Premier League season review
As the Barclays Premier League season goes in to its final weekend, let's take a look back at how things have panned out for each club since August:
Tipped to enjoy a close chase with Chelsea at the top of the table. We got that in the end, but via the scenic route.
Last week's draw with Blackburn means United will emerge at Old Trafford on Sunday as the Premier League champion.
United was unbeaten until February and dropped only two points at home, but its shaky away form kept things interesting (particularly early on, when Fulham and Everton staged late comebacks). Despite the best efforts of Dimitar Berbatov and Luis Nani, this campaign will be remembered for the emerging chemistry between Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez.
West Ham United 2-4 Manchester United (April 2, 2011) -- the first half epitomized United's vulnerability when it went 2-0 down to a pair of Mark Noble penalties. The second, its spirit, when Wayne Rooney's hat trick inspired a four-goal second half.
Revitalized by new arrivals in midfield, Chelsea looked like picking up where it left off as 2009-10 champion: thrashing all-comers.
Pride. This is Chelsea's worst season under Roman Abramovich, with high-level changes coming this summer.
Chelsea started as expected, scoring 12 goals in the first two weeks, and has ended in good form, but the soggy middle put paid to its title ambitions. The unexpected departure of assistant coach Ray Wilkins has been mooted as a cause, as have injuries, particularly to Frank Lampard, who scored 27 goals last season. Manager Carlo Ancelotti has promised to lift the lid once the season ends.
Chelsea 0-3 Sunderland (Nov. 14, 2010) -- the Mackems' emphatic victory at Stamford Bridge was the first sign of trouble.
Sheik Mansour's sizable investment (City spent more than $170 million last summer alone) would push City in to the top four.
A win away to Bolton Wanderers will secure third place, and Champions League soccer next season.
FA Cup winner City has been in or around the top four since September. A string of convincing home wins has been important (City has only won one away fixture in 2011), as has its miserly defense -- despite injuries, Vincent Kompany and co. have the league's highest tally of clean sheets (17). Hardly PlayStation soccer, but it all counts.
Manchester City 4-3 Wolverhampton Wanderers (Jan. 15, 2011) -- highlighted the best and the worst of this evolving team.
More of the same: a decent title challenge undone by defensive weaknesses that Arsene Wenger's summer spending hadn't sufficiently addressed.
Arsenal must get at least a point from Fulham, and hope City doesn't win, to move up to third and avoid the Champions League qualifying rounds.
The suspicion that Arsenal is its own worst enemy gained conviction as first West Bromwich Albion, then Newcastle then, worst of all, Tottenham Hotspur plundered wins at the Emirates. Spurs' second-half revival set a trend; Arsenal would be comfortably third based on halftime scores but has struggled to maintain concentration at the back, particularly from set pieces.
Newcastle United 4-4 Arsenal (Feb.5 , 2011) -- having been four goals up inside the first quarter of the game,
Predicted to drop out of the top four while managing league matches alongside a maiden Champions League campaign.
Just a point ahead of Liverpool in the reckoning for a Europa League spot and hosting relegated-threatened Birmingham in front of an impatient home crowd, Spurs could do with a win.
Only Joe Hart's acrobatics kept the opening tie with Manchester City scoreless, but since then Tottenham's front line has rarely looked a truly dangerous proposition; Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe have four goals each. But at least a side that struggles to kill games off has also refused to play dead, recouping 23 points from losing positions.
Blackpool 3-1 Tottenham Hotspur (Feb. 22, 2011) -- threw Spurs' Premier League/Champions League juggling act in to sharp relief a week after victory over AC Milan at the San Siro.
After the anticlimax of 2009-10, Liverpool seemed a certainty for the chasing pack -- few foresaw October's brush with the bottom of the table.
Could pip Spurs to fifth (and the Europa League) with a result at Villa Park.
A year of comings and goings, and second comings. Roy Hodgson's spell in charge lasted 20 matches, of which Liverpool lost nine, and drew four. Tom Hicks and George Gillett were chased out of town, replaced by John W. Henry and FSG. Fernando Torres left, Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez arrived, and Kenny Dalglish oversaw a bounce from 13th to sixth, beating Chelsea and both Manchester teams along the way.
Liverpool 3-1 Manchester United (March 6, 2011) -- a satisfying turnaround for the Merseysiders that demonstrated Dirk Kuyt's rebirth under Dalglish, and Suarez's brilliant potential.
Hopes based on a strong finish to 2009-10 were tempered by the paucity of summer investment.
