Twenty matches into the season, the Premier League table is coming to focus, and the haves are distancing themselves from the have-nots.
Earlier in the campaign, four or five clubs were in the running for title. Now that number has dwindled to two or three, and it could drop even more in a few weeks.
That's not to diminish the league as a whole, because La Liga is similarly positioned, and the title races are one-sided in both Serie A and the Bundesliga. The Premier League is still plenty exciting. You have the race for the top four and a relegation battle with no club looking a nailed-on favorite to head down to the Championship.
The league table can be deceiving, but for the most part, it speaks truth to how good or bad each club is. On the other hand, you can see that some are rising, while others are falling.
With that in mind, here's a more accurate look at the EPL standings.
Note: Each club's position in the table and points total is in parentheses.
1. Manchester City (2nd, 44 pts.)
Plain and simple, this is Manchester City's title to win.
Although they're second in the table, City are better than any other Premier League club on their best day. It appears that the new signings and Manuel Pellegrini are fully bedded in, thus avoiding some of the problems that plagued the early-season results.
Manchester City do need to improve on the road and also not fall asleep against lesser competition. The former is a more recent issue, and the latter goes back to Roberto Mancini's time as manager. Pellegrini may find the solution for each problem.
As long as City iron those issues out, they'll be the table-toppers by season's end.
2. Arsenal (1st, 45 pts.)
After the 6-3 drubbing at the Etihad, it's looked like Arsenal would eventually get supplanted atop the table by Manchester City. What was once a possibility now seems a formality, following the news of Theo Walcott's injury. Arsenal announced that the 24-year-old will miss at least six months.
The Club regrettably announces Theo Walcott has been ruled out for at least six months with a knee injury. Story: http://t.co/Q0wPjxjCxj— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) January 6, 2014
As WhoScored.com pointed out, the Gunners' winning percentage has dropped slightly in the past in Walcott's absence.
Theo Walcott: Since the start of the 2006/7 PL season, Arsenal have won 58.6% of the matches Walcott started, and 53.2% the games he did not— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) January 6, 2014
OptaJoe noted what may be a more distressing fact: Walcott has been a major creator in the attack.
33 - Since the start of 12/13, Theo Walcott scored or assisted 33 PL goals (19 goals, 14 assists) more than any other Arsenal player. Prime.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 6, 2014
If there was one area of Arsenal that could least afford an injury, it was in the attack. Unless the club find another forward between now and the end of the transfer window, their title hopes could be going up in smoke.
3. Chelsea (3rd, 43 pts.)
An argument could be made that Chelsea is in a better position to win the title than Arsenal. Jose Mourinho is a master when it comes to getting the necessary points against the top sides and hammering the lesser sides, thus accumulating enough points by the end of the year.
Scoring will continue to be an issue for the Blues if their strikers don't improve.
4. Liverpool (4th, 39 pts.)
Whatever title hopes Liverpool harbored this season look to have evaporated after back-to-back losses to Manchester City and Chelsea. While neither defeat is all that bad, together they established the Reds' ceiling this season—the top four.
5. Everton (5th, 38 pts.)
Everton keep on doing it. I keep expecting the Toffees to fall back to earth a bit and drop to sixth or seventh and a few points off four.
Yet here they are, only a point off Liverpool.
In the process, Roberto Martinez has earned the credit he so richly deserves. Some argued that Wigan were only in the relegation zone year after year because of his managerial failings, but in truth, it was his acumen that allowed the Latics to remain in the Premier league for so long. Martinez has done a great job melding Everton's defensive strength with his attacking mindset.
6. Manchester United (7th, 34 pts.)
I had a lot of trouble figuring out where to put Manchester United.
So many people are eager to see United's downfall that at the slightest hint of trouble, everyone's quick to jump on the bandwagon proclaiming the club's demise. It's gotten to the point that nobody's even making the "Because they're Manchester United" to explain how the Red Devils can win the title.
Things are unquestionably bad at Old Trafford, but the extent of that bad is being exaggerated. United have a shot at the top four—they're only back five points. But even that is an uphill battle.
7. Tottenham Hotspur (6th, 37 pts.)
The good with hiring Tim Sherwood is that his laid-back approach and man-management style is the perfect tonic following Andre Villas-Boas. The bad is that his tactical shortcomings can be exposed in a big way against better clubs.
Spurs won't see a marked improvement as the season goes on, but at the least the dressing room shouldn't be as toxic, and players like Roberto Soldado who were struggling under AVB will thrive under new management.
