EPL race enters the home stretch
After eight months and 32 games, the destination of this season's English Premier League title has been decided in the space of five days.
Old Trafford saw arguably the best game of the year last Sunday, a match that encapsulated and echoed Arsenal's season as a whole: dominating possession while playing beautiful, intricate soccer, but lacking the ability to hold onto a lead and finish games off.
Manchester United's 2-1 victory against Arsenal and Emile Heskey's injury-time equalizer for Wigan at Stamford Bridge the next day has virtually ensured -- barring a United meltdown in its final four matches -- the EPL trophy stays in the Old Trafford cabinet for yet another year.
Two months ago, Arsenal was five points clear of United at the top of the EPL table. In the 12 games since, the Gunners have won only twice: at AC Milan and Bolton Wanderers. In the last week, their meltdown culminated with a Champions League exit to Liverpool and Sunday's loss to United.
We touched on our view of the main reasons for the Gunners' collapse in our last column. At the beginning of the season, Arsenal's sweeping, quick passing style brushed aside all comers. But since Christmas, cracks have appeared, mainly in the form of injuries to key players that has shown the glaring lack of strength in depth in the squad compared to its title rivals, confirming that the likes of Philippe Senderos can't cut it at this level.
Despite Arsenal's third season in a row without silverware, Arsène Wenger has vowed not to change the way his team plays, and is convinced bad luck and bad refereeing decisions were behind its collapse: "I'm very proud of my team and we have to continue producing the kind of football we produce and not always be unlucky," he said.
Arsenal is likely to strengthen its squad for next season's assault on the title with the likes of Valencia striker David Villa, Lyon youngster Hatem Ben Arfa and Bayern Munich's Brazilian international Lúcio all rumored to be on Wenger's shopping list.
Meanwhile at Stamford Bridge, one of Team Limey's favorite subjects of comedy and abuse, Heskey, was an unlikely man to decide the fate of the EPL. He managed to move his lumbering frame enough to knock in Jason Koumas' cross to earn his Wigan side a vital point in the dying seconds.
Chelsea's title hopes realistically ended as the ball hit the net and boos rang out, firmly directed at manager Avram Grant. The Israeli's decision to rest Joe Cole, Dider Drogba and Ricardo Carvalho for the Everton clash backfired in spectacular fashion. However, it appears that Roman Abramovich has faith in Grant, and is ready to supply the funds to enable him to bring the players in to dominate domestically and in Europe.
At Liverpool, everything is looking rosy on the pitch. Last week's stunning Champions League victory over Arsenal -- and the electric partnership Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard are forming -- has got Reds fans salivating. However, the goings-on off the pitch have got the fans spitting blood.
In-fighting between the club's American owners -- Tom Hicks and George Gillett -- and the revelation that chief executive Rick Parry, Rafael Benítez's previously trusted confidant, was at the meeting with Jürgen Klinsmann to discuss him taking over as Liverpool boss, has raised the very real possibility that Benítez could walk. Real Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia all could be in the market for new managers at the end of the season, which means the Spaniard could have several outlets for his resume.
Alongside the EPL, Manchester United is also the favorite to win the Champions League, with only the small matter of a semifinal against Spanish giant Barcelona between it and an all-EPL final against Chelsea or Liverpool. What's intriguing is what team Sir Alex Ferguson will play against Barcelona.
In such a big game, against such strong opposition, United must play its strongest 11. Will there be a place for old hands Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs? The former is, however, guaranteed by Ferguson to play some role in the final, should United make it. Scholes missed the 1999 Champions League final through suspension.
In fifth place, following a 1-0 setback against Chelsea on Thursday, Everton looks increasingly assured of UEFA Cup soccer. Its Champions League ambitions were effectively ended in the 1-1 draw at Birmingham, and although their run-in is tricky -- at home to Villa and Newcastle, with a trip to Arsenal, sandwiched between -- the Toffees' form looks good enough to hold off the challenge from below.
Portsmouth, by virtue of reaching the FA Cup final, is through to the UEFA Cup, leaving Aston Villa, Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers fighting it out to finish highest and gain entry to the Intertoto Cup, a somewhat odd and contrived, soon-to-be-axed Europe-wide summer competition in which sufficient progression gains one of several UEFA Cup places for the following season.
