The battle for Premiership survival is now starting in earnest with the start of the new year; the League is starting to take shape. With only a few exceptions, the usual suspects are in the mix for battle for Premier League survival for the 2009/10 season.
The battle for points is even harder for the teams at the wrong end of the table. The increase of the top four to the top six/seven with Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur, and Manchester City in the mix at the top means points at the bottom are becoming increasingly difficult to accumulate.
The chance of the 17th placed team matching Hull City's tally of 35 points from last season are very slim. The battle for points in the "six-pointers" between relegation strugglers will become increasingly important for survival.
The top clubs are starting to ramp it up and win games again. Manchester United have managed to survive their recent defensive worries, and Wayne Rooney has been the inspiration to get the Red Devils back to winning ways. Arsenal are firing on all cylinders again despite the injuries to Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, and six others, which saw them struggle briefly in the league.
Liverpool seem to be attacking again and making headway in the league. Manchester City have suddenly found that all the players that Hughes bought can play as a team and defend. Spurs can beat anyone on their day but still are a little inconsistent, and Villa are the same and may miss that Champions League place yet again, but it might not be because of the usual suspects.
At the bottom things couldn't be tighter, with only three points separating 19th from 12th and only five points between 19th and 10th place. For the teams currently in the relegation places—Bolton Wanderers, Hull City, and Portsmouth—only Portsmouth would appear to be out of the fight.
Portsmouth are in serious trouble, and for them to survive for another Premier League season could be asking too much. With the African Cup of Nations about to commence, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Nadir Belhadj, Hassan Yebda, John Utaka, Nwankwo Kanu, and Aruna Dindane are all expected to be called up for the Africa Cup of Nations, and their absence could spell relegation for Pompey.
Pompey's plight gets worse with the club having financial difficulty, meaning the club's staff have not been paid for a second month in a row. Added to this is the fact that they had to sell many of their first-team squad during the summer to stay solvent, it doesn't add up to a very good situation for the South Coast club.
Hull City are also having a few hiccups of late. The famous old East Yorkshire club have had the return of the old chairman and previous owner Adam Pearson after the previous incumbent Paul Duffen was asked to step down by owner Russell Bartlett.
Pearson has said that under the previous chairman the club spent £5 million on agents' fees since winning promotion to the Premiership. Added to this the club has an unsustainable wage bill putting the club on a par with the top ten of Premiership teams, not the bottom ten.
Pearson has said that the club needs to reduce its wage bill from £39 million a year to £30 million, and the club is attempting to negotiate a loan to bridge the £9 million shortfall.
However, Pearson will be hoping to offload a few of the team to offset some of the club's expenditure. He has gone as far as to suggest that anyone at the club is available for sale at the right price in an attempt to save the club if they do end up in the bottom three by May 9.
Pearson said, "Ideally we would like to move five, six players in January, but it may be two, three. There is no money in the Championship for players on our wages, and this is making matters more difficult."
So the transfer kitty for Phil Brown would appear to be all based on players going out, and with money tight all over the football league, the Tigers will be looking at loan signings for new blood this January.
For Bolton Wanderers, who just sacked manager Gary Megson after the 2-2 draw with Hull City because of fan pressure, things will be very tricky. The club has appointed assistant boss Chris Evans and first-team coach Steve Wigley as caretakers for the club while they find a replacement for Megson.
Initial reports suggested that Burnley boss Owen Coyle was Bolton's board's first choice as Megson's replacement, but Coyle has distanced himself from the position. Stoke City's Tony Pulis has said that Bolton can talk to his assistant Peter Reid, who was a player at the Reebok for eight years.
The Bolton team have definitely not performed to their abilities this season so far, but the transition to a new manager may well take its toll on the club in this important period. They have also severely missed their new signing Sean Davis, who was Megson's main signing for the summer of 2009, but he could only make three appearances for the Trotters.
Gianfranco Zola's West Ham team are also going through a period of turmoil. For the London club, it is a injury blighted squad. The Hammers have nine players injured with five of them not expected to return any time soon. Zola will be pleased that influential players, Scott Parker, Herita Ilunga, and Carlton Cole are expected to return in a couple of weeks, but with a match against Aston Villa and three games against relegation rivals, it will be a key period for the Hammers in their attempt to remain in the Premiership.
