One day you’re in, then you’re out, then you’re back in again.
That has been the story of this EPL season so far. Even though Chelsea has lead the league for much of it, they have failed to be decisive by dropping a lot of points after going ahead in games. Following Arsenal’s loss at Spurs and Chelsea’s win over Bolton, Manchester United was within 30 seconds of completely dropping out of the race altogether in the derby. Scholes popped up with the winner in a largely unremarkable game. All eyes now turned to White Hart Lane where Tottenham, buoyed by City’s loss were extra motivated to beat Chelsea, which was exactly what they did. They now occupy fourth spot as they go to Old Trafford and City travel to the Emirates this weekend. The big clash between Spurs and City is still to come on May 5th. Liverpool’s victory over West Ham means that even though many have written them off in the race for 4th, the chance still exists that they play Champions’ League football next season. In many ways, the last few games of this season could have big ramifications for the next couple of years. Manchester City have not quite been able to attract the kind of players they would like because they don’t offer Champions’ League football. If they take 4th spot, they have the money to get a squad that could dominate the Premiership, or at the very least, lock Liverpool out of the top 4.
Arsenal’s loss to Tottenham seemed to have buried their title hopes, but then Tottenham repeated the trick against Chelsea in a confident and dominant display. Arsenal could then have put their foot in the door once again by beating Wigan, and were leading 2-0 with 10 minutes to go. Somehow, somehow, they managed to lose that game. They now have the unwanted record of being the ONLY team that have lost a two goal lead entering the 80th minute of a Premiership game. To be sure, the Gunners have suffered a lot from injuries this term, but time and time again their hopes of silverware have slipped through the gloves of their goalkeepers. Manuel Almunia has been seen as a weak link for a couple of seasons now and has not improved. Lukasz Fabianski’s poor handling was directly responsible for Wigan’s equalizer. If Arsene Wenger had gotten a keeper in the January window, it is very likely that the title race would have a very different picture. It’s rather ironic that while they kept up their challenge with late goals against the likes of Hull and Wolves, that same challenge has now ended with the concession of 3 late goals.
Chelsea have had their injuries too. Ashley Cole has been out for about 3 months, Essien has not played since leaving for the African Nations’ Cup in January. A number of key players have also been out for spells of this campaign. Their problem however stems from an inability to hold leads. Chelsea have dropped SIXTEEN points from leading positions this season. Without a doubt, this is the reason they haven’t won the title yet. They also have a nasty habit of putting out poor performances after dominant ones. Both losses to Man City came after dominant performances against Arsenal, and European commitments have also taken their toll. So, why so many dropped points? I think that the team is not fresh enough. A number of Chelsea players need to go and younger players that will inject freshness into the team brought in. My candidates would be Deco, Ballack and Belletti for starters. I am also of the view that Drogba’s presence in the side slows the team down going forward and makes them too predictable. Chelsea have scored 7 goals TWICE in the league this season, and on both occasions, Drogba didn’t play. More than that, Anelka suffers out on the right most of the time. His effectiveness is reduced when he plays with the Ivorien. Carlo Ancelotti came to London from a Milan side that had too many players over the age of 30 in their ranks. Even in a reasonably slow league like the Serie A, this fact has made it impossible for them to combine European and league football over a long season. Roman Abramovich will have to provide the funds to prevent the same thing happening to the Blues.
Manchester United could also have been in a better position than they are currently, but some of their problems are self inflicted. The decision to field Neville, Giggs and Scholes together at the sharp end of the season has back-fired more often than not. At the Allianz Arena, they were ineffective as Bayern upped the tempo in the second half, with Gary Neville committing the needless foul that led to Ribery’s deflected goal in the first. The three of them started again versus Chelsea, which negated the one thing United have in abundance: PACE. The passing in midfield was too slow, and without Rooney in the side leaving Nani out until the last 10 minutes was a disastrous decision. Sir Alex seemed to acknowledge this in the return leg against Bayern and the difference was clear for much of the first half. Leaving Rooney on the pitch even though it was clear he wasn’t 100% slowed down the attack and probably let Bayern off in a breathless 45 minutes. You would have thought the lesson was learnt, but apparently not because against Blackburn, Giggs and Scholes played in midfield. The result was a one-paced set-up that couldn’t drive the team forward with urgency or get beyond the strikers to create chances. United had the ball, but not the goal. The quest for a record- surpassing 19th title seemed over until Scholes’ dramatic winner.
Has the Top 4 gotten weaker, or has the rest of the league gotten stronger? The absence of an English team in the CL final four seems to say weaker, but in the Europa League there could be an all English final. In fact Fulham, who are in mid-table, knocked out last season’s German Champions Wolfsburg in the last round of the competition. Tottenham beat Arsenal and Chelsea back-to-back, City beat Chelsea home and away and Arsenal at Eastlands. Everton beat City away from home and took 7 points off the top three in the second half of the season. The longest unbeaten run this season is 12 games, by Birmingham. The Premiership has gone the way of most of the big leagues by being competitive right to the end of the season but has had arguably more upsets and drama. Whether or not it has lost its place as the top league in Europe cannot be known for another year, but it is definitely the most exciting.
The way the fixtures have lined up is very interesting. Liverpool won their game yesterday against West Ham and could yet get a highly unlikely 4th spot. They will be hoping United and Arsenal do them a favour against Spurs and City while they win their own games. United will also be hoping Liverpool beat Chelsea at Anfield on May 1st, with at least one of Spurs and City dropping points when they play each other on May 5th. Rafa Benitez may yet deliver on his top 4 promise, and United may yet surpass Liverpool’s 18 titles. Ironically though, both these clubs will have a direct say in the other’s destiny.