Wigan Athletic did two things for the first time in their history this week: they won the FA Cup, beating Manchester City 1-0 at Wembley thanks to a 90th minute header by Ben Watson; and were then relegated from the top flight, after suffering a 4-1 loss at the Emirates, leaving them four points adrift of safety with just a single match remaining. The cup victory over last season’s champions was an upset, but it was not a smash and grab in the style of Wimbledon beating Liverpool 1-0 in 1988, rather Roberto Martinez’s men more than deserved to claim the trophy having played the better football over the course of the game. It will be an unwanted record for the club, but Wigan winning the FA Cup this year is also the only time in the competition’s history that a side has won it and been demoted that same season.
City’s preparations for the final had been somewhat overshadowed by a news report that came out on Saturday morning suggesting that the club was preparing to replace their manager, Roberto Mancini, with Manuel Pelligrini, who led Malaga to the Champions League quarter-finals this campaign and has previously been in charge at Real Madrid and Valencia. The defeat to Wigan did prove to be the final straw for Manchester City’s owners, as they sacked Mancini on Monday night, as well as his assistant David Platt, with Brian Kidd picking the team for their last two Premiership encounters of the season (they won the first, 2-0 away at Reading on Tuesday) and, although it has not yet been confirmed, it is expected that Pelligrini will indeed take over this summer.
On Wednesday, Chelsea defeated Benfica 2-1 in the Europa League final thanks to a late winner from Branislav Ivanovic, which secured the club its 8th trophy since Roman Abramovich took over just under 10 years ago. Although he has been unpopular among many of the Blues supporters, it also means that interim manager Rafa Benitez will be able to leave feeling he has done a good job at the club, having also secured their position in next season’s Champions League after beating Aston Villa 2-1 in the Premiership last weekend, with both goals coming from Frank Lampard – making him Chelsea’s all-time record scorer. With the talent they have in the squad and Jose Mourinho, a man who has proven many times he can hit the ground running, almost certain to return as boss at Stamford Bridge this summer – the south-west London club must be the presumptive favourites for next year’s title race, as both Manchester clubs will be in a period of transition as they too make managerial changes.
Chelsea’s biggest rivals for the Premiership crown next year may well be Arsenal, who will be the only one of the current top four to have the same manager in charge next season, as Arsene Wenger has led his team to the brink of their 16th consecutive qualification in the Champions League. The 4-1 thrashing of Wigan, which was achieved with 3 goals in 8 second-half minutes, means that a win away at Newcastle will ensure they finish fourth at worst, with a chance of them also pipping Chelsea to third, a place which means entry into the group stages of the Champions League, without having to play in a qualification round (there is also an outside chance that the two could end up level on points, goals scored and conceded also, which would mean they would have to play a 39th game against each other to determine who gets third). Given that Newcastle manager, Alan Pardew, said after his team had beaten QPR last Sunday, ensuring their safety from relegation, that he did not care if they lost 4-0 to the Gunners, only the most optimistic Spurs fan (of which there are very few) could expect a favour from the Magpies at St James’s Park this weekend. Even if they are motivated, it may not actually prevent a routine Arsenal win – Newcastle have lost their last two home matches 3-0 and 6-0 against Sunderland and Liverpool respectively, both of which were played when Pardew’s men were still playing for their Premiership lives.
Tottenham did maintain their slim hopes of a top four finish with a 2-1 win away at Stoke last Sunday, with American Clint Dempsey scoring one and making the other to help Andre Villas-Boas’s team achieve a 10th away victory of the season – by far the most they have recorded in the Premiership era. While failure to qualify for the Champions League would be a disappointment – especially since we enjoyed a 7 point lead over Arsenal after beating them just a few months ago – and it comes with the risk of again losing our best players, most notably Gareth Bale; should Spurs finish fifth, I will not be too upset. This current Tottenham squad is full of players I enjoy watching; appear to be united and in it together, along with AVB; they fight to win every single match; and they have shown a lot of character to recover from their inevitable slump to still have a chance of making the top four on the final day of the campaign.
Finishing 5th and qualifying for the Europa League would have been considered a very good year for Spurs not that long ago – I was a season ticket holder from 2002/3 to 2006/7 and our final league placings during that time were: 10th; 14th; 9th; 5th; and 5th. I only got to experience one year of European football and the away trips to Slavia Prague and Braga are among my favourite of all the matches I went to, so qualifying for either of the continental competitions is not something I would ever take for granted. Furthermore, in the last 22 years Tottenham have won just two League Cups – in the same period before, they racked up 3 F.A. Cups, 2 League Cups and 2 UEFA Cups – and a lack of silverware cannot be replaced by simply qualifying for the Champions League. While I recognise that being in Europe’s top club competition bring prestige and income levels that helps attract better players to a club, if that does not translate into winning trophies, then the only people it helps are the owners and shareholders, supporters gain nothing from a simply increasing profits. Whatever does happen on Sunday, be it Arsenal finishing above Spurs once again, or us actually pipping them to fourth place – which seems about as likely as the 10th US President, John Tyler, who was born in 1790 and entered the White House in 1841, having two living grandsons – I won’t stop loving Tottenham.
Elsewhere last weekend, Wigan’s demotion was able to be confirmed with their defeat at the Emirates because all of the teams around them had picked up points: Sunderland and Southampton got one each after their match ended 1-1; Newcastle beat QPR, 2-1; Norwich thrashed West Brom 4-0; and, although Stoke and Fulham lost at home to Spurs and Liverpool respectively, they were already five points clear of the drop zone. In the other two matches, both Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes enjoyed victories in their final matches in charge of their current clubs – Manchester United overcame Swansea 2-1, thanks to a late Rio Ferdinand goal; and two strikes by Kevin Mirallas secured victory for Everton over West Ham at Goodison Park.
Because fourth place is the only significant issue still to be resolved on the final day of the season, there will not be the opportunity for the dramatic conclusion to last year’s campaign, when the title race went down to the last minute and Bolton were relegated after being held to a draw by Stoke. Thus, only three games this Sunday have any real consequence: Chelsea vs Everton (the Blues need a victory to secure third place); and the matches for the North London duo, Spurs hosting Sunderland and Arsenal’s trip to Newcastle. None of the other fixtures have any significant meaning and the most notable aspect of Sunday will be the number of former England players who, along with Ferguson, will be retiring as Paul Scholes, Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen and David Beckham will all be hanging up their boots as this season comes to a close.
Last week, 8-2; Season, 171-186
Chelsea vs Everton – Home win
Liverpool vs QPR – Home win
Manchester City vs Norwich – Home win
Newcastle vs Arsenal – Away win
Southampton vs Stoke – Draw
Swansea vs Fulham – Home win
Tottenham vs Sunderland – Draw
West Brom vs Manchester United – Away win
West Ham vs Reading – Home win
Wigan vs Aston Villa – Away win