A point against Chelsea keeps Fulham away from seventh, and leaves Everton unbeaten at home to the top three.
Another slow start became a slow season as David Moyes' side lingered above the trapdoor well into 2011. Tim Cahill and Leighton Baines have combined to produce most of Everton's goals, but the recent form of Leon Osman, Jermaine Beckford and occasionally Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Mikel Arteta has coaxed the team up the table.
Newcastle United 1-2 Everton (March 5, 2011) -- consolidated the bounce in the Blues' form, and a psychological boost for fans and players alike.
Without significant departures in the transfer window and relieved of Europa League duties, a top-half finish looked probable.
Fairly comfortable in eighth, but visitor Arsenal has won seven of its last nine matches at Craven Cottage.
Newly installed manager Mark Hughes was put under pressure when an early sequence of draws started to be interrupted by defeats, but once fitness and form restored Bobby Zamora, Andy Johnson, Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey to the fore, results picked up to lift Fulham to a third top-half finish in four years.
Stoke City 0-2 Fulham (Dec. 28, 2010) -- the Cottagers' first away win in more than a year, and the one that kick-started their season.
Manager Tony Pulis had always said three seasons in the top flight was his aim, and there was no reason to think Stoke would be in trouble in its third.
Could finish anywhere between eighth and 13th depending on results at the Britannia and elsewhere.
Dreadful away form (no team has lost more on the road than Stoke) has been counterbalanced by the power of the Britannia Stadium and its boisterous crowd to make opponents go weak at the knees: Stoke has not lost there in 2011. In those encouraging surrounds, the invention of Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington has contradicted the stereotype.
Stoke City 3-1 Arsenal (May 8, 2011) -- opened the scoring from a set-piece, but completely opened Arsenal up as fans enjoyed an ironic chorus of rugby anthem Swing low, sweet chariot.
With a full season to go at, manager Owen Coyle's changes were expected to help Bolton back in to the top half of the table.
Without a win against Manchester City, Wanderers' top-10 placing is vulnerable to other results.
Holiday-season optimism has sputtered somewhat: Bolton has taken 17 points from the last available 51, the inconsistency of the spring giving way to a run of defeats. Confidence seems to have taken a heavy hit from the FA Cup semifinal defeat to Stoke last month, but the season-ending injury to Stuart Holden, who had been pulling the strings, was significant.
Chelsea 1-0 Bolton Wanderers (Dec. 29, 2010) -- a frustrating defeat at Stamford Bridge ushered in a difficult new year.
The archetypal yo-yo club was not thought likely to break with tradition and survive in the Premier League.
Could finish anywhere between eight and 14th; either would be the club's best finish in 26 years.
Opened with a 6-0 drubbing by Chelsea, swerved in to an impressive win at the Emirates, then descended in to doom and gloom as five consecutive losses saw West Brom drop like an anvil. Hodgson's Valentine's Day arrival was the start of a beautiful relationship: the Baggies have lost only two of the 11 games since, Peter Odemwingie and Youssuf Mulumbu scoring more than half of the goals.
Sunderland 2-3 West Brom (April 9, 2011) -- twice behind, this fightback evidenced the resilience Hodgson has instilled.
Predicted to survive relegation but lacking the squad to trouble the top half of the table.
A grandstand finish for home fans, who have had to stomach the loss of popular manager Chris Hughton.
Newcastle announced its return to the top flight by beating Aston Villa 6-0 and recorded a memorable 5-1 win over local rival Sunderland, but has struggled to regain such an air of superiority (especially at St James Park) since. The loss of Andy Carroll to injury and then a transfer to Liverpool that earned the club a fortune it had no opportunity to reinvest was significant. Fans await the summer transfer window with baited breath.
West Brom 3-1 Newcastle United (Dec 5, 2010) -- the anemic defeat that gave the board the excuse it was looking for to fire Hughton.
The loss of James Milner was supposed to be alleviated by the arrival of Stephen Ireland, but last minute upheaval and lack of investment made it unlikely that Villa would keep pace with the top six.
Not much. Perhaps a decent send off for Gerard Houllier and Ashley Young, both thought to be leaving in the summer.
Results haven't been spectacular but an injury-plagued season was given a lift by the January signing of Darren Bent, now the club's top scorer thanks to service from Young and Stewart Downing. Houllier's PR blunders and recent hospitalization have generated unrest but the impressive form of young players like Marc Albrighton, Kyle Walker, Barry Bannan, Ciaran Clark and co. looks promising.
