Old Trafford clash to decide title
There's no doubt that all eyes are focused on Sunday's big game in the Barclays Premier League when Chelsea travels to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United.
It doesn't have quite the nerve-jangling tension of the 1988-89 title race, when second-placed Arsenal traveled to Anfield on the final day needing to win by two goals. That result would take it level with leader Liverpool on points and goal difference, and force goals scored as the decider. (A recent 5-0 walloping of Norwich City had given the Londoners a comfortable lead in that column, but Liverpool hadn't conceded two at home in months, and hadn't been beaten by two clear goals at home since February 1986.) One-nil up for most of the second half, Arsenal scored the title-winning second goal with 15 seconds left on the clock. They don't come much tighter than that.
Still, Sunday's meeting between Manchester United and Chelsea hardly wants for dramatic potential; it is, effectively, a title decider, and we haven't had a match like this since 1989. The two teams met at the same point, and in the same positions, in 2007-08, and Chelsea's victory (at Stamford Bridge, this time they play at Old Trafford) moved the pair level with two games to go. But the Blues' goal difference was so far off United's that as well as matching its results (which in the end it didn't, drawing with Bolton on the last day), Chelsea would have had to win by double figures in both matches.
Things are much closer now, with both teams enjoying a +38 goal difference. Sunday is Chelsea's last chance to dictate the course of events; if it wins, it will move level on points with United, with a superior goal difference, and then have to match United in the two remaining fixtures. It will essentially force a final two weeks in which the team that holds its nerve will lift the trophy. If United wins, it will move six points clear at the top and only an improbable error against Blackburn Rovers or Blackpool could cost it a 19th title.
A tie -- incredibly, the worst result United has posted at home in the league (and just twice) since losing to Chelsea just over a year ago -- also favors Sir Alex Ferguson's team, shifting the onus on to the visitors to force a result. Not a situation many would relish, especially in the wake of a 4-1 victory accomplished by a "weak" United team against Schalke on Wednesday. At least Carlo Ancelotti's men couldn't hope to be in much better form: they have taken 25 points from 27, going unbeaten in the league since beating United 2-1 at Stamford Bridge in March.
"I am glad to say after many weeks working hard on the training pitch it suddenly clicked," said Michael Essien to reporters this week, struggling to explain the winter dip in Chelsea's season that took it from top to fifth. "Now we are in with a chance. We have to win this weekend to ensure we are in the driving seat; I have no doubt we will give it everything we have." Signs from West London are that Fernando Torres will start on the bench to give Didier Drogba the lead role in another fascinating duel with Nemanja Vidic, who has been involved in more than a dozen clean sheets in the league this season.
About this time of year, season ticket renewal letters start dropping through letterboxes. And each year they seem to land in the hallway with a more ominous thud. This week Arsenal and
Some Arsenal fans might consider their team reassuringly expensive to watch (Wigan still struggles to fill its stadium, even with tickets that equate to £13/$21 per game), and they've enjoyed static prices since the club moved to its new stadium. Inflation would have pushed the prices up to equivalent levels by now in any case. And though some clubs, including Everton and West Bromwich Albion, have already announced a freeze on season ticket prices for next season, there are likely to be increases through much of the Premier League, given that January's VAT rise offers the perfect excuse.
If there are fans prepared to spend so much (it's not quite $165 per game, because Arsenal includes a handful of cup fixtures), clubs are certainly not going to stop them, especially when they are relatively reliant, as Arsenal is, on matchday takings. But it is difficult to remain blithe when you consider that now the cheapest available season ticket at the Emirates will cost $1565 -- and though Arsenal has now introduced the kind of installment option that fans of numerous other clubs rely upon, those paying in stages will end up paying more than $1650 thanks to the APR.
Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis says he shares fears that "ordinary fans are being increasingly priced out of live football," but it's not very convincing. Arsenal has a long season ticket waiting list to fall back on when its worst-off supporters find themselves unable to afford the renewal. United's attendance has only been lower than 72,000 once this season, and even then the 46,000 who watched on that occasion would exceed the capacity of three-quarters of grounds in the Premier League. Almost half the club's match-day revenue comes from executive seating.
Will either club -- or indeed other expensive outfits, like Tottenham, which is also upping prices across the board -- demonstrate much care for the ordinariness of the backside, so long as it's in the seat?
It seems slightly odd that Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger should criticize Jack Wilshere's call-up to the England Under-21 squad for this summer's European Championship on the basis that England's international coaches (U-21 boss Stuart Pearce and Fabio Capello) risk overworking him. Though Wilshere says he wants to play, Wenger plans a meeting with Pearce at the season's end to ask him to reconsider his selection, warning that young players need plenty of rest and relief from expectation. Wilshere has racked up 46 appearances for Arsenal this season -- more than any other squad member. Only Laurent Koscielny has made more starts.