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Friday, November 22, 2013

10 Things to Enjoy in the English Premier League

Ten Things to Enjoy in the English Premier League

            With over a quarter of the season finished, and the last international break until March in the rearview mirror, it’s a great time to look back at the first three months of the Premier League and see what we liked, and what we have to look forward to for the rest of the season. I hope this can become a regular “Five Things to Enjoy”, but seeing as a quarter of the season is already over, let’s make it "Ten Things to Enjoy".

1. The Return of Jose Mourinho

"I am Jose Mourinho and I don't change. I arrive with all my qualities and my defects." - Jose Mourinho

Jose Mourinho is back! First introduced to the "The Special One"on the brilliant Youtube puppet show SpecialOneTV as just a wee 10th grader, I've held a special spot in my heart for Mourinho over the years.

No one can manipulate the media, mess with his own players, or anger officials, competitors, and fans alike quite like Mourinho. And few win trophies like him either. Mourinho is a seven time domestic league winner, two time Champions League winner, and managed to win a trophy every year from 2003 to 2012.

His reintroduction to Chelsea found him icing out the reigning Chelsea player of the year, Juan Mata, forcing young Belgian star Kevin de Bruyne to practice with the under-21's, making a last second change-of-heart in loaning Demba Ba to Arsenal, and a return of the grinding win-at-all costs Mourinho style. You may not always like the methods, but Mourinho certainly knows how to rile up that special mix of angst and admiration in, well, almost everybody.

2. A New Stoke City

Goodbye Tony Pulis, hello new Stoke City. Mark Hughes has removed the physical long ball style of past years and embraced a more eye-pleasing style, going as far as to sign La Masia graduate (i.e. ex-Barcelona) defender Marc Muniesa. And all Premier League fans are better off for it. Team USA fans should look out to see if young American stars Break Shea or Juan Agudelo can break into the squad.

And, of course, there's always this goal. Props to Begovic for not celebrating.

3. The Rise of the Midtier

Last season, the #5 team in the EPL (Tottenham) had 72 points. The #8 team (West Bromwich Albion) had 49 points. At this point in the season, there are 12 teams on pace for at least 48 points and the separation between the championship contenders and the has-beens has been much thinner.

Last year, WBA took a total of 5 points from the top 5. This year, in three games against the top-5 teams from last year, West Bromwich Albion has already taken 5 points. Save a controversial penalty against Chelsea, it would have been 7 points. Aston Villa, who soundly defeated Arsenal on opening day and straight-up stole three points from Manchester City, won a total of zero games against the top seven teams last season. Swansea City, who finished ninth last season, managed only one victory (against Arsenal) vs. teams in the top 7. Newcastle, who are in ninth this season, have beaten Tottenham and Chelsea already this season.

The “elite” teams this season have shown significant chinks in the armor and the mid-tier squads simply haven’t been intimidated. Whether this trend remains throughout the season is to be seen, but its clear that the dilution of talent to six different contenders (more on that later) has led to vulnerability for the teams at the top.

4. Southampton Surprise

Speaking of the rise of mid-table teams, Southampton, just two seasons out of the Championship is in 3rd! Recently, Southampton has been known mostly for providing Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to the more famous London teams. The potential sale of 18 year old left back Luke Shaw has attracted attention. But this year, they're making some noise of their own.

We’ll wait and see how the season turns out, but this young ambitious team certainly pass the eye test. They're physical, they're pressing, they're strong defensively, and they've taken the key players from its rise from the championship and survival battle a year ago, and supplemented them with some key purchases. 31 year old Rickie Lambert is living the dream, even scoring for the English national team on his very first touch. Recent English debutante Adam Lallana has been sensational. Both know the importance of this opportunity, as they were both a part of the Southampton rise from the Championship. Manager Mauricio Pochettino (who has led the team since January) bought Dejan Lovren and Victor Wanyama to provide the defensive backbone and both, particularly Lovren, have been well worth price tag. And all the while, we're still waiting to see if either  of the talented attackers, Gaston Ramirez or Pablo Osvaldo, can provide more firepower, or even reinforcement in the way of transfer funds, for this Southampton squad.

The Saints were clinical in dispatching Liverpool and showed no fear in taking a point at Old Trafford. It might be too much to ask for a Champions League berth with the crowd at the top of the table, but expect them to be in Europa contention for the rest of the season.

This is Adam Lallana putting some icing on the cake against Hull City.

5. A Lost Scotsman

Everybody knew Manchester United would fall when Sir Alex Ferguson left and took his referees tactical expertise with him, but few expected the underwhelming start to the season faced by David Moyes and the Red Devils. In fact, nobody quite expected the traumatic offseason Moyes managed to oversee. This summer saw the Scotsman desperately trying to take over the Ozil deal, lose out on Ander Herrera because of a fax issue, and settle for piddling seconds by going back and snagging only 'The Afro' from his old club. The former Everton manager appeared completely overwhelmed with the workings of a bigger club, and had calls for his head just weeks into the season. A win over Arsenal might have them back on track, but I wouldn't be totally surprised if that win is just a blip on the path to the Europa League.

'The Afro'

6. A Welsh Rivalry

This is a simple shout out to Wales, who get to see the Cardiff/Swansea rivalry in the top-flight for the first time in history. Cardiff is currently leading 44-35 in 106 games and actually won the first ever Premier League derby. It must be an incredible feeling for both of these fans to see the limelight squarely on Wales on derby day. Hopefully the violence that has plagued this rivalry doesn't bubble over into the EPL.

7. European Success

English teams have looked quite solid in the Champions League so far this season. All five teams are in qualification position, with only Manchester City trailing Bayern Munich. Arsenal became the first English team to beat Borussia Dortmund at home. If all five advance to the knockout stage, that would be quite a coup for the English Premier League.

8. Double Trouble

The Sturridge-Suarez partnership has taken the Premier League by storm, with the pair carrying an otherwise middling offensive unit to second most goals in the Premier League. Sturridge has 8 goals in 11 Premier League games. And Suarez, pushing aside the early transfer talk, has shown why Liverpool placed such a high price tag on him, scoring 8 goals in 6 Premier League games. The success of Liverpool's season rests squarely on the shoulders of this striker pair.

9. Beautiful Arsenal

Of course, anyone who knows me, knew that Arsenal would feature at some point. The return of the Arsenal should put a smile on any casual Premier League fan. Wenger's trademark passing style has been buoyed by the rise of Aaron Ramsey (#BalonD'or), Olivier Giroud, and of course, the purchase of footballer extraordinare, Mesut Ozil. Wenger took out the trash, ignored the fan's pleas of panic, and developed a genuine title contender. Plus, Arsenal's yellow and blue away jerseys, topped off with the throwback hoop socks are almost as sexy as the soccer.

Only Spurs fans can lament the return of the old Arsenal, especially when they're scoring goals like this.

10. A Wide Open Race

And of course, the league is so wide-open this year, it will make for an entertaining run-in. There were five legitimate contenders at the beginning of the year, and it doesn’t appear that any of them are bowing out of the race anytime soon. Liverpool fans, who might be a sixth contender, are happy to be back in the limelight. Arsenal fans dream of the first trophy in 8 years. Manchester City is hoping for the second Premier League Title in three seasons. Chelsea is hoping Mourinho can bring them back to glory. Who’s going to win? I don't know, but I know it will be fun to watch.

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