Team Limey doubts that Ronaldinho's brother and agent, Roberto de Assis, was enticed to visit Manchester City because Ronaldinho is particularly fond of the Intertoto Cup. A rumored $250,000-a-week contract was probably of more interest. And even that is a less likely scenario than de Assis using City as a pawn in a strategy to market the availability of the now frequently injured two-time winner of World Player of the Year.
Manchester restaurants have been put on standby, though, for the possible arrival of 'Big' Felipe Scolari. City Chairman Thaksin Shinawatra has become disillusioned with Sven-Göran Eriksson's defensive style of play, and a poor run of results has seen the club slide down the standings since the New Year.
"I'm not happy with the performance of the club in the second half of the season," Thaksin told reporters at a Dubai business conference. "We will look at it at the end of the season and assess the club and the people involved."
Despite the story breaking on the front page of the London Times' sports section, Team Limey strongly suspects that Thaksin was referring to the squad, not the manager, and that Swedish smorgasbords will still be the flavor of City's next season.
Well, that and celebratory Happy Meals following the club's hoisting of the FA Youth Cup on Wednesday after defeating Chelsea 4-2 over two legs. Striker Daniel Sturridge has already broken into City's first team, but look out in future for these rising stars: City's Slovakian winger Vladimir Weiss and Chelsea's French winger Gaël Kakuta.
If there is indeed a managerial merry-go-round somewhere, then where does that leave the Special One? If Benítez leaves, José Mourinho could be Liverpool-bound, but Frank Rijkaard is also under pressure at Barcelona following a poor showing in La Liga. Expect the Dutchman to be fired if Barça fails to overcome Manchester United in the Champions League.
Derby's Paul Jewell, strangely, is not on the managerial merry-go-round. Despite having only accrued five of Derby's 11 points since taking over in late November -- statistically, a far worse record than the man he replaced, Billy Davies -- and having seemingly done nothing but repetitively and tediously talk about focusing on next season, he will seemingly still have the job.
In our view, Jewell should be fired for having the stupidity to have taken the job in the first place. Why would someone leave a Wigan side he had worked tirelessly to keep in the EPL, then supposedly reject Bolton, only to join doomed Derby?
The battle above Derby, however, is becoming more interesting following wins for both Bolton (1-0 at home over West Ham) and Fulham (1-0 at Reading). With four games left, Fulham trails Bolton by two points, which itself is two points adrift from safety in the guise of Birmingham City. Reading sits a further point ahead.
Wigan's draw at Chelsea takes it six points clear of Bolton and significantly closer to safety. Expect Fulham's Roy Hodgson to depart if the Cottagers fail to stay up; Gary Megson's tenure at Bolton will probably end even if he does keep them up, while recently appointed Alex McLeish's excellent resume will keep him in the Birmingham hot seat even if the club does get relegated.
Replacing the relegated three will be two teams from the Championship via the automatic promotion gained through finishing first or second, and another that wins the playoffs between the teams finishing third through sixth. Five teams are in the running for the automatic spots: West Bromwich Albion, Hull City, Stoke City, Bristol City and Watford.
While Watford and West Bromwich both recently played in the EPL, Stoke's last appearance in the top flight was in 1985, Bristol's was '80 and the closest Hull has ever come to the top tier was missing out on promotion in 1910 by virtue of goal difference! One sobering thought for the teams vying for promotion to the EPL is the fact that Chelsea's Youth Cup Final team, at $12 million, cost more than many Championship club's entire squads.
Promotion for West Bromwich would round off a stupendous season for the Baggies, who also reached the FA Cup semifinals before losing 1-0 to Portsmouth. In the other all-Championship semi, Cardiff City overcame Barnsley -- the conquerors of Liverpool and Chelsea, also 1-0. The final is on May 17, and for the Bluebirds represents a chance to take the Cup out of England for the first time since 1927. The Welsh capital awaits with baited breath.
No room for letters this issue, so straight to Letter to America. This week we want to know if you think Manchester United can achieve an EPL and Champions League double. If so, what do you think is the special magic held by their team? If not, who'll stop them?