El-Hadji Diouf has never been the most popular player in the Premier League, but after his header took two points away from Chelsea yesterday, the red halves of North London and Manchester could be forgiven for singing the praises of the controversial Senegalese forward. The draw Blackburn Rovers fought for and deservingly got not only wrapped up their Premier League safety but once again blasted the title race wide open.
Of the three contenders – Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United – the Blues were the only side not to win on a weekend that could prove pivotal up and down the table come May. While solidifying their title credentials, the Gunners shunted West Ham into the thick of a relegation battle that, with Portsmouth down in all but name, sees four teams fighting to avoid the final two places in the drop zone. The Hammers join Wolverhampton Wanderers in struggling to avoid being overtaken by Hull City and Burnley, who currently occupy the last spots on the edge of the Championship trap door. Hull and Burnley both suffered damaging defeats this weekend – to Portsmouth and Wigan Athletic respectively – while Wolves took a credible draw from Aston Villa and West Ham failed to make the most of Thomas Vermaelen’s red card at the Emirates. With these results in mind, it is hard to see either Iain Dowie or Brian Laws escaping trouble given they are without a win in their last five and six games respectively, while West Ham are fortunate that there are three worse off sides than them. Wolves, however, have momentum and that could be the vital ingredient in attaining safety.
Momentum is also something possessed by both Arsenal and Manchester United – but after the nightmare week experienced by Chelsea, that impetus has deserted Stamford Bridge. Carlo Ancelotti’s side looked to have banished the disappointment generated by their Champions League exit for large parts of the game at Ewood Park but when push came to shove, they could not see off a Rovers side stricken by injury. Chelsea, often so ruthlessly professional, were instead nervy in defence and let themselves be bullied by Sam Allardyce’s Rovers. Nevertheless, it is important to remember the Blues are still in with an excellent chance of their first league title since 2005/06 and a second consecutive FA Cup. The squad may need overhauling in the summer – an injection of pace, particularly in midfield is vital – but the Londoners are more than capable of taking advantage of any slip from the two teams above them – the domineering centre-forward play of Didier Drogba and the industrious midfield work of Frank Lampard mean Chelsea should be written off at your peril.
Lost in the hubbub of the injuries suffered by Petr Cech and Ashley Cole, Michael Essien’s knee injury has perhaps been the most damaging blow suffered by Chelsea this season. The Ghanaian returned from Africa Cup of Nations duty in January with the problem and was first expected to be out for six weeks – Coach Ancelotti said as much at the time. It has now been two months since Essien’s injury was first reported and there is no sign of a return. Staff at Chelsea – including assistant boss, Ray Wilkins – say they are hopeful Essien will be back before May but with each passing week the dynamic midfielder misses, the more worrying the situation becomes for Chelsea fans. Essien must rank with Wayne Rooney as one of the most complete players in the top flight – able to do it all and do it well – with the physical and mental attributes to match. How different would Chelsea’s Champions League clash with Inter have been with the forceful Essien leading the Blues’ midfield instead of the laboured Michael Ballack? We will never know, but remove Alex Song or Darren Fletcher from Arsenal and United respectively and there may be a clue.
Fletcher was central to United’s victory over Liverpool on Sunday, a win that not only puts the Red Devils in the driving seat for the title but hands their near-neighbours Manchester City the driving seat in the race for fourth place, after the Blues took three points from Craven Cottage. Tottenham Hotspur may be in possession of that much-desired slot but Roberto Mancini’s men have a game in hand, at home to Everton. While David Moyes’ Toffees are in excellent form, it is a record built at Goodison Park. Away from their Merseyside base, Everton’s recent results are decidedly patchy – three draws, two defeats and a single victory and with City the only team in the top division yet to lose at home, they would have to be considered favourites when the sides meet on Wednesday. Even a draw would benefit Mancio’s men with Spurs still to travel to Eastlands – on the penultimate round of the season – and as that game comes on the back of City hosting Aston Villa just days earlier, what happens at the City of Manchester Stadium will dictate who makes the Champions League next year.
Liverpool are not out of the battle for Champions League football either but the disheartening defeat at Old Trafford has dealt a serious blow to their ambitions. Having played two more games than both City and Villa and one more than Spurs, the Reds are relying heavily on other teams to drop points to save their season and perhaps, Rafa Benitez’s job. The Spaniard famously guaranteed fourth place this year but with every disappointing result or performance at home or abroad, his words become more and more a rod for his own back. The Merseysiders do have what should be a comfortable run-in, with only the visit of Chelsea in May liable to cause concern, but the same was said about the trip to Wigan a few weeks ago. More scintillating headers from Fernando Torres such as the one which opened the scoring yesterday will at least keep Liverpool’s hopes alive but the frustration the Spaniard was clearly playing with may not be a positive attribute. Liverpool cannot afford to be without Torres – booked for an uncharacteristically brutal challenge on Ji-Sung Park yesterday – for any period of time as the season draws to a close.
There is much to play for at both ends of the Premier League in the final six weeks of the season, and now is the time a win streak makes all the difference. It is said winning is a habit and if that is the case, Arsenal are the ones with the strongest urge for success. Arsene Wenger’s side are unbeaten in their last six games but Sir Alex Ferguson is breathing down his French counterpart’s neck in the form table, while looking down from on high in the league standings. Conversely, both Burnley and Hull are running out of time to save their Premier League skins. Hull have lost their last five and Burnley their last six, and as much as winning is a habit, losing is one even more so – unfortunately for Messrs Dowie and Laws.