In a season decided by small moments, City emerges with the crown
It was all over before it was over -- In the end, Championship Sunday followed a predictable course.
Manchester City, needing just one point, barely broke a sweat as it beat visiting West Ham 2-0. Liverpool struggled but beat Newcastle, which finished with nine men, 2-1 to stay two points back. Chelsea fought back to win 2-1 at relegated Cardiff to end four points behind City.
City was a deserved champion. It defended far better than Liverpool. It attacked far better than Chelsea. It had as many really good days as either of its rivals and fewer really bad ones. It's a better, deeper all-round squad. You'd expect that with the money it has spent.
Sunday was only fourth time in 15 seasons that the title has been in play on the final day. This installment resembled the tension-free finales of 2008, when United edged Chelsea, and 2010, which produced the same result, far more than the drama of 2012, when City caught United on the line. In the first two the leader had a huge goal-difference edge and faced Wigan on the final day.
With Wigan out of the Premier League, City, needing just a draw, could hardly have chosen a better last-day foe than toothless West Ham. The rubber Hammers didn't manage a shot on goal. City's victory through goals from Samir Nasri and Vincent Kompany came easy, even though many of its player's thoughts seemed to be on the World Cup long before the end.
Liverpool did provide a little late drama at Anfield, falling behind to yet another Martin Skrtel own goal after 20 minutes before striking twice midway through the second half and cruising the rest of the way over a Newcastle team that ended the game, and the season, with nine men. It was a victory that will hardly dull the pain of Liverpool blowing its first real chance at the title in more than two decades.
At about the time Daniel Sturridge was giving Liverpool the lead, City was bringing Fernandinho off the bench. City was also able to throw on Alvaro Negredo for the last few minutes. After the game, Joe Hart, the jubilant City goalie, said that the club's depth had been decisive.
Depth alone is not enough, as Chelsea showed. It beat City twice and Liverpool twice but picked up 10 fewer points than City against teams in the bottom half of the table. Chelsea had some bad luck, but threw away a title it could have had in its grasp with poor tactics and poor attitude against lesser foes.
Trends and turning points -- This has been a particularly cruel season for Liverpool, which suddenly, surprisingly, found itself a contender, indeed in control of the title race, again after so long only to blow its chance.
When the competition has been as tight as it was this year, there is a tendency to look for turning points. If City had lost the title, it might have been Kompany's defensive error at Anfield with the scores level. But that can now be forgotten, while Steven Gerrard's similar mistake against Chelsea at the same ground will live forever in the nightmares of Liverpool fans.
"That was the twist," Nasri told Sky on Sunday, identifying Liverpool's loss to Chelsea as the pivotal moment.
Yet, over the course of the league season, 19 Liverpool games finished either as draws or decided by just one goal. That's a lot of pivotal moments. Liverpool fans could point to goalkeeping errors and refereeing decisions in a 2-1 loss at Man City on Dec. 26. But that was a game that, overall, City deservedly won.
In any case, a lot of apparently random moments are related.
Before the season, Liverpool was expected to be scrapping for fourth place. Indeed, it still seemed that way halfway through the season. The Reds did not look as if they believed when they visited City and Chelsea in late December and lost twice. They ended 2013 in fifth place. Then something happened.
Liverpool went 16 games unbeaten. It won the last 11 games of that streak. Yet over those 16 games, it conceded 21 goals. Life is a series of trade-offs. Liverpool was conceding goals because it was attacking, and scoring. But sometimes it seemed that Liverpool was attacking, and pressing up the field, because it was terrified to defend.
Brendan Rodgers complained that Chelsea parked the bus at Anfield. But that was a game Liverpool only needed to draw. Instead its eagerness to attack gave Chelsea the crucial goal. That loss left Liverpool level with City on points. The frailty of Liverpool's defense, compared with City's, meant it was far behind on goal difference.
The accident against Chelsea led to the disaster at Selhurst Park. Three goals ahead, Liverpool clearly grew excited about goal difference rather than settling for holding what it had. Instead of the potent attack scoring again, the defense collapsed. Crystal Palace salvaged a 3-3 draw. The pressure was off City. Liverpool's best chance in a long time was gone because it allowed one bad moment to lead to another.
Liverpool didn't have the depth of its rivals, especially in defense, but those rivals remain in a position to outspend Liverpool, again, this summer.
A season is a collection of moments. This might have been Liverpool's.
Managerial speculation -- In the battle of the chair-warmers, Tim Sherwood and Tottenham edged out Ryan Giggs and Manchester United to settle the only other undecided matter in the Premier League, sixth place and underwhelming reward of a Europa League place.
Tottenham beat Aston Villa, 3-0, on Sunday while United drew, 1-1, at Southampton to finish five points behind Spurs.
The lobbying for the inexperienced Giggs to take over full-time at Old Trafford in preference to Louis van Gaal appears to have died away. But there still seems to be a strong feeling among the pundits that if Tottenham fire Sherwood in the summer it will somehow be shabby and unfair.
Under Sherwood, Tottenham picked up 42 points in 23 league games, allowing him to boast, repeatedly, the highest winning percentage of any modern Spurs manager. But half a season is hardly a statistically significant sample, and he was less successful in cup games and he didn't solve the fundamental problem: the gulf against top teams.
Sherwood's trumpet blowing, irreverent tone and habit of criticizing his players may have endeared him to the media, but they also alienated Tottenham supporters. When a manager does that, as Andre Villas-Boas found after he criticized the Tottenham crowd, he is operating without a net.
Sherwood is toast. Alan Pardew, even more disliked by Newcastle fans, might be safe because he is acting as a body shield for the unpopular owner Mike Ashley. Sam Allardyce, who has exhausted the little goodwill West Ham fans can muster, may also be safe because all the club's owners want is to be still a Premier League club for the move into the Olympic Stadium in two years. That's a small goal Big Sam can achieve.
It matters what fans think, which is why it seems bizarre that Tottenham might be courting Rafa Benítez, widely distrusted by English fans outside Liverpool. That would be asking for trouble.