Pop quiz, hotshot. You’re watching your favourite team in a league game at home. Thus far this season, they have won all 14 of the Premiership matches they have played on their own turf and are competing with their fiercest rivals to win their first title since 1968. Your team is 3-1 down, against a club below them in the table, and there are only 10 minutes left to play. Do you: stay and support your side and cheer them on as they try to come back?; or do you head for the exits in frustration that you might fail to win every single game at home, but at least you can beat the traffic? WHAT DO YOU DO?!
Last Saturday, streams of Manchester City fans chose the latter option, and made their way out of the stadium as City trailed Sunderland by two goals late on. I gave City supporters a hard time a few weeks ago for the lack of enthusiasm they showed in their win over Bolton, and they are certainly not the only team to have fans leave before the end of game when they are behind. I even know how long it can take to get out of the car park at the City of Manchester Stadium – it took me 45 minutes just to get onto a road after a Monday night game there back in 2006, and I still had the 200 mile drive back to London to tackle. But leaving a game early might save a few minutes for supporters, but a football game is only 90 minutes long – City fans missed their side coming back to earn a point against Sunderland with a 3-3 draw. Perhaps that will not be enough for them, since they are now 5 points behind Manchester United with only 7 games left to play, but the hundreds who left the Etihad Stadium before the final whistle should have shown the same support as the thousands who stayed till the end.
Manchester United, despite continued success over the last two decades, show no such signs of complacency and they were relentless against Blackburn on Monday – eventually winning thanks to two late goals from Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. This Sunday could end up being the day when the title race is decided – United have a home game against Queens Park Rangers, while Manchester City take their recent poor away for to the Emirates to play third placed Arsenal. If there is a further three-point swing in favour of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, then City may well end up the season trophyless, and their manager, Roberto Mancini, will be looking for a new place of employment.
The race for the Champions League got even tighter last weekend, thanks to a 2-1 win by relegation threatened QPR over Arsenal at Loftus Road. Arsene Wenger criticised his side for the attitude they displayed during the game, but QPR have now beaten Chelsea, Liverpool and the Gunners at home this season, results which give them a chance at avoiding relegation. Tottenham drew level with their North London rivals in third place, thanks to a 3-1 victory over an impressive Swansea side at White Hart Lane. Rafael Van der Vaart scored one and made one, with Adebayor nabbing two headers in the second half to secure the three points for Harry Redknapp’s men – their first victory in the league since February 11th.
Spurs and Arsenal are now separated by just a single goal, but are being pursued by both Chelsea and Newcastle, who are five points behind. The Blues continued their resurgence since they replaced Andre Villas-Boas with Roberto DiMatteo, with a 4-2 win over Aston Villa. The home side were reeling from the news that their captain, Stiliyan Petrov, was diagnosed with acute leukaemia the day before and he was applauded the supporters during the 19th minute of the game. Just like with Fabrice Muamba, the seriousness of Petrov’s situation again put the importance of football into perspective. Villa had come from 2-0 down to level the score with just 10 minutes to go, but Chelsea secured the win through late goals from Ivanovic and Fernando Torres – who had waited so long to find the net in the Premiership, that during his celebration he pulled off his shirt to reveal a t-shirt with “Free Nelson Mandela” on it. Newcastle kept up their own challenge for a top four spot by beating a reeling Liverpool side 2-0 at St. James’s Park. Two goals from Cisse earned the win for Pardew’s side – but they were helped out by their former striker, Andy Carroll, who early on in the game chose to dive in the penalty area, rather than slot the ball home, when he had an empty net in front of him – resulting in the chance being wasted and a yellow card for the Liverpool “striker”.
The relegation battle got even tighter as Wigan and Bolton beat Stoke and Wolves respectively. Combined with the win for QPR and Blackburn’s loss to Manchester United, it means that four clubs are separated by just a single point, with only two of them able to avoid dropping into the Championship next season (unless Villa, five points above the bottom three, continue their slide). Going into the Easter weekend, bottom of the league Wolves look dead and buried, but highly unlikely to rise up the table, as they have lost their last five Premiership encounters. The other matches last weekend saw Everton beat West Brom 2-0 and move into 7th, above their neighbours, Liverpool; and Fulham end a run of three straight defeats, with a 2-1 triumph over Norwich at Craven Cottage.
There are a plethora of games over the next week, with every Premiership side playing two games between Friday and Wednesday. In the title race, City go away to Arsenal and then play West Brom at home; and United host QPR before their trip to Wigan. After taking on Mancini’s side, Arsenal face a trip to 20th placed Wolves; while Spurs take on Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, before heading back to White Hart Lane for a game against Norwich two days later. Finishing third, rather than fourth, could be crucial for the North London clubs, not just because they would avoid a qualifying game to reach the group stages of the Champions League. In this year’s competition, Chelsea have now reached the semi-final stage and – though it may be unlikely given that they face Barcelona, and then if they somehow get past them, Real Madrid or Bayern München in the final – should the Blues win the tournament, fourth place would mean Europa League for Spurs or Arsenal. In the battle against relegation, none of the bottom five sides play each other, so picking up points against teams above them in the table will be the challenge for Wolves, Wigan, Bolton, Blackburn and QPR.
Last week, 7-3, Season, 127-152
Swansea vs Newcastle – Home win
Sunderland vs Tottenham – Away win
Bolton vs Fulham – Away win
Chelsea vs Wigan – Home win
Liverpool vs Aston Villa – Home win
Norwich vs Everton – Draw
West Brom vs Blackburn – Away win
Stoke vs Wolves – Home win
Manchester United vs QPR – Home win
Arsenal vs Manchester City – Away win
Everton vs Sunderland – Draw
Newcastle vs Bolton – Home win
Tottenham vs Norwich – Home win
Aston Villa vs Stoke – Draw
Fulham vs Chelsea – Draw
Blackburn vs Liverpool – Home win
Manchester City vs West Brom – Home win
Wigan vs Manchester United – Draw
Wolves vs Arsenal – Away win
QPR vs Swansea – Away win