Monday, April 19, 2010

Title race takes another twist

         After Arsenal's last 10 minutes 3:2 defeat at the DW Stadium(Wigan's home)the title race was a clear two horse race between Chelsea and Manchester United.
Just when we thought Chelsea’s gradual progression towards the Premier League title was becoming a formality, along comes another twist to this strange season to leave the race wide open again.

As we entered the weekend’s fixture list the Blues were firmly installed as odds-on favourites to lift the EPL trophy for the first time since 2006, but their 2-1 defeat at Tottenham, coming just a few hours after Manchester United had scored an injury time winner against Manchester City for the third time this season, has thrown everything into doubt once again.

With three games remaining, United are now just one point behind the leaders. With Wayne Rooney seemingly back to fitness, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team will fancy their chances to pick up maximum points from their remaining games, and that would force Chelsea to do the same to hold off the Red Devils.

Although two of Chelsea’s remaining fixtures – home encounters with Stoke City and Wigan Athletic – should be relatively straightforward, they do face one significant challenge with a trip to Liverpool on Sunday 2nd May. That fixture will provide one of those exceptionally rare moments in football: Manchester United fans hoping that Liverpool win. Although it will go against their nature to cheer on long-time hate figures such as Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, if Liverpool can take points from Chelsea in a fortnight, the door will be left wide open for United.

So Chelsea, if they are to lift the trophy, are doing it the hard way, and it has certainly not been an easy campaign for the west London club. Under the guidance of new manager Carlo Ancelotti — their fifth man at the helm in a little over three years — the Blues have been forced to confront a number of serious hurdles, which have been nothing if not wide-ranging in their nature.

Amongst the obstacles put in their way, Chelsea have endured seeing the sordid personal life of their captain and inspirational leader John Terry exposed to the world; midfield dynamo Michael Essien has missed more than four months of action through injury; goalscoring hero Didier Drogba departed for a month in the middle of the season to compete in the African Cup of Nations, and marauding full-back Ashley Cole was out of action for two months with a broken ankle at the same time that fellow defenders Ricardo Carvalho and Jose Bosingwa were also sidelined through injury.

The peak of their woes came between the middle of February and the middle of March, at a time when Terry’s personal revelations were still fresh, Cole and Essien were out injured, and Drogba temporarily lost his ability to find the back of the net. During that fraught period, Chelsea were dumped out of the Champions’ League by their former manager Jose Mourinho, thrashed 4-2 at home by Manchester City and surrendered an early lead to drop more points at Blackburn.

In the face of all that adversity, then, the Blues deserve great credit for putting themselves into a position to win the double, as they are still well placed to do. It would have been easy for them to have crumbled, especially during that period in March when their season was seriously on the line, and the fact that they recovered so well says a lot for the resilient mentality of their players and the phlegmatic managerial skills of Ancelotti. They could not have a better leader to keep them calm, focussed and unflustered as they approach these nervous final few weeks.

And what about Tottenham?! Spurs have long been an infuriatingly unpredictable team to follow, and that trait has certainly been in evidence this season. Just seven days ago they were being lambasted for their poor performance in their FA Cup semi-final defeat to Portsmouth, with supporters resigning themselves to another season of frustration. But now they’ve beaten both Arsenal and Chelsea in the space of four days, reclaiming the all-important fourth position from Manchester City in the process.

Tottenham could still have a significant say in the title race: next weekend they travel to Old Trafford to provide what should be Manchester United’s most testing remaining fixture. Which Tottenham side will turn up — the free-flowing, fast-paced exuberant entertainers who dismantled Chelsea and Arsenal, or the misfiring, over-casual show-boaters who lost to Portsmouth? With Spurs you can never be sure, but it certainly keeps the title race — and the challenge for the fourth Champions’ League spot — very interesting.

So, which way will the title race turn next? Well, in the last couple of weeks I’ve confidently predicted that Spurs would cruise past Portsmouth into the FA Cup semi-final (they didn’t), that Hull would hammer Burnley at home (they lost) and that Manchester City would take points off their cross-city rivals to end United’s title bid (they didn’t).

The only prediction I’ve got right (so far) in the last few weeks is that Arsenal’s challenge would fall away, so we can probably expect both Chelsea and United to continue to drop points and allow Arsene Wenger’s men to somehow recover from their shocking capitulation at Wigan to storm their way to a triumphant title.

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