A year ago the Premier League title was decided with nearly the last kick of the season. Thanks to Manchester City's barmy match with Queens Park Rangers, the top spot changed hands four times during the course of the final afternoon and Bolton Wanderers and QPR both spent time in the relegation zone before Bolton (held 2-2 by Stoke City) ended up going down. It was a grand finale all right, a day to recall Andy Cole's winner against Spurs in 1999, and Michael Thomas' goal at Anfield 10 years earlier.
This season the title was decided weeks ago, when Manchester United beat Aston Villa to go 13 points clear with four games remaining. Wigan Athletic, last weekend's FA Cup winners, claimed the final relegation spot with a defeat to Arsenal on Tuesday that left them four points adrift with only three left to play for.
There is a chance that Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal might switch places, Spurs pinching the final Champions League place, but this is a lukewarm offering given that Tottenham face unpredictable Sunderland while Arsenal, unbeaten since the start of March, take on a floundering Newcastle. The possibility of a third-place playoff between Arsenal and Chelsea might provide some excitement, at least until the first goal goes in at Stamford Bridge.
Yet for all the lack of dramatic potential, the end of this season is swathed in ambiguity. A week of upheaval has left the Premier League aglow with slow-burning uncertainty.
On Sunday, English soccer will say farewell to Sir Alex Ferguson, who leaves Manchester United as champions for the 13th time in his 26-year reign. We know that David Moyes will replace him but we have no firm idea of the United we will see when the league begins again in August. Even this weekend, one of the key storylines will be whether or not Wayne Rooney is in the squad.
Rooney has submitted a transfer request, unhappy at being shunted around to accommodate others, or the absence of others. Ferguson had refused to consider selling and it seems Moyes is also keen to talk Rooney, who has two years remaining on his contract. Despite losing his status as United's primary striker, Rooney has contributed 12 goals and 11 assists this season; selling him to a Premier League rival would be unthinkable and Bayern Munich, another mooted destination, have said 'no thanks'.
There are valid questions to be asked about whether keeping Rooney is really worth it, however. Though he impressed in central midfield against Stoke City recently, he evidently does not want to play his soccer there. United has Shinji Kagawa itching to make the supporting role behind van Persie his own and Danny Welbeck to graft when the opposition demands it. There are plenty of fans who would prefer to have £25 million in the bank than Rooney sulking on the bench.
There were fans, too, who felt when the new manager was announced that Moyes lacked the pedigree necessary to replace Ferguson. The similarities between the two are obvious, but the club was 19th in the old First Division when Ferguson took over and hadn't won the title in 20 years. He could take six years to get there. The decision to give Moyes a six-year contract carries symbolic weight, but how effective will that be? United are not fighting relegation, they're defending champions.
It would not be surprising, then, to see the Glazers gift Moyes a fairly hefty transfer kitty this summer; buy a couple of £20 million-plus players to garnish a side already comfortably ahead of its domestic competitors and you also buy time, as well as keeping that intimidating sheen sparkling bright. It bodes well for United that the players already in the squad are far happier with Moyes than they would have been had Jose Mourinho walked through the door.
Instead it will likely be the revolving doors at Stamford Bridge that spin Mourinho back into the Premier League. He will get a hero's welcome at Chelsea, not to mention a king's ransom. According to Rafael Benitez, the owner Roman Abramovich is planning to spend ?100 million on "three or four" players this summer. Already the club has been linked with Real Madrid's Sami Khedira, Edinson Cavani of Napoli, and the Bayer Leverkusen forward Andre Schurrle, among umpteen others.
For some, the return of Mourinho promises to be tiresome, but this kind of investment is simply fearsome. Chelsea just won the Europa League with a strong squad that could also be boosted by the return of Romelu Lukaku (14 goals on loan at West Bromwich Albion this year) for no outlay. "The foundation is already there," Benitez told the Spanish radio station Onda Cero. "The future is bright for them." The Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas has already said Chelsea will be title favorites next season.
Imagine what all of this will precipitate at Manchester City, where Roberto Mancini has been ousted after City finished a pale second to United, crashed out of the Champions League at the group stage and were beaten in the FA Cup final by Wigan. The supporters are upset by the decision and they are right; being sacked for coming second is preposterous, particularly when the vast majority of fans have endured years of far, far worse.
Now the stories emerge of Mancini aloof from his playing staff but for the owners it most likely comes down to their bank statements, which show far too many large transactions to excuse the team slipping backward. There are lessons here -- no amount of money can guarantee success, and though it makes it a lot more likely, the Premier League has two other teams investing from positions of strength and somebody has to lose -- but they may go unheeded through another summer of spending. It is difficult to imagine that Manuel Pellegrini, if indeed he does leave Malaga to take over at the Etihad, will not want to make his own alterations.
So each of the top three clubs will start next season with new managers and who knows what different personnel; we can speculate that this might signal real change at the top, but it is more natural to fear that it will entrench the same trio of clubs, leaving Arsenal, Spurs, and an improving Liverpool side to duke it out for the scraps. Everton should also be on that list but they will also return to action with a new manager who will have to find his feet at the same time as beginning carefully to replenish an aging squad, on a tight budget.
"I'm sure the chairman will be hoping he can get another David Moyes, but it's the luck of the draw really," the former Everton forward Graeme Sharp told the
What Sunday's match action lacks in suspense, the start of next season is already making up for.