After yesterday’s tedious Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium – which the home side won 1-0 thanks to a header from Vincent Kompany just before half-time – City now have the league title well within their reach. Should they prevail in their final two matches – away to Newcastle, then home to Queens Park Rangers – Mancini’s men will win their first league title since 1968 (unless United also win their last two by a total of 9 more goals than City’s victories). Sir Alex Ferguson cannot blame anyone else for the loss – his team selection was too defensive and conservative, picking Giggs and Scholes in the midfield, when the former should have been on the bench instead of Ashley Young. I once compared Ferguson to Tony Soprano and perhaps he misheard the lyrics to the theme of that show too – he put out a bad side with a Blue Moon in his eyes.
Sunday’s game at St. James’s Park is now the biggest obstacle to Manchester City, they face a Newcastle side who are still in the race for a European place next season, though they did suffer a 4-0 defeat away at Wigan last weekend. Should they win the title, it will be a glorious rise from the ashes for those City fans who stuck with their side through two relegations a little more than a decade ago and have been in the shadow of United’s success across town for such a long time. The price of this success has been steep – hundreds of millions of pounds being spent on overhauling the squad first when they were owned by former Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, now by the Abu Dhabi United Group. There has been such a large overhaul of the playing staff at the club, in the commentary of yesterday’s game Vincent Kompany – who signed for City in 2008 – was described as being a long-term servant for them. This is not all that has changed – gone are the days when City fans were considered to be true supporters actually from Manchester, while United fans were glory hunters who hailed from Kent and Surrey. The latter may still be the case, but City now have people jumping on their bandwagon and have garnered attention worldwide. While growing and being successful is what almost every supporter wants for their team, it also alters the fabric of the club – ask any Red Sox fan how the crowd at Fenway Park changed after their 2004 World Series win. If City do win the Premier League, I will be happy for those fans who know the significance of: Gillingham 2 – 0 Manchester City – those who don’t can enjoy the title, but they have not really earned it.
The other big football news over the weekend was the approach by the FA to West Bromwich Albion to talk to Roy Hodgson about being the next England manager. As Harry Redknapp was penciled in by almost everybody as the next coach the day Fabio Capello resigned – actually scratch that, he was written in with a permanent marker – this should have been something of a shock decision, but Tottenham’s woeful form in the last two months forced the FA’s hand. Hodgson has international experience – having previously been in charge of Switzerland, United Arab Emirates and Finland – spells which included a World Cup appearance in 1994 with the Swiss – making him a more suitable candidate to jump right in for the European Championships next month.
Spurs fans may hold their hands up in despair that this decision was not made more quickly, allowing Redknapp to concentrate on the job in hand and focusing his players on the race for a Champions League spot, rather than thinking who the manager will be for the following season. This misses two points: the reason for the dip in form was not solely due to the speculation over the England job, it had more to do with the poor team selection and tactics that were employed; and if the FA had made the appointment back in February, it would have been Redknapp who got the job.
In the battle against relegation, Blackburn may have been wishing that Spurs were still distracted over their manager’s future, as they fell 2-0 at White Hart Lane. The second goal for Tottenham was a fantastic 30 yard free-kick from Kyle Walker – whom Rafael Van der Vaart had tried to dissuade from taking the set-piece in the first place. The defeat leaves Rovers three points behind fourth from bottom QPR – who fell 6-1 at Chelsea, with just two games left to play. Bolton occupy the last remaining relegation slot, below Rangers only on goal difference, after they earned a 2-2 draw with Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. Wanderers have one more game to play than the teams around them – against Tottenham on Wednesday – so have their fate in their own hands. Wigan, after their 4-0 thrashing of Newcastle 4-0, and Aston Villa, who took a point from West Brom in the Midlands derby, both sit on 37 points, three above the relegation zone and one more win for them should secure Premier League football for next season.
Elsewhere, Arsenal were held 1-1 by Stoke at the Britannia Stadium, but are four points above Tottenham in fourth and victories in their last two fixtures will guarantee qualification for next season’s Champions League, even if Chelsea win this season’s competition. Wolves – who are already sure to be relegated to the Championship – fought back from being 3-0 and 4-1 down away at Swansea to earn a 4-4 draw; Liverpool beat Norwich 3-0 at Carrow Road; and Everton scored four without reply at home to Fulham.
This week’s midweek fixtures could go a long way to determining who finishes fourth, with Tottenham traveling to Bolton, and Chelsea hosting Newcastle – both games being are on Wednesday night. FA Cup Final Day, which used to be the showpiece game that came after the league season had ended, is on Saturday, with Liverpool taking on Chelsea, three days before they meet again in a Premiership encounter. Arsenal take on Norwich in the only league game on the same day as that final. Sunday’s lineup includes: the match between Newcastle and Manchester City; Villa hosting Tottenham; Swansea facing Manchester United at Old Trafford, and Bolton taking on West Brom, in Roy Hodgson’s penultimate game in charge of Albion, before he leaves for the England job. On Monday night, Wigan travel to Blackburn, a win for Roberto Martinez’s side could both ensure their own safety and confirm Rovers’ relegation from the top flight, if results have gone against them the previous day.
Last week 5-5; Season 150-175
Liverpool vs Fulham – Home win
Stoke vs Everton – Draw
Bolton vs Tottenham – Home win
Chelsea vs Newcastle – Home win
Arsenal vs Norwich – Home win
Newcastle vs Manchester City – Away win
Aston Villa vs Tottenham – Draw
Bolton vs West Brom – Home win
Fulham vs Sunderland – Draw
QPR vs Stoke – Home win
Wolves vs Everton – Away win
Manchester United vs Swansea – Home win
Blackburn vs Wigan – Draw