English Soccer’s Premier League Heats Up On and Off the Field

Despite Mario Balotelli's antics, the Manchester clubs look like being the only two clubs capable of winning the league. But QPR's shock win at Chelsea is bad news for the clubs battling against relegation

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GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images

Queens Park Rangers' Shaun Wright-Phillips (2nd L) celebrates scoring the only goal with Adel Taarabt (L), Shaun Derry (2nd R) and Jamie Mackie during the match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in London, on January 2, 2013.

Twelve minutes from the end of an engrossing West London derby between Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers at Stamford Bridge, on an unseasonably mild Wednesday night in early January, the bottom team in the English Premier League (EPL) turned up the heat on their illustrious neighbors to show why the EPL remains the most exciting and unpredictable league in world football. The former Chelsea star Shaun Wright-Phillips had yet to score a league goal for QPR and last netted in the EPL 969 days ago. But when he received a beautifully cushioned pass from Adel Taarabt to drill the ball home from 20 yards and send the 3,000 visiting supporters into delirium to give Rangers their first away win since November 2011, you simply had to submit to the magic of the sport and believe that anything is possible.

While QPR remain rooted to the bottom of the standings, their first league victory in the top flight at Chelsea since 1979 revealed a cute coincidence. The number one song in the British charts back then was Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Could that be an omen as the Hoops battle against relegation? Quite possibly.

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The match was one of three played Wednesday to round out the always fast and furious Christmas and New Year schedule where all 20 sides somehow play four times in the space of 12 days (though a subway strike postponed one game). In that period, hope is often either extinguished or rekindled. The month of January also brings with it the madness that is the transfer window as sides desperately try to hold onto top positions, or not slide through the trapdoor into the nether regions of English football, from where it can be nigh on impossible to recover (case in point: when QPR got relegated in 1996, it took until 2011 to make it back to the promised land).

One of the first major moves made in the January transfer window was by the European champions, Chelsea, who had already triggered the release clause in Newcastle United striker Demba Ba’s contract before their capitulation to Rangers. The expected £7 million ($11.3 million) deal to bring the Senegal international back to London will not only give much maligned £50m ($80m) man Fernando Torres some much needed support (if and when interim manager Rafa Benitez plays them together) but is a shrewd bit of business as their out of favor forward, Daniel Sturridge, has moved on to Liverpool in a £12m ($19m) transfer.

And Newcastle and Liverpool were two of the six teams who concluded the latest set of fixtures as Sturridge watched his new charges cruise to a second consecutive 3-0 victory with Sunderland put to the sword just days after QPR looked like they were done for the season. As for Newcastle, they’ll surely miss Ba (his 13 goals are more than twice as many as the next highest goalscorer at the club), as the Toon Army slumped to their ninth defeat in 11 games with the mightily impressive Everton coming from behind to win 2-1 at St. James’ Park. Neither North East club will be pleased about their poor form nor QPR’s stunning win, which keeps them both in the relegation mix.

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At the other end of the league table, those Manchester juggernauts, United and City, continue to smell the rarefied air with a ten and nine point haul out of the possible 12 on offer to maintain a healthy lead over the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea. Though United started off with a 1-1 tie at Swansea, they beat the luckless Newcastle 4-3 at Old Trafford – three days later Newcastle would score another three goals at Arsenal, only to concede seven – before rolling West Brom and Wigan without conceding a goal.

At the business end of the field, United’s major summer purchase from Arsenal, Robin van Persie, continued his fine form by scoring in all three victories to make it 19 goals for the season. Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini has publicly pinpointed that City’s failure to entice RvP to sign is the reason City might not retain the league title they so dramatically won last May. Still, the Italian has a variety of options at his disposal (Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, Carlos Tevez) but quite possibly not the tempestuous – and recent TIME magazine cover star – Mario Balotelli who, it appears, was involved in a training ground bust-up with his father figure of a coach on Thursday. Mancini has often sought to give the Italian striker the benefit of the doubt but the altercation and fact that Balotelli has only scored once in the EPL all season means that now might be the best time to part ways with the 22-year-old, so he can be someone else’s problem.

(VIDEO: Mario Balotelli Opens Up to TIME)

The biggest London clubs, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal, maintain a grip on the next three positions in the table but at least one of them looks set to miss out on a coveted Champions League place next season. Apart from Chelsea’s shock defeat to QPR, the Blues and Spurs had an excellent set of results over the holiday while Arsenal remain a mysterious work in progress: sublime in thrashing Newcastle, needing a penalty to win at Wigan but unable to defeat the distinctly average Southampton. Arsenal fans are imploring long-serving manager Arsene Wenger to sign a couple of big name players and tie Theo Walcott down to a new contract. One suspects the second request is likelier than the first.

And those recent opponents of Arsenal, Wigan and Southampton, are but two of conceivably seven clubs likely to be battling against relegation for the remainder of the campaign. From the bottom up, QPR and Reading are below the Latics and the Saints with Aston Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland nervously looking down. And in light of the shock result of the season to date, the last words belong to QPR. Manager Harry Redknapp noted that, “When you are sitting at home tonight, even the teams with 20 points, they have gone ‘This result ain’t very good for us,’” he said. “I have been there. That has sent a few shocks to everybody.” As for QPR’s fans, they were able to chant “West London is ours” and for one night, at least, it couldn’t be denied. But whether they’ll be able to renew rivalries with Chelsea next season is another matter entirely.

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