And then there were two. For much of the season there has been only three real challengers for the Premier League crown – Liverpool fell away long ago, if they were ever really in the race – leaving Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal. That was until this weekend at least, when 10 crazy minutes at the DW Stadium surely ruled the Gunners out of contention once and for all. That leaves just Carlo Ancelotti and Sir Alex Ferguson fighting it out for glory after a weekend of vastly opposing fortunes for both men.
For most of Saturday’s Manchester derby it seemed United were once again gifting the advantage to the league leaders, until Paul Scholes rolled back the years with a header of huge ramifications. That late goal heaped the pressure back on to Chelsea and the Blues uncharacteristically wilted – outplayed and outfought by a Tottenham Hotspur side looking to take advantage of Manchester City’s earlier slip. These two games – so tightly intertwined and at such a crucial stage of the season – thrust the initiative in their respective races in wildly different directions. One Manchester team’s gain was another’s loss, a scenario replicated in the capital as Spurs were heartened almost as much by City’s defeat as their own deserved victory in this clash of north London against their west London counterparts. Despite still having to travel to Eastlands, Spurs have their tails up, playing with the cocksure confidence of a team relishing the challenge facing them in the last few games of the season. Chelsea, meanwhile, look bereft of ideas and energy – not to mention leadership, as John Terry continues to disappoint. The 7-1 thrashing of Aston Villa seems like a long time ago at Stamford Bridge.
There was a feeling around some quarters of White Hart Lane that so much had been given in the midweek victory over Arsenal, that a repeat against their more illustrious rivals was nigh on impossible – but someone evidently forgot to tell the players that, most notably Gareth Bale. The No.3’s revival has been emblematic of his team’s performances of late – showing no fear, Bale is almost a one-man left-flank, a Welsh Dani Alves if you will. Packed full of stamina and the skill to match, Bale provides Spurs with a dynamic attacking outlet from either full-back or midfield, complimenting the guile of Luka Modric and Tom Huddlestone and the tunnel-vision goal scoring focus of Jermain Defoe – with goals added to his game lately too, Bale has become every bit the modern wide player. Paulo Ferreira had no answer to the 20-year-old’s athleticism and two-footedness – even when the Chelsea full-back did the right thing and showed Bale inside onto his, supposedly, weaker right foot, it was not enough and the personal duel the Portuguese defender lost against the Spurs wide man was symptomatic of Chelsea’s problems all over the field. In no area could the Blues claim to have been better than Tottenham on Saturday evening, particularly in central defence, where Michael Dawson was an immovable rock for Spurs but Terry, the Chelsea captain, was unsure and let his teammates down with a needless red card.
Terry will now miss Chelsea’s date with Stoke City, and the Potteries side are always an uncompromising proposition – just how the Blues’ defence copes with the forthcoming aerial bombardment in the absence of their skipper remains to be seen and could decide the title race. With United at home to Chelsea’s weekend conquerors Spurs in their next outing – and despite their recent heroics, Spurs are very much underdogs – further dropped points for Ancelotti’s team would put United in charge with just a few games left. Having passed top spot between them for much of the season, whoever takes control next is unlikely to give it up with such little time remaining. Another week of training for Wayne Rooney will see the Scouser much sharper than he was at Eastlands and even a player in the form Spurs’ Dawson is in will struggle to contain a Rooney determined to add another Premier League title to his trophy cabinet. United just about managed without their No.10 on Saturday – in truth, they were rarely troubled by an unusually subdued City side who failed to match the boisterous nature of their supporters. Only a Carlos Tevez free-kick, comfortably saved by Edwin van der Sar, a Gareth Barry run that did not even produce a shot and a goalmouth scramble threatened to dirty United’s clean sheet.
Just as Scholes’ header enlivened United’s title challenge once more, it severely dented City’s Champions League push – damage compounded after Spurs’ victory. The Londoners are now in possession of the much-desired fourth place but in all honesty, the race is neck and neck – Spurs still having to travel to the City of Manchester Stadium negates whatever advantage they might hold. Eastlands has been something of a fortress for Roberto Mancini’s side – despite United’s last-gasp win – but City face two tough games before they host Spurs in May – the Blues travel to a wounded Arsenal before welcoming Aston Villa to Manchester. Villa, surely out of the Champions League race themselves, would nevertheless relish the opportunity to leave City’s own European dreams in tatters. After blowing it in their latest biggest game of the season, City have four chances to make amends and render the derby defeat meaningless in the overall tale of the season. Previous City sides would take derby defeat as the signal to totally and utterly collapse in a hail of glorious failure – Mancini’s vintage has to be made of sterner stuff to recover from a demoralising derby defeat but the resilience in the face of adversity that helped United to a vital three points, and has deserted Chelsea at the worst possible time, is one of those qualities money simply cannot buy.