A fellow Spurs supporting friend and I were enjoying a post-match pint and a conversation about football – nothing unique about that – but in the course of our conversation, we discovered that we both find ourselves as de facto Manchester United fans, when they are not playing Tottenham of course. To explain, back in the early 1990s, I could not stand the thought of United winning the league – they had not done so for 26 years prior to their title success in the 1992/3 campaign and it was much more familiar and acceptable to just see Liverpool win the Championship. However, since the advent of the Premier League (which replaced the old Division One in August 1992), United have been the dominant force in English football and the only other teams to have won multiple titles since then are two of Tottenham’s biggest rivals – Arsenal and Chelsea (with Blackburn and Manchester City each claiming one). The old adage of your enemy’s enemy becoming your friend has become the case with Manchester United – I cannot imagine Spurs finishing above the Old Trafford club, since they have not done so since 1990, so the best hope I have of Arsenal or Chelsea failing to win the league comes in the shape of the Red Devils triumphing instead. Now, City have emerged as the main alternative to United, but have done so through a huge influx of money and are far from a likeable side – should they dominate the league for the next decade, I might become immune to their success also, in a way I never could for either Arsenal or Chelsea.
So, for 36 fixtures of their season, I actively root for United to beat whomever they are playing, then hope that they lose the two games against Spurs. I wish that I could have a realistic expectation that my own team might actually challenge for the title but, until that happens, the lesser of two evils is Manchester United taking the Premier League Trophy, rather than anybody else. Having said that, with their next two fixtures being Tottenham’s chief rivals for Champions League qualification, I was hoping that Sir Alex Ferguson’s men would come unstuck last Monday in their match with Aston Villa, delaying the confirmation of their 20th title win and meaning they would be more focused on beating Arsenal and Chelsea. However, a first-half hat-trick from Robin Van Persie – who now has 24 in the Premiership and is sure to end the season with the Golden Boot, given the inactivity of a certain Uruguayan for the rest of the campaign – ensured that were no slip-ups and the supporters at Old Trafford were able to celebrate yet another League Championship success.
The reason that they had been able to clinch the title on Monday was that Tottenham had beaten second place City on Sunday, coming from 1-0 down to claim a 3-1 victory over the outgoing champions with three goals in seven second-half minutes. For most of the match, Spurs had lacked ideas in the middle of the park and were showing no threat upfront, with Emmanuel Adebayor doing little more than occasionally holding the ball up. To his credit, Andre Villas-Boas completely changed the course of the game with three substitutions – he removed Scott Parker and Gylfi Sigurdsson, to be replaced by Tom Huddlestone and Lewis Holtby, with the former in particular offering a new dimension of passing range; then brought on Jermain Defoe for Adebayor. This immediately put City onto the back foot and before Roberto Mancini could respond, Gareth Bale had setup Clint Dempsey for the equaliser, Defoe scored a fantastic individual goal, and Bale sealed the points for the home side with a well-timed run and beautifully chipped finish. Like a killer in a slasher movie, it appeared as though Tottenham’s season was dead and fans were taking stock of the carnage that had been wrecked, but suddenly they have sprung back to life – in all probability just to stab us supporters through the hearts once more – as they continue to have a top four finish in their own hands.
In fact, all three of the clubs competing for the final two Champions League spots are in control of their own destiny, as victories in all of their remaining fixtures would ensure a place in the top four for Arsenal and Chelsea as well (the Blues face Spurs on May 8th, which could end up being a showdown for a berth in next season’s top European competition). Last Saturday, the Gunners maintained their good run of results with a 1-0 win away at Fulham, though they made hard work of it considering they were playing against ten men for the majority of the match following Steve Sidwell’s early dismissal. The biggest talking point of the weekend came in the match at Anfield, as Liverpool twice came from behind to hold Chelsea to a 2-2 draw, but it was the actions of Luis Suarez that once again grabbed the
headlines. The Uruguayan set about performing all of the biggest hits from his career – he handled in the area to give away a penalty, just as he had done against Ghana in the 2010 World Cup Quarter-final; sent across the ball for Daniel Sturridge to guide home, showing the ability and vision that has made him such a dangerous striker; then, as he had done during his time at Ajax, he bit an opponent, this time Branislav Ivanovic. The referee did not see the incident and thus Suarez was still on the pitch to score the equalising goal in the 97th minute, denying the visitors from taking all three points, but the FA have since banned him for 10 matches – a punishment that according to Liverpool, was intended to victimise the player who I guess they think had his teeth viciously attacked by Ivanovic’s arm. With the Reds only having four fixtures left of this campaign, Suarez will be suspended for a six matches to start next season, it remains to be seen if he is still at Anfield by then, as despite his ridiculous behaviour, his mercurial talent is still likely to attract other clubs to vie for his services this summer.
Elsewhere, QPR and Reading are both on the verge of relegation following a 2-0 loss against Stoke and a 2-1 reverse away at Norwich respectively; Wigan are stumbling in their attempts to avoid being demoted from the top flight for the first time in their history, as they were beaten 2-0 by West Ham; West Brom and Newcastle shared the points after a 1-1 draw, as did Swansea and Southampton as their encounter ended goalless; and Sunderland won for the second game in succession, this time overcoming Everton 1-0 at the Stadium of Light. In European competitions, the Bundesliga appears to be the strongest league at the moment, overtaking La Liga as Bayern Munchen thrashed Barcelona 4-0 in their Champions League semi-final, while Borussia Dortmund beat Real Madrid 4-1, with all four of the German side’s goals coming from the brilliant Polish striker, Robert Lewandowski. Chelsea edged closer to claiming consecutive European trophies, as they prevailed 2-1 away at Basle in the last four of the Europa League, while Turkish side Fernebache gained a 1-0 win over Portugal’s Benfica in the competition’s other semi-final.
This weekend, it is survival Sunday at the Madjeski Stadium, as Reading and Queens Park Rangers meet with both teams needing to take all three points to avoid their relegation being confirmed that day – a draw would send both sides down, while whoever emerges victorious could still be mathematically demoted the following day, should Aston Villa defeat Sunderland. Arsenal have said that they will form a guard of honour for Manchester United prior to their meeting at the Emirates this weekend; while the other matches involving Champions League contenders see Wigan host Tottenham; Chelsea entertain Swansea; and Everton play Fulham. With a title defence out of reach, Manchester City will now be focusing on the FA Cup to end the season with silverware, but must first face West Ham at the Etihad this Saturday; Norwich travel to Stoke; Newcastle and Liverpool meet in the North East; and Southampton take on West Brom. The biggest match of the weekend comes in League One, as both Brentford and Doncaster able to secure promotion to the Championship when they meet at Griffin Park, with the Bees needing a victory to claim their place alongside Bournemouth in the second tier, with Rovers requiring just a point to make the spot their own.
Last week, 5-4 (I missed predicting the West Ham vs Wigan match); Season, 153-171
Manchester City vs West Ham – Home win
Everton vs Fulham – Home win
Southampton vs West Brom – Home win
Stoke vs Norwich – Draw
Wigan vs Tottenham – Away win
Newcastle vs Liverpool – Home win
Reading vs QPR – Away win
Chelsea vs Swansea – Home win
Arsenal vs Manchester United – Draw
Aston Villa vs Sunderland – Home win