As the Premiership season enters its final stretch the race for the top becomes more and more frantic. Whether aiming for the league title or scrambling for the Champion League places, all the teams involved seem politely intent on refusing to grab the proverbial bull by its horns or anything else for that matter.
BackPageFootball outlines the season run-in and foolishly tries to predict the possible outcomes.
Position: 1st 82pts
MAN UTD V EVERTON 22 APRIL 2012
MANCHESTER CITY V MAN UTD 30 APRIL 2012
MAN UTD V SWANSEA 06 MAY 2012
SUNDERLAND V MAN UTD 13 MAY 2012
It is an oft perpetuated myth that Manchester United are better in the second half of the season than they are in the first. United’s average between the first (40.5) and second (42.5) halves of the season since the inception of the Premier League is a meagre two points. However what this does show is that the side from Old Trafford are manically consistent if nothing else. With four games to go it is exactly this consistency as well as United’s sovereign-fund wealth of experience and nerve which promises to help deliver a 12th Premier League title. There is also the added bonus that unlike in recent seasons the Reds only have the league to focus on and with a fixture list that is relatively tough but negotiable and most of their key players available for the run-in, the prospects for a 20th championship overall look very very good. However…
…United’s remaining fixtures are not as kind as history would suggest. The Red’s have won all five of their last home meetings against Everton and their record against promoted sides is exemplary. But, Everton are in a rich vein of form and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they could snatch a draw. Meanwhile Swansea are no ordinary promoted team and will certainly pose problems. It is the away fixtures though that provide the greatest intrigue. The importance of the City fixture cannot be understated. Depending on what on goes before, this match could well determine the destination of the Premier League trophy. Since Sheikh Mansour took over at Manchester City in 2008, United have been to the Etihad five times and only lost once, while winning three. This though will be a very different beast and their cross city rivals will be baying for their blood like never before. Alex Ferguson will not want to go into the final game against Sunderland needing a win. The days of Steve Bruce and a guaranteed six points are over. The Black Cats are a side revived under Martin O’Neill and will prove a tough test.
The Everton game is crucial. If United win that then the title is most likely there’s. Anything other than a win though and the scales could tip in City’s favour. Overall though, Premier League champions yet again.
Position: 2nd 77pts
WOLVES V MAN CITY 22 April 2012
Man cIty v man uTD 30 April 2012
NEWCASTLE UTD V MAN CITY 6 May 2012
MAN CITY v qpr 13 May 2012
Thumping 4-0 and 6-1 wins against WBA and Norwich respectively have seen the Sky Blues turn the tide after a run of form which saw them win none of the previous three. Roberto Mancini may be publicly conceding the title, but more discreetly he still feels his team are in the running and the players are once again playing with real belief. Like United, City are also able to focus exclusively on the league. Then there is the Tevez factor. As his hat-trick against Norwich and his brilliant cameo in the Chelsea game showed he still remains the club’s finest striker. But more than that, his presence has allowed his fellow Argentinean, Sergio Aguero to recapture his early season form. Their link up play has been phenomenal and the goals have flowed. The pairing is not an obvious one; internationally they have only ever started once together and prior to Tevez’s exile their on-field productivity was nothing to write home about. But this time something seems to have clicked. David Silva has also shown signs in recent fixtures that he has shed his slumber and is returning to his threatening best. The fixtures are tricky but no worse than United’s. The fact that all their remaining opponents still have something to aim for could well play into the hands of the tactically astute Mancini.
Overhauling a five point gap against Manchester United is like being asked to climb K2 barefoot – tough to say the least. What makes it even more difficult is that despite the huge amounts of money spent by the Club’s Abu Dhabi based owners, few of the club’s players have experience of winning championships and of the one’s that do only Gael Clichy, Kolo Toure and Carlos Tevez know what it’s like to close out a Premier League campaign. Question marks also remain over Roberto Mancini’s abilities as a manager to deliver the big prizes. Yes he won three league titles with Inter Milan, but one was handed to him by a court of law and the other two were post- Calciopoli. His performances with both City and Inter in the Champions League and the Premiership collapse that the Blues have suffered this season still cast a cloud over his managerial abilities.
Victory in the Manchester derby, but the title will prove beyond them. Mancini out Mourinho in during the summer?
Position: 3rd 64pts
ARSENAL V CHELSEA 21 April 2012
STOKE V ARSENAL 28 April 2012
ARSENAL V NORWICH 5 May 2012
WEST BROM V ARSENAL 13 May 2012
Despite the pundits predicting that Arsenal will drop out of the top four for several years now, Wenger’s men always find the drive and conviction to secure Champions League qualification. After a woeful start and worryingly inconsistent form the Gunners are once again flying high. Spurred on from their brilliant come from behind victory against local rivals Tottenham, they have gone on to win 6 out of 8 and rocketed to third. Their form over the past ten games is second only to Manchester United and with 14 consecutive seasons of Champions League qualification experience is certainly on the side of the team from the Emirates.