Aston Villa 1-0 Manchester City (Jan. 22, 2011) -- Bent's debut, on which he scored the winning goal, restored some goodwill in the stands.
Steve Bruce's side looked all set for a tilt at the top half of the table.
Maybe Bruce's job, but first and foremost something to cheer: Sunderland has won just seven points since January.
By Christmas, Sunderland had steamrollered Chelsea and was in the running for Europe, but within weeks a spiraling injury list started to take its toll -- Bent's departure wasn't as devastating as some made out until injuries cost Bruce the rest of his strike force. Phil Bardsley, playing out of position at left back, was the team's standout performer, which is instructive.
Stoke City 3-2 Sunderland (Feb. 5, 2011) -- a game the Black Cats started well but failed to close out. The same had happened versus Chelsea earlier in the week; this really set the club in to free fall.
Difficulties in the transfer market forced a reassessment of Rovers' potential.
Safety: it may be unlikely, but without a win away to Wolves, results elsewhere could pull Blackburn down.
New owner Venky's invited ridicule by talking about signing Kaka, but caused greater turbulence by sacking Sam Allardyce. The changes prompted the resignation of influential chairman John Williams and new manager Steve Kean hasn't been able to maintain his reasonable start -- much as Blackburn struggle to maintain a performance over 90 minutes.
Blackburn Rovers 1-1 Manchester United (May 14, 2011) -- shouldn't have been as happy to settle for a draw as United was, but didn't force the issue with only one fixture remaining.
Those who thought Mick McCarthy's team would survive didn't think it'd do so with much to spare.
May not need to do anything to stay up, but a win would make it certain.
The club has spent the majority of the campaign in the relegation zone, being especially vulnerable away from home -- Wolves have lost two-thirds of games on the road. Molineux has witnessed memorable wins over each of the top three though, and the crowd has stuck behind the team all the way; there are places Blackburn would probably rather be visiting on Survival Sunday.
Wolverhampton Wanderers 4-0 Blackpool (Feb. 26, 2011) -- a showcase for Wolves' best performers, and the result that prevented it drifting away at the bottom with West Ham.
Matching last season's top half finish seemed unlikely, but the Blues appeared in no danger of going down.
Above the drop zone on goal difference, City must at least match Blackpool and Wigan's shorelines to stay up.
Fielding some of the league's lowest scoring strikers, attack has never been Birmingham's best form of attack, let alone defense. It got away with a mediocre away record by being virtually unbeatable at home last season, but the disruption caused at the back by Scott Dann's injury saw City take 12 points from the last 27 at St Andrews. The Carling Cup trophy takes the edge off a disappointing campaign, though.
Birmingham City 1-3 West Bromwich Albion (March 5, 2011) -- fielding a changed lineup days after a lung-busting victory against Arsenal at Wembley, this game highlighted a troubling lack of depth in Birmingham's squad.
Picked to slip to the bottom of the table the instant it was no longer organized alphabetically.
Heads to Old Trafford seeking an escape from the relegation zone.
The league's great entertainers, everybody has enjoyed adding a trip to the seaside to their season's outings. Blackpool took everybody by surprise to steal in to eighth by the end of 2010, but then a run of 12 defeats in 16 matches sent Ian Holloway's side hurtling back toward the Championship.
Season in a nutshell
Blackpool 2-3 Manchester United -- one of the best games of the season, showing off everything we love about Blackpool -- but exactly why theirs is such a dangerous way to go at this league.
In trouble without the chronically weak teams that cushioned it from relegation last season.
Needs to beat Stoke -- or get a draw and pray -- to stay up.
Conceded 10 goals in the first two fixtures and has failed to put a run of results together ever since, despite individual performances (most notably from forward Charles N'Zogbia and goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi) that have pleased manager Roberto Martinez. Unbeaten since Easter, but is this run too late?
Wigan Athletic 3-2 West Ham (May 15, 2011) -- last week's rousing victory was the kind of showing Martinez -- and the fans - has waited all season to see.
Generally low, but summer signings such as Thomas Hitzlsperger hinted at an improvement on 17th place.
A miserable year for Hammers fans, with the club enjoying only fleeting spells outside of the relegation zone. Any hope placed in Avram Grant evaporated as what had seemed like detached cool was exposed as witless silence. Scott Parker did his best to lead, and things looked up once Hitzlsperger was fit and Demba Ba arrived, but there were too many below-average performers alongside them.
Bolton Wanderers 3-0 West Ham -- an emblematically listless performance that only sprang to life when the players started fighting among themselves.