A thrilling weekend of Premier League football took us no closer to finding answers to the three burning questions – who will avoid the drop, which team will reach next season’s Champions League and where the title will end up. Indeed, last two days’ action has only muddied the waters further.
Chelsea’s victory over a Wayne Rooney-less Manchester United and Arsenal’s last gasp winner against Wolverhampton Wanderers left the title race as open as ever. The top three all have a definite chance of clinching glory with three points separating Chelsea in first and Arsenal in third. What effect the Gunners’ Champions League trip to Barcelona and United’s date with Bayern Munich will have on their Premier League ambitions remains to be seen. Win or lose in midweek, both Sir Alex Ferguson’s charges and Arsene Wenger’s injury-hit squad could use the results against the champions of Spain and Germany’s most glamorous team as fresh impetus, pushing them over their respective injury woes. Carlo Ancelotti’s men recovered well from their Champions League disappointment and the defeat by Inter Milan could prove to be the catalyst for a decisive domestic push while their rivals are engaged in continental struggles. The Londoners followed up elimination from the Champions League with a draw away to Blackburn Rovers, leaving the Stamford Bridge outfit severely lacking in momentum. Ironically, a visit to Ewood Park is what faces the Red Devils straight after Wednesday’s clash with Bayern – a similar result to the one Chelsea left Lancashire with could be a death knell for their title challenge.
The Blues have their own cup distraction on the horizon, due as they are to travel across London to Wembley for a meeting with Aston Villa next Saturday. While Chelsea would surely prefer to be in European competition with their title rivals they are not going to pass up any chance of a trophy, much to the chagrin of Martin O’Neill’s Villains, who recovered from a sound thrashing just a week ago against Chelsea to see off Bolton Wanderers. Not only were the Midlanders fighting to shrug off the disappointment of a 7-1 hammering last time out, but they had to contend with the rumours that dogged the future of O’Neill in midweek. The gossip over the manager’s relationship with Chairman Randy Lerner may have been a case of insiders adding two and two and equalling five, but the speculation cannot have been the best preparation for a tough trip to the North West. That Villa returned home with three points is testament to their mental strength – which will be vital when they face the side that dished out one of the season’s most surprising results again in the FA Cup semi final. O’Neill may be staying – for now – and a cup final appearance would be just reward for a good season at Villa Park.
Ashley Young’s goal against the Wanderers also kept Villa’s hopes of making the Champions League alive but they are fading every week. With three places and five points separating the Villains from Tottenham Hotspur in fourth, O’Neill’s team has to be considered the outsiders of the Champions League-chasing pack, while Liverpool’s draw with Villa’s mortal enemies Birmingham City has left the Reds with much to do, having played a game more than both Spurs and Manchester City above them. The battle to finish fourth looks more and more like coming down to a straight shoot-out between Harry Redknapp’s Spurs and Roberto Mancini’s City as the two meet each other in their penultimate fixture on May 5. A few days before that, however, Villa also travel to Eastlands and if they can remain in touch with the Blues until then, a late surge could surpass their rivals and lift them into the top four with barely time for the other three hopefuls to recover. City, so impressive in taking advantage of a Burnley defence that dissolved in pouring Lancashire rain on Saturday evening, have struggled for consistency all season. Mancio’s men host Alex McLeish’s Birmingham next Sunday and, despite the routing of Brian Laws’ Clarets, are ever-liable to drop points when it is least expected.
Burnley’s relegation now feels inevitable – such was the shambolic nature of their defending. Failure to take three points from their next fixture – away to Hull City – would all-but-confirm a return to the Championship for the Turf Moor club. Perhaps the saddest aspect of Burnley’s destruction was the relative spark they possessed further forward. With a more solid backline survival would still be a possibility, but when the defensive unit is so lightweight the team is left on a definite downward trajectory. The other claret and blue-clad strugglers – West Ham – did their cause a world of good with a hard fought, fully-deserved point against Everton yesterday. Twice behind and missing a penalty, the Hammers regrouped to twice peg back a Toffees side unbeaten in their last seven home fixtures. Breathing new life into their safety push – and ending Everton’s faint hopes of Europa League qualification – Gianfranco Zola’s players entered a performance full of all the heart that has been lacking in recent weeks – perhaps too much as Scott Parker, far and away West Ham’s best outfield player, picked up a booking that rules him out of the next two games, against Sunderland at home and Liverpool away respectively. The trip to Anfield is not a fixture Zola will have pinpointed as likely to deliver points but the visit of Sunderland to Upton Park absolutely is – and Parker will be an enormous loss.
Meanwhile, the side West Ham are desperately avoiding – Hull – have their destiny in their own hands as they trail the East Londoners by a point having played a game less. The togetherness shown by the Hammers, despite their supporters urging Howard Webb to send the lethargic Mido off yesterday after the Egyptian fouled Steven Pienaar, may have come too late given Hull’s extra game but at least if they do go down it will be kicking and screaming. Portsmouth avoided the swing of the executioner’s axe for another week but it is merely a stay of execution and with nothing else decided in the Premier League, that might be the only certainty for a while longer.