United failings leave title race on a knife edge
Published 03/05/2011 | 05:00
In Portugal, Porto wrapped up the title with five games left to play. In Germany, Borussia Dortmund won the Bundesliga on Saturday with two games to spare.
In Spain, Barcelona have a lead of eight points that no one expects them to squander with four games left. But in the Premier League, no one can yet be certain where the trophy will reside come 6.0 on May 22.
For a competition that has been derided as predictable and tame over the years, England's elite division has thrown up a season this time that, while it might lack one team of overriding quality, has retained an engrossing capacity to surprise over and again.
Manchester United's defeat to Arsenal on Sunday has opened up the possibility that Chelsea's visit to Old Trafford this coming Sunday could again turn the title race on its head.
In the Netherlands on Sunday, the leaders FC Twente will meet Ajax, second by a point, in what is effectively a play-off for the league title.
With two games left in the Premier League after next Sunday's English equivalent of first against second, the game at Old Trafford will be as decisive only if United win. But if they lose, there is a good chance that, for the first time in Premier League history, the title could be decided by goal difference.
As Patrice Evra said after Sunday's defeat, United still have "destiny in our hands" but, given that they enjoyed a 15-point lead over Chelsea until their defeat to them on March 1, that is no guarantee. "We have a massive game against Chelsea," Evra said. "If we want to win the title we have to beat Chelsea. It's as simple as that. If we don't then we'll be in trouble.
"We just need to play the Manchester United way. I am not worried because we know we didn't do the things we normally do against Arsenal. We have three games left and need to win every one. Every game is a final."
A win on Sunday for Chelsea will take them level on 73 points with United. Given that the two teams are already both level on goal difference, even a one-goal winning margin for Chelsea would give them a two-goal advantage in that category, which could be decisive if both sides won their last two games. United, on the other hand, have dropped just two points at home all season -- a 2-2 draw with West Bromwich Albion in October -- and, whatever Evra says, a draw would suit them fine.
How did we end up like this? In the 16 games Chelsea played beginning with their 2-0 defeat to Liverpool on November 7 and ending with a 0-0 draw with Fulham on February 14 they picked up only 20 points from a possible 48. They went out of the FA Cup to Everton on penalties at home and left for the first leg of their Champions League game against Copenhagen on February 22 with Carlo Ancelotti's job hanging by a thread.
The win in Copenhagen was impressive and seven days later they came back from a goal behind at Stamford Bridge to beat United 2-1. Since then they have not lost a Premier League game, although the home and away defeats to United in the Champions League were another blow to Ancelotti. United play Schalke tomorrow in a Champions League semi-final second leg. Chelsea have all week to rest.
Given this is the season for conspiracy theories, how about this one? That game against United which proved so pivotal to reviving Chelsea's season was originally scheduled for December 19 before London suffered its biggest snowfall in 18 years. The pitch was playable and the game was postponed because of the usual fears that the conditions around the stadium would make it dangerous for supporters.
At the time, United were on a run of three straight wins, the most recent the 1-0 defeat of Arsenal on December 13. By contrast, Chelsea had not won a game in a sequence of five that included defeats to Sunderland and Birmingham City. They would have gone into the game level on points with United, having played twice more.
In mid-December, Frank Lampard was only just returning from injury, David Luiz was not yet a Chelsea player (neither was Fernando Torres, although he turned out to be less important) and Didier Drogba was out of form. In that game rescheduled for March 1, Luiz and Lampard were the goalscorers in a 2-1 win and Drogba came on to make an impact in the last 30 minutes. Rio Ferdinand would have been fit to play in mid-December, but come March he was injured.
If it is the remorseless demands of the domestic and Champions League schedule that do for United in the next five days, then Alex Ferguson may well reflect on those lost 13 days in December when United, then on a roll, were left to wait until the snow melted to play again.
His most immediate problem is how many of his key men he rests for tomorrow's game against Schalke with Sunday's match in mind. When you consider that Wayne Rooney has started 20 of United's last 24 games -- and probably would have played two more were it not for his suspension -- you have to wonder whether he could do with a breather.
Although it will be no consolation to Ferguson, his team's inability to win big games away at Chelsea, Liverpool and now Arsenal in the last two months has kept this title race interesting.
Even Arsenal now have the possibility that if they beat Stoke City on Sunday and Chelsea win, Arsene Wenger's side could be within three points of the leaders with two to play.
With all the gloom around Wenger and his team over the last few weeks that just seems ludicrous. But no more ludicrous than United squandering a 15-point lead over Chelsea or that Ancelotti might still get sacked even if he wins the title this season. It might not make any sense but, unlike in Portugal, Germany and Spain, it is still not over. (© Independent News Service)