Even though there were only three fixtures played in the Premiership in midweek, the results still managed to cause a significant shift in the balance of power in the race for both the title and the final Champions League place. On Tuesday night, Arsenal lifted themselves back into fourth by coming from behind to beat West Ham 3-1 at the Emirates, with two goals from Lukas Podolski and a well-taken finish from Olivier Giroud canceling out Matt Jarvis’ 40th minute opener for the visitors. Things got better for the Gunners the next night, when Crystal Palace surprised Everton – who were on a run of seven consecutive league victories – and defeated them 3-2 at Goodison Park, leaving the Toffees a point behind Arsenal, with just four matches remaining. The opening goal for Palace was scored by Jason Puncheon – his fourth goal in the last three matches – and the fact that, despite his excellent form and productivity, he does not even seem to be in England reckoning is bizarre, especially considering Andros Townsend, who has not played particularly well since October, could still end up on the plane to Brazil. Perhaps Roy Hodson is mindful of the fact that in six of the last ten tournaments they have qualified for, England have been knocked out on penalties and cannot get this miss by Puncheon out of his head from earlier in the season. Regardless of that failure from 12 yards, Jason Puncheon is Crystal Palace’s top scorer in the league season and many of his goals have been crucial in ensuring that the south London club will almost certainly avoid relegation from the Premiership for the first time in five attempts. As for Everton, they now need to win all of their remaining matches – two of which are against the Manchester teams – and hope that Arsenal slip up during their much easier run-in, otherwise the Gunners will qualify for the Champions League for the 17th consecutive year.
The other game in midweek was Sunderland’s visit to Manchester City, who were hoping to brush off their defeat at Liverpool last Sunday that meant they no longer had their title fate in their own hands. Things started well for Manuel Pelligrini’s side, as they scored within the first two minutes through Fernandinho, but any expected thrashing never came and the Black Cats – who are rooted to the bottom of the table and look likely to be playing Championship football next season – had several chances to equalize during the first half. At the other end, Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo – who have scored 52 goals between them this campaign, but neither has found the net since the end of January at Tottenham – were far from their best and Sunderland fully deserved to draw level when they did finally break through, thanks to Connor Wickham in the 73rd minute. Ten minutes later, things got worse for City as Wickham provided the finish to a quick counter-attack and it looked as though City would be beaten at home for just the second time in the Premiership this season. However, two minutes from time a shot from Samir Nasri squirmed through Vito Mannone’s grasp and the goalkeeper was slow in reacting as the ball slowly rolled over the line and, moments later, the French midfielder had a great chance to win the match for Pellgirini’s men, but he put the ball over from 12 yards out. The draw means that not only are Manchester City now reliant on Liverpool dropping three points, they also need Chelsea to fail to win at least one of their final four matches if they are to have any chance of winning back the title they won so dramatically in 2012.
With so much at stake heading into the final month of the season, here’s a breakdown of what each team is playing for per fixture, plus my predictions for each match
Tottenham vs Fulham – Spurs are still playing for a Europa League place which they will definitely get if they finish sixth, but if Manchester United overtake them, European qualification can still be achieved if Everton finish fourth and Arsenal win the F.A. Cup. As for Fulham, they are two points below Norwich who sit just above the relegation zone and a victory in the early kick off will move the Cottagers out of the bottom three for the first time since beginning of January. However, they will not be able to play Lewis Holtby in this fixture as he is on loan at Tottenham, but they did take all three points away from White Hart Lane last season and their greater need for a win could see them pile more misery onto Tim Sherwood’s gilet. Prediction – Away win
Aston Villa vs Southampton – Villa are still only four points above the relegation zone and had internal issues at the club this week as manager Paul Lambert saw two of his assistants suspended pending an internal investigation (their alleged offense has not been revealed). Four defeats in a row is the most worrying thing for Aston Villa fans and if they cannot get anything from their game against the Saints – who are only playing for 8th place in a mini-league with Newcastle – then there is a real danger they could be relegated from the Premiership for the first time…oh wait, they play Tottenham in the last week of the season, they’ll be fine. Prediction – Draw
