Georgina Turner
Tuesday April 27th, 2010

With just a few matches remaining of this Premiership season, the time has come for a spot of deliberation, cogitation and digestion. What's happened since last August to confound the surest of expectations and put paid to the sincerest of hopes? Quite a bit, is the simple answer; this season has provided a lasting ride for more than half of a league that has spent several years fending off accusations of soul-crushing predictability. Things we didn't expect:

Birmingham City is actually quite good: Confidently picked to be relegated by 99.9 percent of pundits last summer, City was also 5-1 favorite to lose manager Alex McLeish first. Appealing odds, since half of the last 24 teams to be promoted to the Premier League have ended up back in the Championship the very next season. Having earned automatic promotion last season to the Premiership with the slenderest of goal differences (nearly half of their wins were of the 1-0 variety), even City decided against the customary open-top bus parade. When McLeish opted to shop in the Championship for two men to fill the middle of his defense in advance of the Premiership season, his own limited expectations appeared to be confirmed.

Now its on course to finish in the top half of the table; thanks to the Premiership's stingiest home defense -- superbly marshalled by those Championship acquisitions, Scott Dann and Roger Johnson -- McLeish's side reached the nominal safety of 40 points by the end of February. They can even assume a portion of responsibility for the derailment of Arsenal's title bid, after a stoppage-time equaliser from Kevin Phillips's nose put daylight between the Gunners and Chelsea last month.

Darren Bent is officially sharper than Sandra Redknapp: Having paid $24 million for 18 league goals and a DVD boxset of missed sitters, Tottenham sold Bent to Sunderland two years later. After seeing Bent spurn a simple chance against Portsmouth in January 2009, Spurs manager Harry Redknapp commented that his wife, Sandra, could have done better. "I normally spend that much money on five players," Sunderland manager Steve Bruce said recently of the $15 million he put out last summer for Bent, but the striker has more than repaid his faith.

Nobody has looked forward to a trip to The Stadium of Light this season, thanks largely to the massive hike in the number of goals the home side has scored there -- 50 percent more than in each of the previous two seasons, and Bent has scored half of them (to total 24 league goals on the season so far). Sunderland is 10th and has taken points off everyone except Chelsea this season. Despite missing two penalties against Spurs earlier this month, Bent has yet to find his new manager telling television crews that Mrs. Bruce is a better finisher.

Everyone is fallible. And it's better that way: There have been complaints from some quarters that the competitiveness of the Premiership this season reflects only a plunge in the quality of the top few sides. Bah humbug. There's no doubt that the top three have dropped more points than usual, and to teams they don't typically fraternize with. But if Chelsea can put seven past the likes of Villa, then its inability to beat Everton, say, or Wigan, is to the credit of the opposition. Who doesn't want a league in which any team can beat any other team, provided the wind is right? It may disappoint supporters of the top clubs to see players like Rio Ferdinand and John Terry exposed as mere mortals but, for most, the fact that more teams have devised ways to take points from the big boys has kept the league as interesting to the last as it's been for years.

Liverpool sold Xabi Alonso and the sky fell in: Liverpool's 28-point surge in the final 10 games of last season put them within spitting distance of the title last time out, and set giddy minds to work planning for a triumphant 2010. Only Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson suggested that Liverpool wouldn't feature in this season's title race, but he couldn't have hoped they'd be struggling to secure a place in the top six with just two games to go.

But then Rafa Benitez sold Alonso to Real Madrid, a move that Fernando Torres insists "messed up" the club's push for a first title in 20 years. "We were so far off the top of the table so quickly; that killed us psychologically," the striker complained recently. Liverpool hasn't been higher than fourth since October, with Torres frequently injured and Steven Gerrard struggling to maintain his usual heroic form. Still, they're in with a shout of winning the Europa League and, if the weekend's win over Burnley is anything to go by, Alberto Aquilani isn't the transfer catastrophe everyone suspected.

Manchester United sold Cristiano Ronaldo and it didn't: It was fun while it lasted, but sagely shaking one's head and suggesting that United would crumble after the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid soon fell flat. Antonio Valencia has always asked folk not to compare him to his predecessor, and it's probably for the best since he's nowhere near as exciting. He hasn't really needed to be, mind, because of a near perfect campaign from Wayne Rooney. He's outscored Ronaldo's last season at United with 26 league goals to 18, though his form has posed another question no one expected to hear: are United a one-man team?

Referees still don't know what they're doing: Moaning about refereeing decisions has become a stock response to bad results, but this season has felt like a nadir for supporters up and down the table. There's no doubt that the campaign has been noticeably influenced by mistakes from officials. Look no further than Aston Villa's dodgy penalty against Birmingham last weekend for the perfect example of a referee making an award he cannot possibly have been sure of, and which was still wrong even if he was. Liverpool's Pepe Reina conceding a goal to a beach ball will go down as one of the funniest moments of this season, but put your thinking head on for a moment. In how many other sports would you find a referee who doesn't actually know the rules? If to err is human, tech up.

And finally, last weekend ...: Making a late play for letdown of the season was the weekend's snore draw between Arsenal and Manchester City. Rarely can a match have promised so much blood and thunder and delivered such tame fare -- between them, the two sides managed five shots on target. By the time former Arsenal man Emmanuel Adebayor joined the field in the 52nd minute, spectators would have been forgiven for hoping for a livening spot of fisticuffs; all they got was a scything tackle from Robin van Persie that Adebayor laughed off with disappointingly good humour.

Hull's Jozy Altidore proved he knows how to find the target with his head -- so long as the target is the nose of Sunderland's Alan Hutton. Altidore earned a red card, and Hull City was relegated barring two 12-0 victories in its final games. ... Better fortunes for West Ham, who beat Wigan to all but preserve its Premier League status despite Jonathan Spector being kind enough to give Wigan a head start. ... Clint Dempsey will be disappointed to have missed a one-on-one with international colleague Tim Howard as Everton beat Fulham 2-1, though his on-the-line block from a Louis Saha header kept Roy Hodgson's side in it just past the hour mark. ... Goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann missed out on a third clean sheet in a row after allowing a Mort Gamst Pedersen cross to drift across his area for Ryan Nelsen to bundle home. ... Goalkeeper Brad Friedel showed everyone how it's done by keeping an effervescent Birmingham City at bay.

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