Showdown time in Champs League
Ordinarily, Manchester United making a trip to Craven Cottage isn't much of a story. Fulham hasn't beaten United at home in league play since 1964. But an unusually high amount of attention is focused on this weekend's encounter.
Following Man. United's shocking 4-1 home defeat to Liverpool last weekend, the usual banal expectations of a United win in west London have given way to talk of Fulham having a shot against the defending English Premier League champs and achieving their ninth home EPL win of the season.
United's players, focused on preserving their ear drums, desperately want to avoid humiliating
As a result, expect Man U's concentration to remain high the rest of the season and for the Liverpool defeat, hurtful as it was, to be consigned as an unfortunate blip en route to significant silverware, including an 18th league title.
It's a tough road ahead for Ferguson's team, to be sure: Its FA Cup semifinal against Everton and UEFA Champions League quarterfinal against FC Porto (and potential semifinal against Arsenal) are difficult fixtures. But the Red Devils are expected to progress to the final in both competitions. Meanwhile, their strength in depth and established lead should see them prevail in the EPL. Few significant obstacles remain in their away fixtures, and while Aston Villa, Manchester City and Arsenal will be tricky at home, all three games are eminently winnable.
All this must be somewhat galling for the recently revitalized Chelsea and rampant Liverpool. Despite both teams' current form, they dropped too many points earlier in the season against lesser teams to maintain a serious title challenge. Chelsea, with four wins in four games under
Meanwhile, drawn together in the Champions League quarterfinals, both Chelsea's and Liverpool's camps will be envious of United's and Arsenal's easier matchups with FC Porto and Villarreal, respectively. Although both Chelsea and Liverpool are currently high on confidence, it was the worst of draws for them. Following the result at Old Trafford, Liverpool surely would have preferred Man. United to Chelsea, while Chelsea will be all too conscious of Liverpool's European form.
"If you are asking me about a fear factor in the Champions League," reasoned Liverpool captain
Only four days before the 4-1 win at Old Trafford, Liverpool hammered Real Madrid 4-0 at Anfield, 5-0 on aggregate. Across the two legs, Liverpool showed why it's so difficult to beat in Europe. Cagey and lying deep in Madrid, the Reds proved impossible to break down prior to
The arrival of Hiddink has kick-started the Blues' season and renewed the potential for success on three fronts with Chelsea also facing Arsenal in an FA Cup semifinal on April 18. Hiddink's men are rejuvenated, playing with more desire and greater efficiency than under
One player who has certainly responded is Drogba. The Ivorian was dropped from Scolari's last two Chelsea squads, and with a seemingly reduced desire to play for Chelsea, appeared to be heading for the door. Since the arrival of Hiddink, Drogba has been in imperious form, scoring four goals in his last six games, and seems back to his bustling best.
So will Hiddink stick to the original arrangement and leave his Chelsea "project" at the end of the season to return full-time to the Russian national team? From an outright refusal when he joined, it seems the Dutchman's head slowly is being turned. He spoke in a different tone this week, admitting that people are trying to convince him to stay. "I will focus on Russia after this project but people say, 'Think about it, stay,'" he told the
Arsenal also has been busy rebuilding its season in the last couple of weeks. Successive victories against West Brom and Blackburn, and two successive defeats for Aston Villa, have seen the Gunners return to fourth place in the EPL and the crucial final Champions League qualification berth. This resurgence in form has coincided with the return from injury of
The Gunners, who were fortunate to benefit from two poor Roma penalties in their 7-6 penalty shootout victory, have progressed to a Champions League quarterfinal matchup with Villarreal. In a congested fixture list, Arsenal also had to play two FA Cup rounds in the space of nine days. Wins against Burnley and Hull City earned its semifinal faceoff with Chelsea. With the EPL now written off and the Carling Cup already in the Old Trafford trophy cabinet, Arsenal will have to beat Chelsea or Manchester United (assuming the Red Devils triumph over Porto) to reach a final this season -- a truly tough task.
The Burnley match saw Eduardo cement his return with a wonder strike that's a contender for goal of the season. Choosing not to go for the side-foot tap-in that Team Limey might just about manage in one in 100 attempts, the Croatian instead
A "Watergate" of a more unhygienic nature than
Perma-tanned Hull boss
Finally, in the UEFA Cup, sole English representative Manchester City needed penalties to edge past Denmark's AaB Aalborg. City's game plan to minimize exertion in protecting its two-goal first leg lead backfired when Aalborg scored in the 84th and 90th minutes. However, two saves from Ireland ace
Continuing the theme,
With the exception of United's victory in '99, English success really has occurred only since '05. This coincides with the rapid increase in the money available to EPL clubs and in the establishment of the "Big Four," whose consistent appearance and progress in the competition has earned them significant prize money that has enabled them to enhance their squads further.
Prior to the '92-93 inception of the Champions League, the tournament in its old guise -- the European Cup -- featured only the champions of each qualifying European country, and therefore could have more credibly used the label "champions" in its title than the current format. If you include tournament victories dating back from the debut '55-56 edition, the English league sits in third place (11 winners and five runners-up), behind Spain (11 winners and nine runners-up) and Italy (11 and 14).
Send your thoughts on Friday's Champions League draw, and how you think it'll pan out for the EPL, clubs to the usual address: