Good afternoon, and greetings from Vietnam. Despite this nation not being renowned for its football excellence, the natives have adopted the Premier League as their very own. In fact, the same could be said of several other countries in South-East Asia I have encountered in the past three weeks. They live, breathe and sleep football. No exaggeration. Walking along Nha Trang's main high street today I was regularly stopped and informed that Tim Cahill, whose name proudly adorns my back, is the best player in the world AND that Everton are the best team in England. Now although you would be hard pressed arguing for either cause, they did an excellent job attracting me into their respective bars and restaurants.
It is rather fitting therefore that, whilst I am out in a land where our stars are elevated to even greater heights, this year's campaign is arguably the most compelling yet since its conception in 1992. As we enter February, there is a staggering six points separating West Brom in 20th position to Manchester City, who have recently crept into tenth. Although not too likely, apologies to my West Brom friends, the Baggies are theoretically two games away from not only getting themselves out of the scrap they currently find themselves in, but challenging for Europe - well, at least the Intertoto anyway. Hull, despite tremendous victories in the autumn, most notably the six points they accumulated in back to back away wins against Arsenal and Tottenham, are nervously looking over their shoulders. What seemed like a fairytale season has turned into a drastic dip in fortunes. Despite manager Phil Brown playing down their chances during their purple patch, the Tigers find themselves in eleventh place; just five points off the drop-zone.
Then there are the in-betweeners. Portsmouth, Newcastle, their neighbors Sunderland, and Bolton all find themselves in precarious positions. In previous seasons, occupying sixteenth to twelve respectively would usually carry with it a warning, but also the knowledge that a run of points would apply sufficient breathing space. Not now. These sides, in particular Sundarland and Tottenham, should have nothing to worry about, but with only four points separating Blackburn in eighteenth to Bolton, the race for survival is hotting up.
Competition for Europe and honors is as compelling, if not more so, than ever. Despite the usual suspects being there or there abouts (I refrain from using the label they have acquired from Sky over the years) there are some young pretenders, literally. Ashley Young has arguably been the league's player of the season, and his form has elevated Aston Villa to the lofty heights of third in the table. A great deal of respect and acknowledgement must be bestowed on Martin O'Neill for this, and for only the second time in seven years, the last being Everton in 2005, a side is making a genuine case for Champions League Qualification. Amen to that. Everton, like Villa, have built a side of hungry, talented, young players who are tied down to long-term contracts. The continuity seen at Goodison since David Moyes' appointment in the spring of 2002 has given the Toffees a belief that they too can challenge the monopoly of the 'top four'. (Curse, Sky's marketing strategy has worn me down). In all seriousness, Moyes is doing a fabulous job and long may it continue.
Arsene Wenger's irrepressible desire to breed top, young talent is refreshing, but even his staunchest supporters would find it difficult not to argue they need both experience and guile in midfield and at the back. True, the world finds itself in a precarious financial position, and the credit crunch may or may not have effected the club's performance in both the summer and January transfer windows. It is costing the Gunners big time in terms of honors, and a club of their size and recent history deserves better, some may argue. It is now an incredible four years since Wenger guided his side to FA Cup glory - even that a fortuitous penalty shootout win over Manchester United. Despite Andre Arshavin's belated arrival, Wenger needs to invest in the aforementioned problematic areas come the summer, where they will be fortunate to find themselves in the qualifying phase of Europe's elite cup competition.
As I bask in Everton's epic performance on Wednesday night, defying all logic by overcoming their Mersey-Millionaire neighbors over two games of FA cup heart-in-the-mouth stuff, I also revel in this season's Premier League. So too do my friends over here. With at least three matches screened on a Saturday evening and into Sunday's early hours, I will have no problems in sitting back and watching the business end of the season unfold...to the sweet taste of Tiger beer. Oh, the hard life.