8. Newcastle United (8th, 33 pts.)
There's nothing new about this Newcastle United side. One week they look great, and the next they lose to West Brom. It's been the same way for the last few seasons.
If you were looking only at the starting XI, the Magpies could be a top-four contender. However, they lack the squad depth to get much higher than they are now.
9. Southampton (9th, 27 pts.)
Southampton have finally been found out. Not that Saints have all of a sudden become a bad team, but opposing teams know that if they stop Southampton's Plan A, Mauricio Pochettino has no Plan B. Saints have come to rest in what will likely be their position the rest of the season. They won't approach the top four again.
10. Aston Villa (11th, 23 pts.)
It's hard to believe that Aston Villa are in 11th despite the fact that Christian Benteke has four goals the entire season. It's too early to call the Belgian a one-season wonder, but there's a reason so many people were apprehensive when the club bought him.
Benteke needs to step up in the second half of the season if Villa are to get any higher in the table.
11. Hull City (10th, 23 pts.)
Let's pause for a moment and congratulate Steve Bruce on what he has done with Hull City up to this point. And he doesn't even need to wear one of those headset/earpiece things that Phil Brown did.
Hull City shouldn't fall off anytime soon. A home match against Chelsea will be tough, but after that the Tigers get Norwich, Crystal Palace, Tottenham, Sunderland, Southampton and Cardiff.
By the time that stretch is over, Hull could creep into the top half of the table.
12. Swansea (13th, 21 pts.)
Michael Laudrup's words proved prophetic. Ahead of Swansea's New Year's Day fixture with Manchester United, he said that Wilfried Bony and Alvaro Vazquez were the missing pieces of the puzzle, at least in terms of the club's performance, per Sky Sports:
Now Bony and Alvaro, they just need to score one or two goals to give them that confidence. Unfortunately forwards live and are mostly judged by the goals they score or don't score.
That's what we all have to help them with because I think the rest is working. My team is playing the passing game with a lot of confidence, good movement, but the last thing is to create and then to score.
Since then, Bony's scored three goals and Swansea beat Manchester United in Old Trafford and nearly did the same to Manchester City.
Things are looking up for Laudrup's men.
13. Stoke City (12th, 22 pts.)
Who is this player, and what has he done with the real Oussama Assaidi? Stoke City appear to have found something with the 25-year-old winger. Those who watched Assaidi at Heerenveen won't be too surprised, but he featured very little with Liverpool last season.
His talent stands out on a club lacking tricky, pacy wingers capable of springing the counter.
14. Norwich (15th, 20 pts.)
After some shoddy performances earlier in the season, Norwich's defense has regressed to the mean. Over their last six matches, the Canaries have conceded two or fewer goals in each game. While that might not sound like much, it's progress for a club that had 5-1, 7-0 and 4-1 losses over a two-month period.
15. West Brom (14th, 21 pts.)
While West Brom should avoid relegation by the end of the season, they need to sort out who the new manager will be. Either stick with Keith Downing or find a replacement, because the longer this drags on, the less time somebody has to build continuity with the team.
16. Cardiff City (17th, 18 pts.)
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did a great job with Molde in the Norwegian Premier League. Couple that with his time at Manchester United, and Cardiff City could have a solid manager.
The Bluebirds have the talent to avoid relegation. The key will be not letting Vincent Tan and whatever problems are happening behind the scenes spill over to the on-field performance.
17. Crystal Palace (18th, 17 pts.)
Call it the Tony Pulis Effect. Crystal Palace aren't good enough to achieve mid-table status, but they're not bad enough to get relegated. The Eagles' defense will continue to improve under Pulis, covering up for their lack of goals.
18. Fulham (16th, 19 pts.)
We all knew that Fulham were a top-heavy team. Few could have predicted how bad the Cottagers would be defensively, and it's not getting any better under Rene Meulensteen. When Fulham gave up six goals to Hull City, the relegation talk had to begin.
19. Sunderland (20th, 14 pts.)
I'll admit that I thought there would be a little more improvement from Sunderland under Gus Poyet. While the Black Cats aren't as abject as they were under Paolo Di Canio, they remain at the bottom of the table. Sunderland have a tricky run of league matches upcoming, so it may not get better anytime soon.
20. West Ham (19th, 15 pts.)
West Ham need Andy Carroll back so badly. Without him, the Hammers have nobody else who can be considered a consistent goal threat. That wouldn't be as much of an issue if the club hadn't conceded 30 goals this season, 16th in the league.
The 5-0 loss to Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup underlined how much of a mess West Ham are at the moment.