This Week In: English Football – Moyes to United and the F.A. Cup Final

The man who soon will be hearing "No way Fergie would've messed that up" ad infinitum
The man who soon will be hearing “No way Fergie would’ve messed that up” ad infinitum

Following the announcement that Sir Alex Ferguson would retire from his role as manager at the end of the season, Manchester United acted quickly to replace him at the helm with another Glaswegian, David Moyes, whose contract with Everton is due to expire on June 30th.  While many have suggested that there are many similarities between the two men, giving the club a level of continuity, Moyes has nothing like the experience that Ferguson had when he took the job at Old Trafford in 1986.  By then, the elder Scot had led Aberdeen to three domestic league championship titles, 4 Scottish Cups, the League Cup, Cup Winners Cup and European Super Cup triumphs, whereas the Everton boss has no trophy successes on his resume.  David Moyes also has limited experience in managing in European fixtures, but the job he has done on Merseyside over the last 11 years on a limited budget – which, in comparison to Chelsea and Manchester City, he will also have at his new club – suggests that he has all of the qualities that will be needed for him to help United maintain their winning formula for the coming years.  Nevertheless, Should he falter early on, Moyes is unlikely to be given the same amount of time that his predecessor was to get things right – Ferguson did not win any trophy in his first three seasons at United and did not win the title until 7 years into his tenure – with the Glazers, the American owners of the Red Devils, requiring continued success to keep making money from the club.

With Ferguson exiting the stage, football is losing one of the greatest managers in its history and he has also been an icon of the English game – much like the F.A. Cup used to be before the turn of the century.  The final of the competition used to be played after the league campaign had finished, the showpiece that ended the season and every player, manager and supporter dreamed of walking down Wembley Way with their club.  Now, the final is slotted into the penultimate weekend, providing a distraction for clubs who might be more focused on title races, relegation battles, or even the quest to simply qualify for the Champions League.  The decline in its importance could be attributed to when Manchester United withdrew from the competition  so that they could play in the FIFA World Club Championship in 2000; or the years the final was played in Cardiff, while its traditional home was being rebuilt.  However, the principal reason its value has decreased is that clubs have put all of their focus into the money generating competitions of the Champions League and Premiership – being in Europe’s top club competition, or surviving in the top flight in England, both bring great revenues to teams and this, rather than the pursuit of trophies, has become their main aim in the 21st century.  To be fair, some still place value in the silverware – for example Chelsea, who have claimed this competition four times in the last seven years – but with so many big clubs resting players for early rounds, or fielding their second string team throughout the tournament, it is little surprise that supporters and players have more of a focus on the league and Europe, rather than the F.A. Cup.  This weekend, Manchester City will likely claim the trophy for the second time in three years, which will be great fun for their fans, but they are playing against a Wigan side who will have their attention turned to Tuesday’s crucial Premiership encounter with Arsenal instead – if the final was being played after the league season had ended, there would be no such distraction. 

That fixture at the Emirates on Tuesday is now make or break for Wigan, who lie three points away from safety having beaten West Brom 3-2 last Saturday, but they then lost by the same scoreline in a sloppy match with Swansea on Tuesday.  Just above them in the table are Newcastle United, who came away with a point from their goalless encounter with West Ham; Sunderland, who drew 1-1 with Stoke; and Norwich, who have been slipping down the table and whose 2-1 defeat at the hands of Aston Villa last weekend should see Paul Lambert’s team safe, as they are now on 40 points, five more than Wigan.  In the race for the last two remaining top four spots, all three sides won 1-0 at the weekend, with Spurs and Chelsea securing their victories against Southampton and Manchester United respectively with late strikes, while Arsenal scored after just 18 seconds in their game with Queens Park Rangers.  Tottenham’s destiny is no longer in their own hands after they drew 2-2 away at Chelsea on Wednesday, but they showed character to come from behind twice to earn a point and, should they not make it, that result will not be the reason.  Elsewhere, in the games with little riding on them, Swansea’s match with Manchester City ended goalless last Saturday, then the outgoing champions claimed a narrow 1-0 win over West Brom three days later; the Merseyside derby saw both teams fail to bother the scoreboard operator; and already-relegated Reading beat already-on-the-beach Fulham 4-2 at Craven Cottage.

