royals to save themselves, this is the point where the excuses and the optimism begin to run out. A start must be made, and both Reading and QPR could do with picking up a second league win before the end of the year. Both have a chance at home to do so, so West Ham United and Liverpool respectively are now must-win matches.
The third relegation spot remains a closer-run contest, with Fulham, Newcastle United and Aston Villa suddenly hovering above the trapdoor along with Southampton and Wigan, two sides who probably expected to be in the mix all along.
It is a dangerous thing to say but Newcastle appear too good to go down, even if they have somehow managed to let Sunderland get above them in the table. It is hard to imagine them struggling for points all through the second half of the season, though with a trip to Arsenal and a home game against Everton, they might not be able to put things right straight away.
Wigan are currently in 18th place, and though everyone assumes they are merely biding their time before launching their annual escape act, they still need teams to falter around them and would look vulnerable were Southampton to win their game in hand or Aston Villa to rediscover the form and poise that so recently earned them three points at Anfield.
You never quite know which Villa team is going to turn up at the moment, although you could say the same thing about Liverpool, but Wigan will get the chance to make up their own minds when they visit Villa Park on Saturday. It is probably too early in the season to talk of a relegation six-pointer, so suffice to say that whoever wins that game will be left feeling a lot happier about the situation, while the losing side will have every right to be worried.
Regardless of what happens at Old Trafford on Saturday, West Bromwich have been the team of the first half of the season. They are currently level on points with Spurs and Everton, with as good a chance of making the top four as Arsenal, and no one was expecting that. Spurs and Everton have been pretty good too, as have Stoke City, Swansea City and Norwich. Tony Pulis and David Moyes deserve immense credit for getting their teams to where they are at the moment, though both have been over-achieving for a long time. Steve Clarke is still in his first season.