Cardiff vs Stoke – The Welsh club currently sit in 19th place and are three points behind Norwich – although they are protesting their 3-0 defeat against Crystal Palace earlier in the month as they claim their team lineup was leaked – and basically have no margin for error in the next three weeks as they face Chelsea on the final day of the campaign. Stoke are comfortably in mid-table and have nothing much to play for, save for finishing above Palace who are managed by their former boss, Tony Pulis. Prediction – Home win
Newcastle vs Swansea – I would say that the Magpies also have nothing to play for – and in terms of the table, they really do not – but with four consecutive losses and eight defeats in their last eleven matches, Alan Pardew is in desperate need of some positive results if he is still to be manager at St. James’ Park next season. There should be more urgency from Swansea, who are only three points above the relegation zone and need to a couple more victories to ensure they do end up in the bottom three. Prediction – Away win
West Ham vs Crystal Palace – Although mathematically both of these teams can still go down, the chances of results conspiring for either of them to drop out of the top flight are very slim. Having said that, if anyone can find a way to be relegated from the Premiership it is Crystal Palace, who are the only team to ever finish 4th from bottom in the re-branded division and still be demoted (in 1994/5 when they were reducing the number of teams from 22 to 20), plus they have the record points tally for a club that finished in the drop zone (49 in 1992/3 – although that was in a 42 game season, it still represents the best points per match record of any relegated side: 1.16). Prediction – Draw
Chelsea vs Sunderland – The Blues will be champions if they can win all of their remaining matches – the biggest one coming up next week against Liverpool – and Sunderland desperately need a victory in their fight against relegation. Jose Mourinho has never lost a Premier League game at Stamford Bridge and, despite their impressive performance at the Etihad on Wednesday night, it is very unlikely the Black Cats will break that record this weekend. Prediction – Home win
Norwich vs Liverpool – Like Chelsea vs Sunderland, this fixture features a side who will claim the title if they win all their remaining games and one who is fighting against relegation. The 1-0 home loss against West Brom that cost Chris Hughton his job with the Canaries is the only Premiership match that Norwich have lost at Carrow Road in 2014, but they face a Liverpool side that has 10 consecutive victories to their name. It has been an emotional week for the Reds with their win over Manchester City followed by the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster – and I strongly recommend the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about it, which was harrowing but worth watching – and this could be the biggest test of their run-in. Three points on Sunday will mean that Brendan Rodgers’ men could afford a draw against Chelsea and still have the title in their own hands. Prediction – Draw
Hull vs Arsenal – This is a preview of next month’s F.A. Cup final and Hull still require another win to ensure they will be relegated by that time, though the chances are they will be safe given the number of teams still between them and the relegation zone. Arsenal finishing fourth would mean that not only do they qualify for the Champions League for the 17th consecutive season, but also Hull would be playing in the Europa League for the first time, regardless of who ends up lifting the F.A. Cup. Also, if Tottenham lose on Saturday, then a Gunners’ victory would make April 20th this campaign’s St. Totteringham’s Day, the day on which Spurs can no longer mathematically finish above their North London rivals -for the record, I will not be celebrating… Prediction – Away win
Everton vs Manchester United – The return of David Moyes to Goodison Park as both teams are chasing European football next season, but only Everton still have a realistic chance of making the Champions League. Wednesday night’s loss to Crystal Palace means that the Toffees no longer have their destiny in their own hands, but they will need to win to keep up the pressure on Arsenal, especially with Manchester City due up in the penultimate week of the year. Prediction – Home win
Manchester City vs West Brom – Dropping points at home for just the second time this season mean that City are now reliant on a combination of results for Chelsea and Liverpool going their way if they are to reclaim the title and, if both of those teams win before this match is played, Pelligrini’s men might feel that first place is already beyond them. West Brom are only three points above the relegation zone and will be kicking themselves for failing to hold on to a victory against Spurs last week after being 3-0 up within 30 minutes, if results go against them they could find themselves separated from the bottom three by only goal difference by the time they take the field in Manchester. Prediction – Home win
Midweek predictions, 1-2; Season, 170-167