Predictions

Last week, 5-8; Season, 163-184

Six of the ten matches to be played between Saturday and Tuesday are significant in the race to avoid relegation or qualify for the Champions League, while the other four are little more than exhibition games at this stage of the season.  Here is a rundown of what is at stake in each fixture and my prediction for them:

Saturday

Aston Villa vs Chelsea – Although not technically safe, it would now take a huge turnaround for Aston Villa to lose their status of one of seven clubs to have played in every season of the Premiership (alongside Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham, all of whom will finish in the top 7 this year).    Chelsea require one win from their last two games to secure their top four place, as that would leave Spurs only able to tie them on points, with the Blues having a far superior goal difference.  However, it would only be natural for Rafa Benitez’s men to have one eye on their Europa League final this Wednesday against Benfica, so Aston Villa might see an opportunity to ensure their survival is mathematically guaranteed.  Prediction – Draw

Sunday

Stoke vs Tottenham – The point against Sunderland means that Stoke are all but safe, as they have a six point advantage over Wigan and a lead of 13 in goal difference, so they may consider their work already done.  Spurs on the other hand have to win both of their last two games and hope that Arsenal fail to do the same, or that Chelsea take no more than 2 points from theirs, but they did show great resilience at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday to come away with a point.  Whether or not they do qualify for the Champions League – and it continues to look unlikely that they will – this is the most likeable Tottenham team since the club sacked Martin Jol and the players and manager appear to be working well together. Prediction – Away win, courtesy of Gareth Bale’s left boot…or head.

Everton vs West Ham – Nothing really to play for here, other than it being David Moyes’s last home match in charge of Everton after an 11 year reign.  He is likely to receive a warm reception from the supporters but, save for a faint chance of nabbing a Europa League place, there is nothing else at stake than pride in this fixture. Prediction – Home win

Fulham vs Liverpool – Like Aston Villa, Fulham are still a point away from being mathematically safe but it is improbable that they will end up in the relegation conversation heading into the last day.  Liverpool players might just be hanging around to see who it was that Brendan Rodgers had in his three envelopes as the players who would let the club down, but otherwise they will be ready to join Luis Suarez on their summer holiday. Prediction – If Reading can win at Fulham, so can Liverpool – Away win.

Norwich vs West Brom – Since their 10 league match unbeaten run came to an end – against the Baggies – in December, Norwich have managed just two victories in 18 Premiership outings, leaving them dangerously close to the relegation zone.  West Brom have only won one of their last seven themselves and Chris Hughton is likely to have drummed into his troops the importance of gaining three points this weekend, with the Canaries traveling to Manchester City on the final day of the season.  Prediction – Home win.

QPR vs Newcastle – This match actually has more riding on it than just Newcastle’s attempt to avoid dropping into the Championship and QPR trying to do so with some of their pride left intact.  The Geordies need a result for themselves, while Arsenal fans will be hoping that Newcastle ensure their safety prior to their game against the Gunners next week.  Conversely, Spurs and Chelsea fans hope that QPR can spring a surprise win, which would also give Wigan more of a boost going into their fixture at the Emirates on Tuesday, as they would know three points would lift them out of the relegation zone.  Prediction – An annoying away win.

Sunderland vs Southampton – It is ridiculous to think that Southampton – who beat Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea at home in February and March – are still in danger of relegation, but this encounter is the only one of the weekend between two sides who could still go down.  In the final week, the Black Cats go to Champions League chasing Tottenham (though they may already be out of contention by then), while the Saints host Stoke, so Sunderland may well be the team that most needs a victory this weekend. Prediction – Draw.

Manchester United vs Swansea – Sir Alex Ferguson’s last ever match in charge of Manchester United at Old Trafford – his 1499th game in total as their boss.  This is only going one way – enjoy the show, Swansea.  Prediction – Home win by at least four goals. 

Tuesday

Arsenal vs Wigan – I want to believe that the late season heroics that Wigan have performed in years gone by will continue with a win at the Emirates, but their defending against Swansea in midweek was so bad and they will be coming off the F.A. Cup Final which, win or lose, will have taken a lot out of them.  Expect Arsenal to be held at bay for 70+ minutes, then make the breakthrough and rack up the goals in the final part of the match. Prediction – Home win.

Reading vs Manchester City – This season’s F.A. Cup winners will have a surprise, meaningless loss to a team that will be playing Bournemouth next season.  Prediction – Home win

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