There are just 84 Premiership matches left in this campaign and in the last round of fixtures – played nearly two weeks ago, as there has been a break for World Cup qualifiers – appear to have settled some of the bigger questions surrounding the title race, relegation and European qualification. Manchester City dropped to 15 points behind United in the quest for the Premiership crown, as they were beaten away at Everton for the fourth consecutive season, while their neighbours enjoyed a narrow 1-0 home victory over Reading. That defeat leaves the Royals – who have just appointed former Saints boss, Nigel Adkins, as their new manager – 7 points adrift from safety, level with bottom club Queens Park Rangers, whose own mini-good run of form came to an end with a 3-2 defeat against Aston Villa.
Wigan boosted their survival hopes by beating Newcastle 2-1, although the victory was marred by a dangerous challenge by Callum McManaman on United defender, Massadio Haidara. Sir Alex Ferguson refers to this period until the end of the Premiership season as “squeaky bum time” – invoking the tension that is felt by clubs as they attempt to avoid…spoiling their seasons – and for the last couple of years, the Latics have dramatically improved their performances in their final ten fixtures – a trend they will need to continue this season if they are to avoid being relegated from the top flight for the first time in their history, as they currently sit three points below Villa in 17th. By contrast, Tottenham appear to once again be shitting themselves as their form has suddenly departed them – a 1-0 home loss against Fulham, a team they had beaten in all of their previous six league meetings – was the third defeat in a week for Andre Villas-Boas’s men and they now sit just four points above Arsenal, who beat Swansea 2-0 in South Wales, in the final Champions League qualification spot, with the Gunners having a game in hand. It is not a question of whether Spurs will now finish below their North London rivals – that has always been inevitable, even if most Tottenham fans are only just beginning to accept it – rather whether their form will dip so badly that they will finish below Everton as well and miss out on European football next season all together.
Wes Hoolahan became the first player from the Republic of Ireland to score in the Premiership on Saint Patrick’s Day, as he gave Norwich a 1-0 lead against Sunderland, but there was no more luck of the Irish for the Canaries, who were the victims of three harsh handball decisions. One saw their keeper, Mark Bunn, sent off in the 30th minute when he was adjudged to have handled outside the area; the second resulted in a penalty, from which the Black Cats equalised, and the third was a non-call by the referee after Danny Rose committed the same offence in his own 18-yard box. Elsewhere, Frank Lampard scored his 200th goal for Chelsea as he helped them beat his former club, West Ham, 2-0 at Stamford Bridge; Southampton completely outplayed Liverpool at home and ran out 3-1 winners; and it was one for the purists at the Britannia Stadium, as Stoke and West Brom played out a 0-0 draw.
In the European World Cup qualifiers, England dished out an 8-0 thrashing to international minnows San Marino, but were then held to a 1-1 draw in Montenegro
despite a lively start; Wales and Scotland were both mathematically eliminated from Brazil 2014; and Spain recovered from being held by Finland last Friday to move back to the top of their group with a 1-0 victory over France in Paris. The USA are now in the third place of the CONCACAF qualification group, following a 1-0 win against Costa Rica in snowy Denver last Friday (CultFootball have a first person report from the match here), then a draw in the Azteca stadium in Mexico last night, which represented only the second ever point they had achieved on that ground in World Cup qualifiers (the other coming in 1997).
This weekend, Chelsea return from the international break and embark on a run of six games in two weeks, the first of which is away against Southampton, after which they play Manchester United in an FA Cup replay on Monday, followed by a Europa League match with Rubin Kazan on Thursday; they host Sunderland in the League; then have the return leg in Russia; before finally having a fixture on April 14th either against Manchester City in the FA Cup at Wembley, or versus Tottenham in the Premiership at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal will move to within a point of the top four when they beat Reading at the Emirates, while Spurs lose away at Swansea; Manchester United travel to Sunderland, needing just 13 points to win the title; Manchester City host Newcastle; and Wests Ham and Brom meet at Upton Park. Wigan’s attempt for another great escape will continue as they face Norwich at home; QPR’s own slim survival hopes require them to win away at Fulham; Aston Villa take on Liverpool, whom they beat 3-1 at Anfield earlier in the season; and Everton play Stoke in a fixture even David Moyes and Tony Pulis would rather not watch.
Last time, 7-3; Season, 133-151 (Last three set of predictions, 20-6!)
Sunderland vs Manchester United – Draw
Arsenal vs Reading – Home win
Manchester City vs Newcastle – Home win
Southampton vs Chelsea – Away win
Swansea vs Tottenham – Home win
West Ham vs West Brom – Draw
Wigan vs Norwich – Home win
Everton vs Stoke – Draw
Aston Villa vs Liverpool – Away win
Fulham vs QPR – Away win