THE TITLE RACE
Arsenal were in the title hunt, promising the football purists hopes of a three-horse title race going down the wire, until they traveled to White Hart Lane. Since then, the Gunners have managed only a measly one point in their last three matches, which reduces the equation to two clubs slugging it out for the title yet again. Both Manchester United and Chelsea have equal chances of lifting the trophy, and both sides will be hoping for the other to succumb to the pressure of the chase.
From the outset of this season, Chelsea have been the firm favorites to win the Premier League. Under Carlo Ancelotti, the Blues have been on a goal scoring spree and even secured doubles over Arsenal and Manchester United. However, they were culpable of dropping points in low key games like the ones against Wigan and West Ham, and their near humiliating loss to Tottenham Hotspurs could not have happened at a worse time.
In spite of the occasional hiccups, Chelsea have consolidated their top position in the League table with a resounding 7-0 victory over a miserable Stoke outfit, which makes their next match at Anfield a potential title decider. With a relatively easier match against Wigan at Stamford Bridge following this game, a win over Liverpool will cement their position as league leaders at the end of the season.
Sir Alex Ferguson and Carlo Ancelotti – who will come out on top?
When Wayne Rooney was sidelined with an ankle injury, people expected the Red Devils to stutter in the League in the absence of their talisman, and a draw against Blackburn seemed to affirm this. However, the Old Trafford outfit proved their detractors wrong yet again, defeating their ‘noisy neighbours’ in injury time and humbling the Spurs at home. Nani has had his best season at Manchester United, while the defense continues to be miserly with Vidic at the helm. They are breathing hard down Chelsea’s neck, with only a mere point separating the top two sides.
With Chelsea enjoying a superior goal difference, the only way for the Manchester side to grab a fourth successive Premier League title is to win the remaining games against Sunderland and Stoke, and hope Liverpool do them a favor next week. If their Merseyside rivals do win this crunch game, it would curiously pave the way for a record nineteen titles for Sir Alex’s side, not something that Liverpool fans would want to materialize. Chelsea, despite losing to Tottenham the previous weekend, have the title in their grasp, and would do well not to let it slip out through their fingers.
TheHardTackle’s prediction for the winner: Chelsea
THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE SPOT
The fight for the fourth place also has its share of intrigue and excitement, with four teams in contention. Tottenham Hotspurs and Manchester City both have the advantage of a game in hand over the other two teams, Aston Villa and Liverpool. But football is a strange game, and the coveted Champions League spot will go to the team which makes the most of the opportunities presented to it.
After their FA Cup semi-final loss to Portsmouth, one expected the Spurs to be deflated and be run over by their fiercest rivals Arsenal and Chelsea. However, they secured a victory over their north-London neighbors for the first time since 1999, and followed up their derby success with an emphatic demolition job of Chelsea in the next match. However, the high flying Spurs were brought down to the ground by a resolute United side at Old Trafford, which affirmed their pathetic away form against the ‘Big Four’ teams.
Spurs have the best chance to make it to the fourth spot, facing Bolton and Burnley on either side of the pivotal fixture against Manchester City at the Eastlands. A look at the league standings indicates that Spurs will have to win the other two games and grab at least a point from the City game, to ensure the final Champions League spot for them; one loss can put their chances in jeopardy.
Like Tottenham, the Arab owned Manchester outfit also have an extra game in hand. However, their last minute loss to United and their failure to capitalize on Spurs’ defeat at Old Trafford means that Roberto Mancini’s side will have to clinch the maximum points from the next three matches. But this is easier said than done, as Citeh have successive tricky fixtures against their direct fourth-place rivals Villa and Spurs, before playing their final match against West Ham United. The loss of Shay Given could be a huge deciding factor in their quest for the fourth spot; a defeat will make things much worse for the men in blue, and they will have to rely on Spurs and Villa dropping points.
If City secure wins in all these games, they will qualify for next season’s Champions League. The onus is on Mancini to inspire his side to play for a win, rather than field an ultra defensive team like the one against Arsenal. The front line trio of Adebayor, Bellamy and Tevez have to rise to the occasion in these crunch games, and the defense must play out of their skins in the absence of Shay Given. If the team fails to qualify for the Champions League, Mancini will have to face the ire of the owners like his predecessors did.
The Villans continue to remain in the fray for the fourth spot, having secured vital victories in their last three games. Their win over Birmingham, through a controversial penalty, allowed them to leapfrog the ‘Citizens’ to the fifth spot. James Milner has been their best player this season after Martin O’Neil moved him to the centre of the midfield, and he will be called upon to put in sterling performances in the next two matches against Manchester City and Blackburn.
The first thing Villa must do is to win both the games, for even a draw will dash all their hopes of playing in the Champions League. If they accomplish the goals, then they must bank on Tottenham dropping points in their remaining three matches; even if the London side manages only six points, their superior goal difference will give them the fourth spot. Villa’s fate is clearly out of their own hands.
Rafael Benitez’s side will be in the spotlight next week, not because of their chances to remain in the ‘Big Four’, but because Liverpool will hold the key to the Premier League crown. Mathematically, Liverpool can clinch the fourth spot only in the following scenario:
- Liverpool defeats Chelsea and Hull City
- Aston Villa drops points
- Manchester City secures not more than four points, or their goal difference is less in case they get five points.
- Tottenham does not win any of their games.
Clearly, Liverpool do not have the luck factor this season, and will certainly be playing for pride hereafter. With Torres out for the rest of the season, Chelsea have an opportunity to inch closer to the title this weekend. It will be interesting to see if Rafa will field his strongest side and go for a morale-boosting win, or if he would concede the match to Chelsea, to put a dent on Manchester United’s quest for title number nineteen.
The next two weeks will be mouth watering, for a slip-up by any of the teams is likely to be capitalized upon by other contenders. If you are a betting man though, your money would be on either of Manchester City or Tottenham to join Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea in Europe’s elite competition next season.
TheHardTackle’s prediction for the fourth spot winner: Tottenham Hotspurs
THE FALL FROM GRACE
There will not be any dramatic ‘Survival Sunday’ this season; the three teams which are on their way out have already been confirmed. Thanks to the administration mess surrounding the club, Portsmouth became the first club to crash out of the top flight. But the Pompey players can be proud of their inspired performances in the face of difficulties and their miraculous entry into the FA cup finals. They can take a cue from Newcastle United, who were demoted to second flight last season, but earned a re-entry into the Premier League next season with convincing performances in the Coca-Cola championship.
Accosting them to the Coca Cola Champions league are Burnley and Hull City, both of which have the worst away records in the Premier League. If West Ham lose both their games and Hull win their next two matches, the teams will be tied on points , but the goal difference will favor West Ham. Wigan Athletic are also out of the danger zone, thanks to a senseless surrender by Arsenal in the last ten minutes of their game. Therefore, in contrast to the other two battles ensuing in the Premier League, the relegation battle will not throw any further surprises; the last three teams have only pride to play for.
Teams relegated: Burnley, Hull City and Portsmouth.