Monday’s home defeat to Wigan and last months away defeat to QPR continue to expose the Gunner’s numerous frailties. For all their recent victories one is never quite sure to what to expect from Arsenal. They are not helped by the fact that their next two matches are against Chelsea at home and Stoke away. If they lose those the panic could once again set in. Mikel Arteta’s injury which will keep him out for the rest of the season is also a blow.
Position: 4th 59pts
QPR V TOTTENHAM 21 April 2012
TOTTENHAM V BLACKBURN 29 April 2012
BOLTON V TOTTENHAM 2 May 2012
ASTON VILLA V TOTTENHAM 6 May 2012
TOTTENHAM V FULHAM 13 May 2012
Spurs know what it takes to qualify for the Champions League after their brilliant heroics in 2009-2010. On paper the fixture list is not too unkind and most of their matches are against sides struggling against relegation. The majority of their starting 11 is injury free and they can once again call on the talents of Aaron Lennon to help them retain their top four position.
Tottenham’s biggest problem is that they are Tottenham and no-one does implosions better than the team from North London. After a brilliantly winter, Spring has proved the harshest of seasons. If the league table were to be decided on the results of the last ten games then Spurs would be sitting in 15th place – not exactly Champions League qualification form. Further, though relatively easy on paper Tottenham’s fixtures are anything but. Four of their remaining five matches are against sides fighting to avoid the drop and traditionally the outfit from White Hart Lane have struggled in end of season matches against relegation contenders. Another worrying portent is that three of those fixtures are away and the last time Spurs won a league match at another ground was versus Norwich in December.
Come May Tottenham’s implosion will be complete – sixth. A summer of upheaval and discontent await’s.
Position: 5th 59pts
NEWCASTLE V STOKE 21 April 2012
WIGAN V NEWCASTLE 28 April 2012
CHELSEA V NEWCASTLE 2 May 2012
NEWCASTLE V MAN CITY 6 May 2012
EVERTON V NEWCASTLE 13 May 2012
The season’s surprise packages are in with a real shout of Champions League qualification. Everything seems to have come good at exactly the right time. Their key players are all fit and in-form, particularly Hatem Ben Arfa. The Frenchman has rekindled the form of early youth and there have numerous calls for him to be awarded with a starting place in France’s EURO 2012 team, not least from Arsene Wenger. Mention also has to be made of January signing Papisse Cisse who has hit a Messiesque 10 goals in 9 league appearances. His scoring has to great degree helped offset the dip in form suffered by top scorer Demba Ba. Newcastle have also managed to shore up the defensive problems that saw them concede five goals against Fulham and Spurs at the turn of the year. Their past five matches have seen them ship just the single goal and victories in all those games very much make them the league’s in-form team.
The Magpies have a tough run of fixtures. In their remaining games the side from the North-East still have to play Manchester City at home and Chelsea and Everton away. An away fixture against giant-killing Wigan will also not be one Alan Pardew’s men will relish especially since they have been underwhelming on their travels throughout the course of the season. Experience at this level may also count against them.
Against all the odds a magnificent 4th place finish.
Position: 6th 57pts
ARSENAL V CHELSEA 21 April 2012
CHELSEA V QPR 29 April 2012
CHELSEA V NEWCASTLE 2 May 2012
LIVERPOOL V CHELSEA 8 May 2012
CHELSEA V BLACKBURN 13 May 2012
Chelsea’s situation is the most intriguing as they have two avenues open to them for qualifying for the Champions League: they could finish in the top-four or win the competition itself. Both are tough but doable particularly in light of the mini-rejuvenation they have experienced under interim manager, Roberto Di Matteo. If Chelsea are to qualify the manner in which they do so will have serious ramifications for their rivals. Another crucial factor is that many of the playing staff are used to success and winning trophies. This experience could prove vital in the run-in.
Reaching the FA Cup final and being ahead in their Champions League tie against Barcelona cannot gloss over the fact that this has been a wretched season for Chelsea. Sitting sixth with five games to go is not exactly what the fans have become accustomed to in the Roman Abramovich era. Even with the change in manager, the blues have been unable to string together any consistency in the league. Not since December have the Stamford Bridge outfit been able to win three consecutive league matches. Chelsea’s remaining fixtures and their schedule is difficult. They still have to play Arsenal, Newcastle and Liverpool in the league as well as play the FA Cup and possibly Champions League finals. None of the other three teams chasing the Champions League places have to worry about anything other than the league.
Fifth place, Champions League heartbreak and a lot of soul-searching.