After all these years of watching English football, I just can’t believe that there are people out there who could possibly imagine a team going into a match with an intention to lose.
Okay, Wolves manager Mick McCarthy did imply it, when they travelled to Old Trafford earlier this season, with 10 changes to a side that had just beaten Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane, but the ‘replacements’ did not just sit back, they held their own against the mighty Manchester United (MU).
There is no chance that Liverpool will pull the same trick of resting players in their 8.30pm kickoff against Chelsea at Anfield tonight. Rafa Benitez doesn’t have any reason to. Had they qualified for the Europa League final, he still might have some justification.
With Manchester City and Spurs both winning last night, any glimmer of hope Liverpool had of getting fourth spot for Champions League football has virtually ended. Liverpool can only achieve a maximum of 68 points from their last two matches, while Spurs are on 67 and City on 66 with two matches to go.
Man City and Spurs play this Wednesday in what will be a cup final for both. Should Spurs win they get fourth place. However, if Man City win, Spurs still have some hope should the Blues lose at West Ham United in the last round of matches next Sunday. Spurs travel to already-relegated Burnley in their last tie.
Either way, it means that Liverpool can now just take a break because the top seven teams in the English Premier League this season are guaranteed of Europa League qualification. It is a repeat of the situation last season.
This is because if the winner of the Carling Cup and FA Cup in England have already qualified for Europe (be it Champions League or Europa League), then an extra place will be allocated to the next top finisher in the league. MU won the Carling Cup last season while Chelsea won the FA Cup, thus the sixth and seventh teams in the league qualified for Europa League action.
MU have won the Carling Cup again and Chelsea are most likely repeat winners of the FA Cup, barring a miracle by Portsmouth, so there will be two extra places in the league again.
Actually, even if Portsmouth do win the FA Cup, the English FA have confirmed that they will not qualify for Europe because Portsmouth did not apply for a UEFA license earlier in the season, being cash-strapped as they are. The UEFA license is required for any team which thinks they have some chance of playing in Europe. Portsmouth obviously didn’t.
So, with Everton only getting a draw against Stoke City last night, the top seven positions in the EPL are now done and dusted.
The loser of this Wednesday’s clash between Man City and Spurs will join Liverpool and Aston Villa in the Europa League in the 2010/11 season.
This brings me back to tonight’s matches. It is likely to be the first time in history that a majority of Liverpool supporters in the stadium and around the world will be cheering the opposition, even with the opposition being Chelsea.
The ultimate prize for any MU fan is the ability to shout down Liverpool supporters with the records showing that the Red Devils have won more league titles than the Reds. So, after years of being second best to Liverpool in the category of total league titles, the tables will be turned even with Liverpool just getting a draw tonight.
As it is, equalling the 18 league title achievement of Liverpool at the end of the last season already meant a great deal to the MU fans, what more being numero uno.
But to be fair, even if MU did fail this time, one could certainly argue it was simply delaying the inevitable. As things stand, which team is more likely to win another title in the next few years? Liverpool fans might not like it, but most bets will be on MU to break the record sooner or later.
So, forgetting the issues between MU and Liverpool (and their respective supporters) for a moment, let us look at the match in itself.
Liverpool may have had a morale-boosting 4-0 win away to Burnley last Sunday, but they are surely a broken team at the moment, having come through 125 minutes of play in the Europa League semi-final encounter last Thursday night.
The Reds lost to Atletico Madrid on aggregate and were running ragged to the last minute hoping to get that one extra goal to be finalists. Tired legs already showed during the match and now, with a little bit more than 48 hours to recover, are they ready to face the might of Chelsea, 7-0 conquerors of Stoke last weekend?
One would be wise to remember that a rampant Chelsea is not good news for their next opponents.
On 27th March, Chelsea defeated Aston Villa 7-1 and travelled to Old Trafford the next weekend getting a 2-1 win over MU. Ironically, MU also won 4-0 away to Bolton the weekend before and lost to Bayern Munich in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final encounter a few days before hosting Chelsea.
So, it is likely that Chelsea will be inspired by the many Malaysian drivers on the road and not take ‘Red’ to mean ‘STOP’ in their quest for the title.
Whatever the result at Anfield tonight, the Red Devils will still be going all out for a win at Sunderland (kickoff 11pm, tonight). Sunderland haven’t lost at home since December when they lost to Aston Villa by 2 goals to nil. This was also only their second home defeat after losing to Chelsea 3-1 last August in the second week of the season.
Nothing short of three points will do if MU are to stay in the hunt for the title, so Alex Ferguson’s men will need to be on guard against an in-form Sunderland side. Sunderland manager Steve Bruce has not beaten his former mentor in 13 attempts and this will be their third meeting in the last three years in the closing stages of the season.
The Black Cats have won three out of four games in April, including a comfortable 3-1 win over high-flying Tottenham. Besides, that MU will be seeking a better performance in this reverse fixture against Sunderland, having escaped defeat at Old Trafford in the dying seconds of injury time in their match last October, courtesy of an Anton Ferdinand own goal.
What an important point it has turned out to be with that unintentional ‘gift’ from Rio’s brother. This is because without that point, even a draw between Chelsea and Liverpool would have helped the Blues to the title, given their superior goal difference.
Anyhow, MU are hot favourites to get the win they desire tonight. Their record at the Stadium of Light is strong – five wins and two draws from seven visits. After picking up six points against neighbours Manchester City and Spurs in the last couple of weeks, MU will be in a determined mood, more so if leaders Chelsea had already dropped points at Anfield earlier in the day.
For the record, Chelsea are at home to Wigan Athletic in the last round of matches next Sunday, while MU host Stoke City. Both matches almost certain wins for the top two, unless Wigan can pull off another upset like they did against the Blues earlier in the season.