Wednesday, April 6, 2011
United clear for title No. 19
Chelsea may not be willing to accept they are out of the title race, but recent history suggests otherwise. Since Arsenal's Invincibles came out on top in 2003-04, the top two have both scored at least 80 points. Coincidentally, it was Chelsea that finished second in 2004 with 79 points.
If Carlo Ancelotti's side win every single one of their remaining fixtures they can only finish on 79 points. While this season will undoubtedly see one of the lowest points totals to win the Premier League, 79 will not be enough for Chelsea to retain their crown.
That leaves a two-horse race between Arsenal and Manchester United, with the Gunners having thrown away their advantage to win a first league title since those Invincibles. Before Saturday's goalless draw with Blackburn Rovers, Arsenal would have been champions had they won all of their remaining fixtures but now Manchester United can afford to lose to Arsene Wenger's side and still win back the trophy from Chelsea.
Those who pointed to Arsenal's game in hand did so as though the three points are already in the bag. As that extra game in hand comes away at Tottenham Hotspur it was never a banker.
Not only do Arsenal now have a seven-point gap to make up on Sir Alex Ferguson's team, they also have to throw from around their necks the albatross of failure which has seen them beat only Leyton Orient since February 23, lose in the Carling Cup final to Birmingham City and be knocked out of the Champions League and the FA Cup. That has weighed heavy on their shoulders and if they are to have any chance of picking up a first trophy since 2005 they must overcome the mental mind-block.
Wenger has been finding every excuse possible since the stalemate against Rovers, even blaming the fact that they do not play another Saturday fixture this season. This, we presume, means his side will not be able to exert pressure on United by playing first on a weekend.
After what should be a winning trip to Blackpool this weekend, Arsenal still have to travel to Bolton, Stoke and Fulham - as well as Tottenham. Only Spurs and Man United have lost fewer home games that Bolton (two), while Fulham have lost only three games at Craven Cottage. Stoke have already won eight home fixtures, the sixth best in the division.
What that all adds up to is, other than playing their traditional big-four rivals, Arsenal would struggle to pick out a worse set of away fixtures.
It doesn't get much easier at home. Liverpool, better at Anfield, travel to London on April 17 while Manchester United make the same journey on May 1. Their only other remaining game at Emirates Stadium is against Aston Villa on the penultimate weekend of the season, by which time the trophy may well already be residing back at Old Trafford.
That's not to say Arsenal cannot mount a challenge to United, or that they are about to implode completely, but a fixture list which just six weeks ago seemed favourable now looks far more daunting.
Four of United's seven remaining games are at home, and given that they remain unbeaten on their own turf it gives them an added advantage. Apart from the visit of Chelsea on May 8, they entertain Fulham, Everton and Blackpool. The Cottagers have long being woeful away, Everton have a terrible record against the Red Devils and United would take a last-day game against Ian Holloway's men.
United's away games are at an inconsistent Newcastle and a struggling Blackburn, with the trip to Arsenal in between on May 1. What looked like a very tight title race could very easily end with United taking the title with a few games to spare. United will finally complete Sir Alex's league mission and go clear of Liverpool with 19 titles in May.
With Birmingham City qualifying for the Europa League through the Carling Cup and Stoke City or Bolton Wanderers taking the FA Cup berth, only the top five positions in the Premier League will be good enough for Europe next season.
Liverpool's failure in the Europa League means they have only a slim hope of making a return next term. Whether that is a positive or negative is open to question, with the Thursday night fixtures far from ideal for any club trying to mount a challenge of any sort in the league.
At present Liverpool sit in sixth place, five points behind Tottenham Hotspur with a game extra played. That Europa League position can be their only realistic aim, considering Chelsea and Manchester City and 10 and 11 points respectively in front for the Champions League.
It is Liverpool's away form which has cost them, with Saturday's 2-1 reverse at West Bromwich Albion being their 10th of the season. The only other teams in double figures for defeats on the road are Stoke, Blackburn and Wolves. With four of their remaining games at Anfield they may feel there is a slight chance, but they must also go to Arsenal and Fulham before visiting Villa on the last day.
Liverpool still have to play both Man City and Spurs at home, but they will be relying too much on the failures of others. The defeat at WBA was extremely damaging, costing them the chance to move within two points of Spurs. Tottenham's visit to Liverpool on the penultimate weekend could just give the Merseysiders a glimmer of hope.
Realistically, the fight for Champions League and Europa League football falls between Man City, Chelsea and Spurs, with Harry Redknapp's team without a Champions League chair if the music were to stop now.
Tottenham's form has been poor since winning at AC Milan in February, and if they are to have any hope of a return to Europe's elite competition next season they have to put a run of wins together. Crucially, they have five games to play at White Hart Lane and just three away. The home treble against Stoke, Arsenal and West Brom over the next couple of weeks will decide if they have any chance of a Champions League future in 2011-12; a full haul of points and City and Chelsea will have to look over their shoulders.
But Spurs' three away games could not be more difficult, at Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool.
Like Spurs, Chelsea still have five home games left to play which puts them in pole position for a Champions League place. There seems to be few dropped points from games against Wigan, Birmingham, West Ham, Spurs and Newcastle at Stamford Bridge. That block of games alone, especially if they beat Spurs, should guarantee a top-four finish.
Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini has Champions League qualification as a minimum requirement this season, and while they have a six-point cushion over Spurs the fact that the two sides play each other at Eastlands in May, just as they did last season, could still the deciding factor. Four of City's remaining seven games are away from home, at Liverpool, Blackburn, Everton and Bolton. The home games against Stoke and West Ham seem more favourable but it's still that Spurs game on May 10 which sticks out.
But Spurs may struggle to bounce back from their Champions League disappointment against Real Madrid, which may end their hopes of mounting a serious challenge to City for fourth.
It is worth noting that if Chelsea were to finish fifth and win the Champions League, then the team finishing fourth would go into the Europa League.
CHAMPIONS: Manchester United
Champions League: Chelsea
Champions League qualifying: Manchester City
Europa League: Tottenham Hotspur