Andrew Tuft’s Monday Column – Premier League title race goes down to the wire

Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Liverpool at Anfield and Manchester United’s 1-0 success against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light guaranteed the Premier League title race will go to the final weekend. In a season that has lurched one way and the other since August, it is only fitting we enter the final days of the campaign with the outcome of the top prize still undecided.

Any suggestion the top two’s respective opponents would simply roll over for either the betterment of the manager’s mentor or to harm their rival’s title hopes was always facetious – no Steve Bruce-led team is going to give anything less than their all in their final home game, and likewise a Liverpool side struggling in vain to make amends for a truly woeful season. The sheer thought that Rafa Benitez’s players would have to ‘let’ Chelsea win – as if the Blues needed any help, although they did inadvertently get it from Steven Gerrard – was ridiculous in itself. Liverpool have now lost 11 of their 37 games in 2009/10’s Premier League and despite their good recent record against Chelsea at Anfield, an away victory was always the most likely result, especially given the Reds’ exhausting and disheartening activities on Thursday night. It would have taken a Herculean effort for a Liverpool side without Fernando Torres to beat Chelsea even if they had not played an ultimately-fruitless two hours of football just days earlier. Without the Spanish striker – and with Gerrard’s backpass evoking memories of Euro 2004’s England vs. France fixture – Liverpool always looked like fighting a losing battle. There did not need to be any wrong-doing to allow Chelsea to prosper.

United had a tougher time of it in the North-East, where Bruce’s spirited Black Cats had some decent possession without causing real threat to Sir Alex Ferguson’s dreams of overtaking Chelsea and clinching a fourth consecutive league crown. In a somewhat fractious game, United produced enough moments of quality to keep clinging on to Chelsea’s coattails and stop the Londoners’ confirmation as champions with a week to spare. Nani’s goal sets up a tense final day where, despite Chelsea’s impressive home record, anything is liable to happen. With only one defeat and one draw from their 18 home games this season, the visit of Wigan Athletic should not trouble Carlo Ancelotti too greatly but the Latics are amongst the most unpredictable teams in the division. Capable of stirring football one minute and wanton incompetence the next, encapsulated in the 3-2 victory over Arsenal a few weeks ago, Wigan will be as reluctant to submit to Chelsea next Sunday as Liverpool were this. Chelsea should have more than enough to defeat Roberto Martinez’s men and seal their first title since 2005/06, but by the same token the Gunners should have held on to that two goal lead with 10 minutes remaining, yet a catalogue of errors and Wigan excellence dramatically reversed proceedings. Stranger things than a Wigan win at Stamford Bridge have happened and any Chelsea fan who celebrated yesterday’s three points on Merseyside as if they had guaranteed the title should think back to September at the DW Stadium, when a 3-1 Wigan victory knocked Chelsea off of top spot.

There was no such trouble when United travelled to the home of their final opponents, Stoke City, last year, on the same weekend Chelsea went to Wigan. Then, goals from Dimitar Berbatov and John O’Shea put the Red Devils top of the embryonic league table on goal difference after seven games, but up against a Potters team whose ears are likely still ringing from the aftermath of their 7-0 mauling at the hands of Chelsea, United cannot be certain of victory either. A fired-up Stoke are the absolute worst side to face when you are not at your peak, as in Wayne Rooney’s case judging by his performance against Sunderland. The England striker was still a cut above the Mackems and most of his teammates but, understandably, lacked the instinctive and decisive all-action style that has carried him to such heights this season. Rooney was also perhaps fortunate to stay on the field after swiping at Sunderland captain Lorik Cana from a prone position, a worrying reminder of his stamp on Ricardo Carvalho in the 2006 World Cup. Rooney, who deserves credit for curbing his temper without hampering his game, cannot allow frustration to get the better of him during games in June where the tackles are flying, as they sometimes were here, otherwise his next World Cup will end as his last one did.

Before Rooney has to fully commit himself to goings-on in South Africa, he and the rest of the Old Trafford troops have to wage war on Stoke while keeping their fingers crossed for a Chelsea slip-up roughly 200 miles away. Exactly which Stoke will turn up in Manchester remains to be seen – will it be the version that meekly surrendered on their visit to the capital last week or the one we have seen more often, the one that has fought its way to a third year in the Premier League? It is difficult to envisage a hard taskmaster like Tony Pulis allowing a second capitulation in three weeks, and the Potters were vastly improved against Everton on Saturday, but faced with a United side in desperate need of the three points and looking to sign off at home with at least a win in lieu of a 19th league title, Stoke may have little say in the matter. At their best, United are irresistible but so much of that relies of Rooney and his level of fitness – a second tough game in a week could be a stretch for the 24-year-old, although an extra week of training will do him the world of good. Still, it would be extremely depressing for the red half of Manchester if Wigan did them a favour and took points off Chelsea, only for United to stumble in similar fashion themselves. Just as the Blues’ final fixture is not a foregone conclusion, neither is United’s and even with wily managers in Ancelotti and Sir Alex Ferguson, the chances of a late, fatal error can never be eradicated.

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