Chelsea and the Title Race
Last Sunday, Jose Mourinho was rightfully receiving acclamations from many sources for his tactics at Anfield that saw Chelsea end Liverpool’s winning run at eleven games as the Londoners triumphed 2-0, scoring their two goals at the end of each half. While there was an element of fortune to the opener just before half-time – Steven Gerrard slipped in the middle of the field, allowing Demba Ba a free run at goal that he did not waste – the approach the Blues took to the game to cancel out the formidable attacking threat of Brendan Rodgers’ team was not lucky, rather further evidence of how well thought-out Mourinho’s game-plans are. When Willian provided a simple finish from Fernando Torres’ pass in the final moments of the match, the Portuguese manager ran down the touchline thumping the badge on his chest to the Chelsea supporters and celebrated that they club were back in a title race that had been started to look all but over in the buildup to this fixture.
There was a less happy ending for Chelsea in Europe, as they bowed out of the Champions League on Wednesday following a 3-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge by Atletico Madrid, this time the Blues were unable to protect a lead and were completely outplayed in the second half. However, although people have been fast to jump on Mourinho – almost as quickly as they heaped praise on him three days earlier – the real story was just how good Atletico are this season, as Diego Simeone has led them to the brink of a La Liga and Champions League double. In the final, they will play their cross-city rivals Real Madrid – ironically, the two teams from the Spanish capital will face off in Lisbon – as the pace of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo saw Carlo Ancelotti’s men thump the reigning champions Bayern Munich, 4-0 in Germany. While I still wish he had stayed at Spurs, I found myself rooting for and happy for Bale in making the final of Europe’s top club competition in his first season with Real, as he has proven that his astonishing form over the last couple of years at White Hart Lane.
Back in the Premiership, Liverpool’s defeat meant that, if Manchester City could win the rest of their fixtures, they would have the opportunity to claim the title once again on goal difference, should the Reds also take six points from their last two games but not overhaul an 8 goal deficit in the process. In the first of those matches, City held their nerve to beat Crystal Palace 2-0 at Selhurst Park as they opened the scoring inside five minutes through Eden Dzeko, then doubled that advantage before the break with a fantastic goal from YaYa Toure, his 19th of the season. Although they probably only need three wins to claim their second championship in three years, Manchester City still have a lot to do and their biggest test will come this weekend as they travel to Everton. With three teams still having a realistic chance of topping the Premiership after 38 games, here is a run down of the remaining fixtures for Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City:
Liverpool – 80 points +50 Goal Difference: May 5th – Crystal Palace (Away); May 11th – Newcastle (Home)
Chelsea – 78pts +43 GD: May 4th – Norwich (Home); May 11th – Cardiff (Away)
Manchester City – 77pts +58GD: May 3rd – Everton (Away); May 7th – Aston Villa (Home); May 11th – West Ham (Home)
So if everyone wins out, then City will almost certainly be champions but, if they and Liverpool each lose once, then Chelsea can take the title by taking the last six remaining points available to them. All five of the three clubs’ home fixtures look like they will be relatively easy victories: Newcastle stopped playing competitive football in December; Norwich are useless and heading to the Championship; Aston Villa are not much better; and West Ham have nothing to play for other than Sam Allardyce’s job, which doubtlessly will be saved when he engineers a third victory over Tottenham this campaign on Saturday. So the crucial matches will be:
Everton vs Manchester City – If they lose, Everton will be eliminated from the race for Champions League qualification, but even if they were to win then Arsenal will claim fourth the following day, should they beat West Brom, so the motivation for the Toffees could be decreased.
Crystal Palace vs Liverpool – All depends on which Eagles team turns up, the one that won five in a row to secure their place in the Premiership next term; or the one that did not put up much of a fight against Manchester City last Sunday.
Cardiff vs Chelsea – If Mourinho knows that a victory would secure the title (which would be the case if City and Liverpool lose the two games listed above) then I cannot see him allowing his team to mess up, but Cardiff are also fighting for survival and are not going to be an easy three points by any stretch of the imagination.
My prediction: Liverpool win both of their games and are Champions; Chelsea win both; Manchester City lose 1-0 to Everton this Saturday and finish third.
