Manchester United may have wrapped up the Premier League title last Monday, but there remained a number of critical issues unresolved heading into the latest round of fixtures this past weekend. The two key among them were the jostle for Champions League spots and battle to avoid the dreaded drop.
Battle For Top Four
Chelsea were the big winners this weekend in the race for a top four finish as they overtook Arsenal to move into third spot and stretched their lead over Tottenham to three points. Among the three capital clubs pursuing the two Champions League spots up for grabs, Rafa Benitez’s men were the only ones to bag three points as they strolled to a comfortable 2-0 victory over Swansea City at Stamford Bridge. The game itself was a tepid affair which was settled in a 5 minute spell prior to the break when substitute Frank Lampard set up one goal for Oscar and subsequently dispatched a penalty after Leon Britton upended Juan Mata within the box in first half stoppage time. Lampard now has 201 career strikes for Chelsea and stands tantalizingly one shy of Bobby Tambling’s all time record. Ironically, Tambling was present during the match and was paraded during the interval in front of a rapturous home crowd.
If Chelsea make it to the Europa League final, Lampard will have potentially six games in which to draw level with, if not overtake, Tamblin. After twelve years of fantastic service to the club, no one can begrudge the midfielder this particular individual accolade. Being the team player he is though, Lampard’s priority will surely lie in ensuring Chelsea get to Champions League next season even if he may no longer be around to participate in the same.
The big match of the weekend was at Emirates Stadium on Sunday, when Arsenal hosted the newly crowned champions Manchester United. The customary guard of honour provided by the hosts to the champions seemed to have enamoured United players profoundly as in the opening stages of the match they were keen to reciprocate favour to the Gunners by putting in an extremely inept and lethargic performance. Arsenal duly took advantage through Theo Walcott’s early strike and should have pressed home the advantage with further goals. Their inability to do so was inevitably punished thanks to Bacary Sagna’s inexplicable blunder in first playing a casual back pass and then compounding his error by scything down Robin van Persie inside the box. To the horror and dismay of the Gunners faithful, their former captain got back to his feet, dusted himself down and amidst a cacophony of boos, converted coolly from the spot to hand United a barely deserved parity heading into the break. In spite of plenty of attacking endeavour displayed by both set of attackers, there were no further goals after the interval as the game finished in a draw that would have helped neither side. The two points dropped means United can no longer achieve the highest points total in a Premier League season, a record that stays with Chelsea – yet another reason for them to celebrate this weekend. But the outcome was of greater concern to the North London club as they no longer are in control of their own destiny in terms of Champions League qualification. If Tottenham beat Chelsea and both those clubs win all their other games, it will be them finishing in the top four and Gunners will be left contemplating the four points dropped in their last two home fixtures.
The third protagonists in this fascinating contest, Tottenham, were the ones made to struggle the most this weekend. After the brilliant win against Manchester City last weekend, a buoyant Spurs side were expected to make short work of a struggling Wigan. But for a long spell in the second half the relegation battlers looked set to shock the Champions League chasers for the second time this season. It took an unfortunate own goal from Emerson Boyce, who had earlier equalized for the Latics, in the final minute of normal time for Spurs to draw level and the hosts to lament the loss of two vital points in their quest to ensure Premier League survival. Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas tried to paint a bright picture during his post-match interview by talking of a vital point gained than two dropped but internally he would surely be worried about his team’s form that has seen them drop 10 points in their last six league fixture since that morale boosting victory in the North London derby in early March.
Due to reasons mentioned earlier, Spurs still have a top four spot in their own hands but the margin for error is now nil. The game against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge seems the standout fixture, but Villas-Boas will be well aware of his team’s propensity to drop points against the so called lesser lights in the league and hence would not be taking the likes of Southampton, Stoke and Sunderland lightly. Return of Aaron Lennon is a boost and should ease the burden on the shoulders of the newly crowned PFA Player of the Year, Gareth Bale, as Spurs prepare for a final push to get into the promised land that is the Champions League.
Two Down, One To Go
On Sunday, the fate of the two bottom teams in the Premier League – Reading and QPR – were sealed in a manner befitting of both their seasons as they played out an abject 0-0 stalemate at the Madjeski Stadium. The writing was on the wall for both of these teams for a while now and this result was just mere confirmation of how awful both the teams have been throughout the season. In case of Reading, there are mitigating circumstances in the sense that not much money was invested in the squad that won the Championship last season. Financial prudence was given priority by the owners over retention of Premier League status. Even though the sacking of Brian McDermott late on in the season was hard to fathom, the man who replaced him, Nigel Adkins, would by now have a fair idea of the resources at his disposal and can plan accordingly over the summer for what Reading fans would like to believe a promotion campaign next year in the Championship.
But while parsimony on part of the owners may exonerate Reading’s performances this season, the same can most definitely not be said about the team that will be joining them in Championship next season. QPR owner Tony Fernandez indulged in a lavish spending spree over the summer as a host of top players such as Esteban Granero, Julio Caesar, Stephen Mbia, Park Ji Sung and others, walked in at Loftus Road. But only four points from the first twelve matches set the tone for a season of under-achievement for the expensively assembled team, post which even the firing of Mark Hughes and subsequent appointment of Harry Redknapp did not help the cause. Fernandez kept backing his manager during the winter transfer window with the arrivals of Loic Remy and Christopher Samba but on-pitch performances failed to improve. Redknapp, who had overseen the great escape at Portsmouth a few years back, was left blaming the attitude of his players as the situation became increasingly desperate. However, even though the media in England would never admit it, a fair portion of the blame lies with the manager as well who was brought in to avert relegation, had plenty of time on his side (75 points to play for in the league when he arrived) and with a team at par with any in Premier League mid-table in terms of quality but still failed to achieve his target.
A summer fire-sale seems inevitable now if Rangers are to move forward. They have in their present roster too many overpaid footballers not pulling their weight around for a Championship team to afford. The main concern though will be on how to shift the players such as Jose Bosingwa, who are sitting on astronomical wages. Such an exercise had already proved futile in the winter but this time around the club’s long term financial well-being is at stake on its success.
Among the other games in the weekend, the most eye-catching scoreline was the 6-0 mauling of Newcastle at the hands of Liverpool sans Luis Suarez. This was the worst home defeat suffered by the Geordies since 1925 and it ensures that the club remains embroiled in the relegation scrap for at least couple of more weeks. Early on Saturday, Manchester City defeated West Ham United at Etihad Stadium in a game which will probably be remembered for yet another Joe Hart error which gifted Andy Carroll a consolation goal late on. Other results on Saturday included a pair of 1-0 home wins for Everton and Stoke over Fulham and Norwich respectively while West Brom downed Southampton 3-0 in an ill-tempered game, that witnessed three sending offs, at St. Mary’s Stadium. On Monday night, Aston Villa took a major step towards safety by thumping Sunderland 6-1 at Villa Park. The result leaves Villa 5 points above Wigan, who are in 18th but have played a game less.