Liverpool lead the way in a tantalisingly poised Premier League title race heading into 2024 with just six points separating the top five.
Champions Manchester City are ominously poised to strike in the new year despite a dip in form from last season’s treble winners, while Arsenal, Aston Villa and Tottenham are also in the mix.
- Salah sends Liverpool three points clear atop Premier League
- Arsenal falter once more at Fulham, Spurs close on top four
But it has been a disastrous start for some of the other pre-season big spenders. Manchester United, Newcastle and Chelsea are mired in mid-table having lost a combined 26 games.
At the bottom, the promoted trio of Sheffield United, Burnley and Luton occupy the bottom three, but Everton’s 10-point deduction has put their 70-year stay in the top flight at risk.
AFP Sports looks at five talking points from the opening half of the season.
New-look Liverpool back in the hunt
Last season marked the end of an era for the Reds as a tired-looking squad sank to fifth just 12 months after coming close to an unprecedented quadruple.
There have been some teething problems after a midfield overhaul in the summer and Darwin Nunez’s erratic form in front of goal is still to justify the £85 million ($108 million) splashed on the Uruguayan in 2022.
But Liverpool are back to the position they have often found themselves under Jurgen Klopp as City’s biggest threat.
A demolition of Newcastle on Monday, that should have been more comfortable than a 4-2 scoreline suggests, took Klopp’s men three points clear at the top and five ahead of City and Arsenal.
The experienced core of goalkeeper Alisson Becker, captain Virgil van Dijk and top scorer Mohamed Salah have all refound their best form.
But Liverpool must cope without Salah for up to a month now as he departs to lead Egypt at the Africa Cup of Nations.
City still the team to beat
Prior to jetting off to win the Club World Cup last month, City had won just one of their previous six league games to give the contenders to their throne hope.
However, Pep Guardiola’s men enjoyed the best festive season as they added a fifth trophy of 2023 to their haul in Saudi Arabia and then watched all of their title rivals drop points.
City have a game in hand to cut their five-point deficit to Liverpool and look set to come on strong like they did last season to reel in Arsenal at the top of the table.
Kevin De Bruyne is nearing a return from a hamstring injury that has kept him out since the opening game of the season and Erling Haaland should also be fit by the time City return to Premier League action in mid-January at Newcastle.
The fixture list is also kind for City to build momentum.
Pep Guardiola’s men will not face another side currently in the top six until they travel to Liverpool on March 9.
Fortress Villa Park
Villa’s stunning rise under Unai Emery has been built on a phenomenal home record.
Only bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United have escaped with a point from 10 games at Villa Park this season, which has included notable scalps over City and Arsenal.
Many doubt Villa’s ability to last the course in the title race, but they are at the very least well in the running to qualify for the Champions League for the first time.
Miserable Man United
After a positive first season under Erik ten Hag, United were hoping to kick on and challenge for a first league title in over a decade.
Instead, they lost 14 times in all competitions before the turn of the year — the most the Red Devils have suffered since the 1930/31 season.
Ten Hag’s men sit eighth, 14 points off the top and nine adrift of even the top four.
A lengthy injury list has played its part, but United’s persistent lack of value for money in the transfer market has been a bigger issue.
Rasmus Hojlund has scored just one league goal since his £72 million arrival from Atalanta, £55 million midfielder Mason Mount has rarely featured and a series of mistakes from goalkeeper Andre Onana, who cost £47 million, saw United dumped out the Champions League group stages.
A new era has just begun at Old Trafford with British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe taking a 25 percent stake in the club and control of sporting operations.
But a huge amount of work lies ahead of Ratcliffe’s INEOS group to lead United back to the promised land at the top of the Premier League.
Chelsea’s billion pound flop
Yet, United are arguably not even the biggest flops of the season as Chelsea sit three points further back and 10th in the table despite a world record spend in the transfer market.
The Blues have splashed out over £1 billion on new players in just three transfer windows under the ownership of American Todd Boehly’s consortium.
In that time Chelsea have spiralled down the table under four different managers.
Mauricio Pochettino hinted after a 2-0 defeat at Everton last month that he could be forced into the transfer market again in January to add some much-needed goal threat.
And there is widespread disquiet among the Chelsea fanbase that academy graduate Conor Gallagher could be sold to rivals Tottenham to help balance the books in January and comply with financial fair play rules.