Wigan Athletic's Roberto Martinez has struggled to find his feet in the Premiership since his high profile move from Swansea City to the DW Stadium. The Spanish manager has seen his side slip slowly down the table, now sitting only a point off the bottom three.
Their very poor goal difference should be a cause for concern for the Latics, as they have the worst in the division on -23, after some devastating defeats from the title contenders.
Mick McCarthy, the south Yorkshire-born Irishman who has lead Wolverhampton Wanderers back into the top flight, sees his side sitting just one point off the relegation spot. His team have proven that they can hold their own in the best league in the world, by concentrating their efforts in the the games they have a higher percentage of victories.
McCathy's below-par team that played lost 3-0 against Manchester United and allowed Wolves to play a ful-strength, rested team against relegation rivals Burnley, which produced a win for the Black Country team. However, things could have been so different for McCarthy if his plan hadn't succeeded.
Burnley have been the surprise package of the Premiership so far this season with some early season form that saw them beat Manchester United, Everton, and drawing against Arsenal, but that form is now a thing of the past. Just like Hull City last season, they carried the form and adrenaline of their promotion campaign into the new season.
Owen Coyle will be well aware of this and will be acutely aware of how small his squad is. He currently has five players taking up space on the physio's table, but luckily for the Clarets, those injuries are all expected to be back in contention in the next couple of weeks.
If Burnley are not going to be a one-hit wonder, it will be vitally important that the Burnley board can keep hold of their young manager. Coyle has rebuffed the advances of Bolton Wanderers, but will the temptation of an established Premiership side be too much for him to stay at Turf Moor?
Blackburn Rovers and Sam Allardyce have been having a few problems of their own. Along with the other team in the relegation battle, their goal difference isn't looking too good but not as bad as some. Allardyce is having to make his side tick without huge investment from his club's board. Since the Jack Walker trust have said that funds will be in short supply, Allardyce will have his work cut out.
Blackburn have one clear advantage over their rivals in January, as they have no players leaving for the African Nations Cup, and they have two of their influential Australians, Brett Emerton and Vince Grella, set to return by January 10th.
Tony Pulis would have hoped to have his Stoke City side well clear of the relegation spots by a few points, not only three points at this stage of the season. His team are still a difficult team to unlock at home, but their away form will be a definite worry for Pulis.
So to will be the problems behind the scenes, with want-away players James Beattie and Tuncay Sanli. Tuncay was signed by Pulis from Middlesbrough at the insistence of the club owner Peter Coates, who wanted to see the Potters play more expansive football. The deal has not worked for the Potters as a team that was hard to beat through their route one football, they have a player who is a square peg in a round hole that wants to play quality football but isn't allowed to.
James Beattie, who was instrumental in the great season that Stoke City had last season, has had his problems this season. His nine goals in all competitions for the Potters was the difference between mid-table and a relegation dogfight. However, his falling out with Pulis this season has been endemic of the plight that the Potters find themselves in.
The relegation battle is still there to be won by any the bottom half of the table. It's looking bleak for Pompey, but the door still isn't closed, but Avram Grant certainly has his work cut out.
Phil Brown will be very much hoping that the return of Jimmy Bullard can spark a revival, as he did in November that saw the Tigers climb out of the relegation places, but their current fixture list of six top-six teams in eight games will see the Tigers with a set of games that are definitely winnable in the run up to the end of the season.
Bolton will be hoping that a new manager with new ideas can turn the tide, and West Ham's Gianfranco Zola will be hoping that his injury crisis can be eased in the transfer window.
Wolves and Burnley will be hoping that they can find enough in the tank to stay with the big boys for more than one season.
Blackburn must become more consistent if they want to stay in the Premiership, and Stoke City will need to sort their off-field problems out soon, or they could well be staring the Championship in the mouth by May 9.
What the New Year offers for the fans of all these clubs and neutrals alike is a fantastic run in. It will be full of twists and turns that make the Premier League the best league in the world from top to bottom.
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