Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds. Under the microscope on this final week of the season: the outcome that awaits in this campaign's enthralling title race, the last hurdle to achieve a top-four finish following a trio of stumbles, and the last remaining relegation spot beckons for one unlucky so-and-so.
Title: To be or not to be?
It has come down to this: the final weekend of a stirring 2011-12 season. The general consensus is that the letters C, I, T and Y are all but etched onto the trophy - after 44 years of waiting - given the final fixtures and the position they hold. On Sunday, City host relegation-threatened Queens Park Rangers, a side that has recorded the highest number of losses on the road this campaign, while the defending champions Manchester United travel to Sunderland aware that a victory may well be insufficient as their nemeses boast an eight-stronger goal difference.
We're at this stage after City demonstrated sufficient grapes - having been ridiculed in this department just a few weeks prior - to dispose of the in-form Newcastle United, with their juggernaut of a midfielder, Yaya Toure, derailing the opposition to score a fine and decisive brace. The outcome left Sir Alex Ferguson clinging at floss-like straws, with the Scot voicing his hope that perhaps former City boss Mark Hughes might exact revenge on the team that sacked him in bitter circumstances in 2009. But, with even Roberto Mancini finally admitting his team are favourites for the title now, it appears a lost cause.
While it may be of scant consolation, for Ferguson a potential 89-point total would still be an impressive achievement considering the crop he has worked with and those that he has competed against - indeed, this tally would have yielded the crown in four out of the last five seasons. City will be worthy winners of this prize, with United's collapse from a position of such strength unforgiveable. Many have pointed to City's allegedly superior attacking vigour as the reason for this expected win by a nose on goal difference, but closer inspection shows that it is in defence that United have been the weaker, for they have only scored two goals less than their rivals this term. The absence of their menacing skipper Nemanja Vidic has been truly felt at Old Trafford, while conversely Mancini has had Vincent Kompany, his man mountain at the back, at his disposal for the majority of the campaign.
Top four: The lesser bottler
The mad scramble for Champions League qualification will also be set come the final full-time whistles of the season. Three clubs - Arsenal, Tottenham and Newcastle - are mathematically in the hunt for a top-four finish, with two points separating the trio, after Chelsea were knocked out of the race on Wednesday night with their pasting at Anfield. This scenario manifested itself after not one of the three remaining teams dared to win last weekend, despite the Gunners playing at home to Norwich and Spurs meeting terrible, terrible Aston Villa.
This weekend, Arsenal make the trip to West Brom, who might well have a sentiment-fuelled fire in their hearts as the match marks Roy Hodgson's last at the helm before he departs to face the waiting press pack of wolves that comes paw in paw with the England job. The Gunners' 3-3 draw with Norwich was, although thrilling, a damning indictment of their foibles this term, with a brittleness in defence loosening their grip on third spot - the only berth that will guarantee the Champions League for 2012-13 with the threat that Allianz Arena-bound Chelsea pose.
There is also a sub-plot to Tottenham's meeting with fellow Londoners Fulham, as Martin Jol makes his return to White Hart Lane, having been dismissed in unsavoury circumstances in 2007. Furthermore, Jol has a record-equalling seventh-place finish for the Cottagers in his sights. Spurs, like the aforementioned champions, are guilty of their own dramatic capitulation, after they at one stage guffawed in the Gunners' direction at a 13-point minding of the gap between them and their rivals. For Harry Redknapp, too, this is a litmus test of a game. His reputation has waned in recent months, after it had soared to heady heights, but a late rally coupled with results going in his favour would save his season.
Last in the hunt, but certainly by no means least, are Newcastle. The Magpies fought well against City last Sunday, but they found themselves up against a side with the bit between their teeth. It is arguable, too, that the effort exerted at Chelsea took its toll in the latter stages versus the title contenders. On paper, Newcastle's game is the hardest, for they meet Everton at Goodison Park. The Toffees have lost just two of their previous 17 league outings, and they have the incentive of ensuring of finishing above Liverpool in the division, as the Reds lurk a point behind. It looks as if the Magpies are bound for the Europa League.
Relegation: Tears beckon
Two of three have now fallen through the trap door, after Blackburn's late loss at home to Wigan on Monday night confirmed the former's fate and secured the latter's stay in the top flight. It was a painful final nail in the coffin for Rovers, whose manager Steve Kean somehow remains, and whose owners appear heartbreakingly clueless. The future, and one must feel for the Rovers supporters, looks bleak indeed at Ewood Park - a stadium we might not see staging Premier League matches for quite some time. Much praise, though, for Wigan and yet another heroic escape. The ever-positive Roberto Martinez can deservedly don pipe and slippers on the last day.
Either Bolton Wanderers or QPR will follow Wolves and Blackburn to the Championship. The Trotters are currently in the drop zone, two points behind QPR, but can take solace in the knowledge that a defeat for Hughes' men at Eastlands coupled with a victory at Stoke City will ensure a leapfrog. It is taken as read that QPR will indeed come away pointless this weekend - although, remember, this has been a season of the surprise - while Bolton might have the scent of drama on the cards in their nostrils as Stoke are finishing the season with a whimper. Hold on to your hats.
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