For 17 minutes on Saturday, it looked as though the fight to avoid relegation was going to be blown open by Fulham, who had scored twice in three minutes to lead 2-0 against Hull and force their opponents, plus Aston Villa and West Ham to start looking nervously over their shoulders. However, the Tigers came roaring back at Craven Cottage and earned a 2-2 draw that not only all-but confirmed their own place in the top flight for next season, but also those of the two claret-and-blue clubs just below them in the table. They needed the help as well, since West Ham were beaten 1-0 away at West Brom – a result that did wonders for the Baggies’ chances of remaining in the division come August; and Aston Villa were thrashed 4-1 by Swansea, whose second goal was a fantastic opportunistic strike from Jonjo Shelvey, hit from the edge of the centre-circle.
One side that suddenly does not seem to need any assistance from elsewhere is Sunderland, as they followed up taking four points from away trips to Stamford Bridge and the Etihad by beating fellow strugglers Cardiff, 4-0 at the Stadium of Light last Sunday. Two of the goals were scored by Connor Wickham, who has now scored five in the last three games and has helped lift the Black Cats out of the bottom three, as Gus Poyet has led his team to the brink of an escape that looked completely impossible just two weeks ago. By contrast, Cardiff are looking likely to drop straight back down to the Championship and they could well be joined by Norwich, who fell into the relegation zone as they were beaten 4-0 by Manchester United, who were rejuvenated under the temporary management of Ryan Giggs.
This Saturday, Cardiff have their best opportunity at picking up any more points this season as they travel to Newcastle, who have been in free-fall for most of 2014; while Fulham travel to Stoke and Sunderland have a once-again-daunting trip to Old Trafford with which to contend. On Sunday, West Brom and Norwich travel to Arsenal and Chelsea respectively, then on Wednesday, there is a crucial match between Sunderland and the Baggies.
Race for Fourth
Has been won by Arsenal, basically. When Everton beat themselves with two own goals in their match against Southampton, the Gunners edged closer to yet another season of Champions League football and on Monday, by thrashing Newcastle 3-0 at the Emirates, they celebrated St. Totteringham’s Day – the point in the campaign at which they are mathematically guaranteed to finish above Tottenham. I marked the occasion by not celebrating. At all.
As for Spurs, they strengthened their chances of finishing sixth and qualifying for the Europa League by beating Stoke, 1-0 at the Britannia Stadium, in a game that was all about Danny Rose. First, the left-back scored for just the second time in his Tottenham career, adding to his strike that came against Arsenal in his debut, in case you had not heard every commentator in every single game he has played since mention it. Then, it was Rose who was the victim of a foul by Ryan Shawcross that earned the Stoke captain a second yellow card and, following his dismissal, the home fans got on the case of the Spurs player until he was so riled up, he reacted to another poorly timed challenge by Geoff Cameron by pushing him in the chest, which should have resulted in him also seeing red. Instead, Danny Rose – who once scored a cracking goal against Arsenal by the way – was only booked and Tim Sherwood sensibly withdrew him via a substitution before he got himself sent off, a decision that enraged the left-back. Anyway, the Gunners finish above us for the 19th consecutive year (I think that is the right number, I’m not going to check because it is too depressing) so “congratulations” to them – yes, I’m bitter. On the plus side, we were linked with Frank de Boer as a potential next manager this week, which would be fantastic as he has claimed the Dutch league title in each of his four years with Ajax, plays an attractive brand of football and has previously managed Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen. Of course this is Tottenham and no positive can ever fail to have a negative and this time it is the fact that the club has come out and said they have not contacted de Boer or any other manager. So good. Timmy Sherwood’s blue and white army!
Covering the weekend games and all of the action up until Wednesday, so there will be just one final round of fixtures to preview in my post next week which could have everything riding on them, or could all be completely meaningless.
Last week, 6-4; Season, 181-176
Home teams listed first
West Ham vs Tottenham – Home win
Aston Villa vs Hull – Draw
Manchester United vs Sunderland – Home win
Newcastle vs Cardiff – Home win
Stoke vs Fulham – Draw
Swansea vs Southampton – Away win
Everton vs Manchester City – Home win
Arsenal vs West Brom – Home win
Chelsea vs Norwich – Home win
Crystal Palace vs Liverpool – Away win
Manchester United vs Hull – Home win
Manchester City vs Aston Villa – Home win
Sunderland vs West Brom – Home win
N.B. If all of these predictions prove to be correct (they won’t, I’m only just over .500 for the season, but remember there are three possible outcomes to each match so anything above .333 is technically winning…):
Liverpool would need a win in their final game to be Champions; Manchester United would move above Tottenham into sixth place; and the bottom of the table would be: 20. Cardiff 30 points; 19. Fulham 32 points; 18. Norwich 32 points; 17. Sunderland 35 points (vastly superior goal difference means they are basically safe)