Before I get into a roundup of the weekend’s football in England and a preview of the midweek fixture, a short note to honor the memory of the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster – which occurred on 15th April 1989 – as well as the 3 spectators who died a year ago at the Boston Marathon. Such tragedies put the importance of sport into perspective and while us fans do truly care whether our teams win or lose, that pales into insignificance in comparison to those two events, which took place 24 years apart. In the case of Liverpool, it would take the most hard-hearted of supporter of an opposing club to not be able to find some part of you rooting for them to win the Premier League this year – especially as it is Steven Gerrard’s last, best shot at winning the title, a local boy who defines the club and whose 10-year-old cousin, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, died at Hillsborough.
On Sunday, Liverpool came up against one of their main title rivals and the only other team who still had destiny in their own hands in terms of topping the table this season, as Manchester City traveled to Anfield with both sides knowing that if they won all of their remaining fixtures they would finish in first place. In recent years, such matches between the top few clubs in the country have often been disappointing as nobody wanted to lose and hugely hyped games were cagey affairs that ended up 0-0 or 1-0. However, this was not a match up of Mourinho’s Chelsea, Ferguson’s United, or even Wenger’s Arsenal (expansive in home fixtures against Fulham or Southampton, less so in contests with other top four sides) – but rather the two most entertaining and attacking teams in the league this season. Both Brendan Rodgers and Manuel Pelligrini are fully aware that defensively their sides are not the strongest in the Premiership – highlighted by the fact that Vincent Kompany started for City, despite having broken down in training the day before the match (though given his error for the final goal, perhaps Pelligrini will wish he had not risked him in the end) – but the array of attacking talents that both clubs possess mean that their natural instinct should be to take the game to their opponents.
As has been the case at home against the other teams in the top six this season, Liverpool came out the blocks fast on Sunday and Manchester City found themselves a goal down within six minutes as Rahim Sterling got on the end of a pass from Luis Suarez, then jinked left and right a couple of times before putting the ball past Joe Hart and into the net. Twenty minutes later, from a corner Steven Gerrard was given the freedom of the penalty area by the City defense, but his header was well saved by Hart. However, the England goalkeeper could do nothing from the subsequent corner which was taken by the Liverpool captain and beautifully headed in by Martin Škrtel, who has made a habit of grabbing important goals this season, having previously nabbed a brace against both Arsenal and Cardiff. In the second half, Manchester City were inspired from a surprising source: James Milner, as the substitute – who has looked like a journeyman midfielder since the age of 16 – was influential in engineering a comeback and the visitors scored twice in five minutes to draw level and momentarily silence the Anfield crowd. Nevertheless, this was a day of poignancy and progression for the Reds and, in the 78th minute, Kompany sliced a clearance straight to Phillipe Coutinho and the Brazilian midfielder made no mistake as he dispatched the ball past Hart for the winning goal.
The only negatives for Liverpool were Jordan Henderson getting a red card in injury time for a reckless challenge on Samir Nasri, which means that the midfielder will be out for three of his team’s final four matches of the season, one of which is against Chelsea, who stayed in the title race with a narrow 1-0 victory at Swansea; and Daniel Sturridge had to be substituted in the second-half as he had a tight hamstring, which the club are doing more tests on to determine if he will miss any games. Nevertheless, if Rodgers’ men can win their last four fixtures, they will be champions of England for the first time since 1990 – so long ago that it was a time when the back pass rule was still not in play, the Premiership had not yet been introduced, and Spurs could finish third in the league.
To be fair to Tottenham, their record against the top four this season improved at the weekend as…Everton beat Sunderland 1-0 through a Wes Brown own goal, lifting them above Arsenal in the table and thus meaning that Spurs have gained 5 points against teams that currently occupy the top 20% in the table (as opposed to just 1 when the Gunners are in fourth). Arsene Wenger’s men will have the opportunity to move back above the Toffees on Tuesday when they host West Ham, but at the weekend they were at Wembley for their F.A. Cup semi-final against Wigan. Although I have been ready to concede that Arsenal will end up lifting the trophy this season, they nearly came unstuck against the Latics, who took the lead in the 68th minute through a Jordi Gomez penalty and held on until eight minutes from time, when Per Metersacker – who had given aware the spot-kick – made amends with a headed equalizer. The current F.A. Cup holders Wigan were reluctant to give up on this year’s competition and they managed to hold on to take the game to a shoot-out, but Arsenal were able to win 4-2 on penalties and stay on course for their first piece of silverware since 2005. Their opponents on May 17th will be Hull City, who came from behind to beat League One’s Sheffield United 5-3 to make it to the first major final in the club’s history. Should Arsenal finish fourth, then Hull will be guaranteed a Europa League place even if they were to lose to the Gunners in the final, but if Everton end up taking the last Champions League qualification place and the Gunners win the F.A. Cup, then the team who finishes seventh (most likely either Spurs or Manchester United) will also be in the Europa League next season. So when Hull host Arsenal this weekend, their best chances of qualifying for Europe would come from losing to the Gunners, though I am sure they will be more interested in getting one more victory that would ensure they are completely safe from the threat of relegation.
In the biggest match at the bottom of the table last weekend, Fulham dragged themselves to within two points of fourth-bottomed Norwich with a 1-0 defeat of the Canaries at Craven Cottage, with Hugo Rodallega getting the winning goal for his team for the second consecutive week. With their last four matches being against Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, Norwich are in real danger of being overtaken by one or more of the sides who are currently in the relegation zone and that became more likely by Cardiff’s surprising 1-0 victory away at Southampton that has pulled the Welsh club back into the mix of possibly avoiding the drop. With their aforementioned home defeat against Everton, Sunderland are starting to look like they are doomed to play Championship football next season, even though they still have two games in hand on the teams above them.
West Brom appeared set to pick up three points that would basically ensure they were in the Premiership for at least another year, as they raced into a 3-0 lead within the first 30 minutes of their match against Spurs, who had also missed a penalty in the 16th minute. However, Tim Sherwood’s gilet inspired side rallied back to earn a point that did neither side any favors, with Christian Eriksen finding the equalizer with a composed strike in the fourth minute of injury time, which consigned Albion to their 15th draw of the season, five more than any other Premier League team. The other two games at the weekend saw Crystal Palace win for the third time in succession, as they beat Aston Villa 1-0 with in-form Jason Puncheon scoring the goal; and Stoke drew within three points of Newcastle in 9th as they beat the Magpies 1-0 at the Britannia Stadium.
Midweek Action and Predictions
There are three fixtures this midweek, the first of which is at the Emirates on Tuesday evening as Arsenal host West Ham and have the opportunity to move back into fourth place in the table. However, the next day Everton have the chance to move back above the Gunners if they can take all three points from their home match with Crystal Palace; while Manchester City take on Sunderland with both sides needing three points for their respective causes.
Last week, 6-2; Season, 169-165
Home teams listed first
Arsenal vs West Ham – Home win
Everton vs Crystal Palace – Draw
Manchester City vs Sunderland – Home win