There have been several occasions where I have bemoaned the lot of being a Spurs fan – most recently this final missive on the current campaign – but this week it has been an unusually bad one to be a supporter of the most successful English team in the Premiership era: Manchester United. On Wednesday, they were eliminated from the Champions League by Bayern Munich and the only consolation they could take from their exit was that they had put in a good fight against a far superior team – but merely being competitive over two legs is a big drop in expectations for a club that has appeared in three of the last six finals of the competition, lifting the trophy once in that time. There was a brief period of hope for David Moyes’ men when it looked like they might cause an upset by eliminating the current European champions, but Bayern responded with a goal by Mario Mandzukic within a minute to cancel out Patrice Evra’s stunning opening strike and the Bundelsiga winners did not look back, scoring twice more through Thomas Müller and Arjen Robben to win the tie 4-2 on aggregate. The defeat means that United – who are seven points behind fourth place with only five matches remaining – are almost certainly going to be absent from the Champions League next season for the first time since the competition expanded to include runners-up (in 1995/6) and, for just the third time since the inception of the Premier League, they will end a campaign without lifting a trophy (it also happened in 2001/2 and 2004/5).
This Sunday, things get worse for Manchester United fans as the two teams they have the biggest rivalries with – Liverpool and Manchester City – meet at Anfield with the winners controlling their own destiny in the title race (a draw would leave City having the advantage of knowing winning their remaining matches would make them champions again, but it would also open the door for Chelsea should they slip up again). Still I am not going to feel too much sympathy for supporters of the Red Devils – they have had 25 years of success to make them feel better – and there still is a chance that they will qualify for the Europa League by finishing in the top six, especially after their 4-0 thrashing of Newcastle at St. James’s Park last Saturday that kept them within two points of Tottenham. In some media outlets, there has been the suggestion that Spurs and United would both rather finish seventh and thus avoid being in the Thursday Cup but, starting next year, the winners of the competition gain qualification for the Champions League and that might well be the best avenue for either side to get back into Europe’s top club tournament. For their part, Tottenham recovered from a goal down against Sunderland on Monday to beat the Black Cats 5-1, with Christian Eriksen the star man with a goal and two assists, while Emmanuel Adebayor scored twice and saluted Tim Sherwood, who was rumored prior to the game to be a dead man walking, with a replacement set to come in this summer.
Last weekend, the status quo was maintained in the title race as all three sides in contention with lifting the Premiership trophy in May won: City beat Southampton 4-1, propelled by two goals in injury time before the interval that effectively ended the game as a contest; Chelsea got revenge for their defeat at the Britannia Stadium earlier in the season by defeating Stoke 3-0 at Stamford Bridge; and Liverpool edged West Ham in East London 2-1, thanks to two spot kicks from Steven Gerrard. The Reds’ second penalty looked like a very poor decision since Hammers goalkeeper, Adrian, clearly played the ball when he challenged Jon Flanaghan, but West Ham’s goal should not have stood either, as Andy Carroll clearly struck Simon Mignolet in the face during the buildup. The victory was Liverpool’s ninth successive win in the league and they will head into Sunday’s contest with Manchester City full of confidence that they can claim their first title since 1990, though Manuel Pelligrini will be able to include Sergio Aguero in his lineup once again as he returns from injury. It is also a poignant weekend for the club as Tuesday marks the 25 year anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, when 96 Liverpool supporters lost their life during an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest and all matches this weekend will kick off seven minutes later than usual, to mark the time when that match was abandoned as so many fans senselessly lost their lives.
This weekend once again sees the F.A. Cup reach the semi-final stage, though the excitement around the competition is not that high since Arsenal – who play Wigan on Saturday at Wembley, while Hull take on Sheffield United the following day – are the overwhelming favorites to lift the trophy and they may well have already tied the red and white ribbons onto the Cup already. It will be a welcome distraction from the Premiership for the Gunners, especially after they were outplayed and outfought by Everton at Goodison Park last Saturday, as Roberto Martinez’s team took all three points with a 3-0 victory and will now finish in fourth place if they can win their five remaining league fixtures. The downside for the Toffees – and the lifeline for the Gunners – is that they have a much harder run-in that Arsenal, who can expect to take all 15 points left available to them, while Everton still face the two Manchester clubs.
In the relegation battle, Fulham gave themselves a fighting chance of avoiding the drop with a 2-1 victory away at Aston Villa, a match which saw Lewis Holby denied a goal by the smallest of margins as Hawk Eye showed that his shot came within an inch of fully crossing the line, but did not quite do so; Norwich sacked Chris Hughton following their 1-0 home defeat against West Brom, which means that both of those sides are now five points above the relegation zone; Hull are all but safe after their 1-0 win over Swansea; and Crystal Palace were alleged to have been leaked a copy of the Cardiff team prior to their 3-0 success in South Wales, though the fact that it would include eleven Cardiff players was probably enough information to give the Eagles confidence that they could gain all three points.
With Sunderland’s loss at Spurs on Monday night, the bottom three are very close to being cut off from the rest of the table and all need to start winning games soon. This weekend, the Black Cats face Everton at the Stadium of Light; Cardiff are away at Southampon; and there is the archetypal six pointer at Craven Cottage, as Fulham host Norwich – a win would put the Canaries eight points clear of the Cottagers, but a defeat could put them in severe danger as they face Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal in their final four matches. The rest of the Premiership fixtures this weekend see West Brom – who need another victory to consider themselves safe – entertain Tottenham; Stoke are the latest team to get a crack at Newcastle’s defence, which has conceded 10 goals in the last three games; Aston Villa are in South London to play Crystal Palace; and Chelsea take on Swansea on Sunday.
Even if they are not in control of their own destiny in the Premiership, Chelsea still have one trophy in their reach as they overturned their 3-1 first leg deficit against Paris Saint-Germain to progress to the semi-finals with a 2-0 win on Tuesday night (like I said last week, if anyone knows how to get a 2-0 home victory in this competition, it’s Jose Mourinho). In the next round, the Blues will face Atletico Madrid, while Bayern Munich’s reward for beating Manchester United is a tie against Real Madrid, one of only two clubs to have won more European Cups that the German team (alongside A.C. Milan). While there has been a lot made of the fact that Chelsea could face their own goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, who is on loan at Atletico – as he has been ever since he was bought by the Londoners in 2011 – the real gem is in the potential final matchups that could now occur:
- Chelsea vs Real Madrid – Mourinho facing his old club whom he did not leave on good terms and he would have the chance to deny them La Décima – their tenth European Cup triumph – which they have been seeking since they last lifted the trophy via Zinedine Zidane’s left foot beauty in 2002. It would also see former Premiership stars Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric, the latter of whom the Blues tried to buy while he was still at Spurs, squaring off with an English team.
- Chelsea vs Bayern Munich – A rematch of the 2012 final and a chance for revenge for the German club after they were beaten in their own stadium, though if they did win this one it would lead to Tottenham supporters shaking their heads as they failed to win two years ago, which would have allowed Spurs to qualify for the Champions League as they finished fourth but were denied by Chelsea’s victory.
- Real Madrid vs Atletico Madrid – A derby battle between the two teams from the Spanish capital, being played in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon.
- Bayern Munich vs Atletico Madrid – I’m sure this would be a good game too…
Last week, 4-6; Season, 163-163
Home teams listed first
Crystal Palace vs Aston Villa – Draw
Fulham vs Norwich – Home win
Southampton vs Cardiff – Home win
Stoke vs Newcastle – Home win
Sunderland vs Everton – Away win
West Brom vs Tottenham – Draw
Liverpool vs Manchester City – Home win
Swansea vs Chelsea – Away win