Saturday, May 12, 2012
Last day drama
A season voted the best in Premier League history reaches its climax on Sunday with prizes to be earned at the top of the table, and self-preservation the name of the game down at the bottom. Here we preview what is at stake on the final day.
THE TITLE RACE
Key fixtures: Manchester City v Queens Park Rangers, Sunderland v Manchester United
The two Manchester sides go into the final day level on points, but City have a seven-goal cushion. So United need a favour from Queens Park Rangers to better City's result on Sunday.
City are at home to QPR, who themselves need a result to secure a second season back in the top flight. That seems an unlikely scenario, considering Roberto Mancini's side have dropped just two out of a possible 54 points on home turf this season and QPR have lost away to the rest of the top six.
Only Blackburn Rovers have conceded more than Rangers on the road, while City are the joint top scorers at home. The Hoops have lost their last six away matches, letting in six at Chelsea most recently, and have not won since November 19. Their only away point under Mark Hughes came in a 2-2 draw at Aston Villa three months ago.
There is the added intrigue of Hughes' return to the club, with Mancini the man who hovered in the background before stepping into a dead man's shoes just before Christmas in 2009. And Joey Barton also returns to the club where he made his name before signing for Newcastle five years ago; Shaun Wright-Phillips and Nedum Onuoha are other former Sky Blues back on familiar ground. There are scores to settle, and QPR may have to do just that to avoid falling through the trapdoor.
For United, a trip to Sunderland would have been daunting a few weeks ago. But now the 'new manager effect' so superbly triggered by the arrival of Martin O'Neill has now been replaced by the sandstorm of players dreaming of Ayia Napa, Ibiza and Mallorca. The Black Cats have not won a match since March 24, when they beat QPR at home, and have won just twice since early February.
United have struggled themselves over the last month, with two wins in five matches, a run of form which has handed the title initiative back to their noisy neighbours. Sir Alex Ferguson's side should secure the victory they need on Wearside, but asking a porous QPR side to at least match City is surely asking too much.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE QUALIFICATION
Key fixtures: Everton v Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur v Fulham, West Bromwich Albion v Arsenal
Chelsea's defeat at Liverpool in midweek ended their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League via the league, but they still play a very prominent role here. With the Blues certain of missing out on the top four, their performance in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich now definitely has implications both for their European future and the top four.
As it stands, the top three will automatically go into the group stages of next year's competition with the fourth placed team in the final qualifying round. But if Chelsea win the Champions League, that fourth placed club - currently Tottenham Hotspur - would be dumped into the Europa League. Not something that would bring a smile to the face of England outcast Harry Redknapp.
There is a minor consolation though. A new rule for the Europa League next season means the winners of the main domestic cups in the top six leagues in Europe will automatically qualify for group stages. Previously, every team bar the holders has had to play at least one qualifying round. If Chelsea win the Champions League, the automatic place for the FA Cup winners will transfer to fourth in the league, so no August qualifiers. If Chelsea lose to Bayern they will go straight into the Europa League groups.
Liverpool will enter the Europa League at the third qualifying round stage on August 2 while fifth place in the Premier League is certain to enter in the final qualifying round on August 23.
The race for the top four is down to three clubs separated by just two points: Arsenal, Spurs and Newcastle.
A few weeks ago Arsenal appeared to have a top-three place secured, but the Gunners have stuttered in the run-in and only dropped points from their rivals last weekend kept them in third. No side has a final day they can truly consider comfortable, and any could find themselves sitting in fifth when the music stops at 5pm on Sunday.
Injury-hit Arsenal have a trip to West Brom which is not straightforward even though the Baggies have lost nine times at the Hawthorns this term - only the bottom three have lost more. The match provides home fans the opportunity to wave off boss Roy Hodgson as he leaves to take charge of England, and the players may raise their game accordingly. The Gunners have lost once at West Brom in the Premier League, and drawn once, in five visits.
Spurs are best placed to take advantage of any slip up, with former boss Martin Jol taking his Fulham side to White Hart Lane. The Cottagers could still finish as high as seventh - a club record - if they beat Spurs. Only Man City have collected more points than Fulham in the last six matches and Tottenham, without a recognised left-back, have one clean sheet in their last five home games. Home banker? Far from it.
That said though, Fulham have scored one goal in their last seven trips to the Lane in the Premier League and have won there only once since 1948.
Newcastle go to Everton whose main concern is keeping their noses ahead of Liverpool. After being beaten 4-0 in their last away game at Wigan, the Magpies cannot afford to start so sluggishly against an Everton side with striker Nikica Jelavic in such hot form. But the Toffees must hold the same fears over Papiss Cisse. Only Man City have conceded fewer at home than Everton, though the Toffees have still lost six times at Goodison Park.
The race for the Champions League seems sure to have many twists and turns.
Key fixtures: Manchester City v Queens Park Rangers, Norwich City v Aston Villa, Stoke City v Bolton Wanderers
Aston Villa may be mathematically in relegation trouble, but are surely safe as they enjoy a gap of three points and 17 goals to Bolton Wanderers in the final relegation place. So it's a head-to-head between Bolton and QPR for survival.
Bolton's task is simple: they have to win at Stoke or face life in the Championship for the first time since 2002. That year was the first time all three promoted clubs stayed up (Fulham and Blackburn being the other two); if Bolton do go down, then QPR and the other two former Championship clubs will perform that feat for the second time.
Stoke have lost four games at the Britannia Stadium, a record bettered only by the top five, but they have drawn as many games as they have won. Bolton are a much better team away from the Reebok with six wins (that's as many as Chelsea) and the Trotters may feel they have a greater chance of staying up without the pressure of playing at home.
Bolton beat Stoke 5-0 before Christmas and won away at Tony Pulis' side in the 2009-10 campaign, while Stoke's only win in the last two months was at home to Wolves.
If Owen Coyle can lead his side to victory they must hope QPR lose at Man City. QPR have a superior goal difference of nine and know a shock point at Eastlands will render Bolton's efforts meaningless.
Most believe QPR will lose at Man City, but can Bolton pull off the great escape by defeating Stoke?
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