The Premier League finale: a preview

Manchester City look set to win their second Premier League title in three years this weekend, after a thumping win against Aston Villa on Wednesday night. The blue side of Manchester will be crowned champions provided they avoid defeat against Sam Allardyce’s West Ham, at the Etihad. Defeat at Chelsea and an incredible 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace has put pay to Liverpool’s challenge. Even if West Ham manage a draw against City, the Merseyside team need to beat Newcastle by 13 goals or more to stop City from regaining the title on goal difference. A feat that even by Luis Suarez’s standards looks unattainable. Meanwhile, it seems José was right all season: his Chelsea side are indeed not ready for success this year. We look ahead to the games that will decide how the top of the Premier League finishes this year. That said, this is the Premier League. It is a concoction of unpredictability and if this weekend turns out anything like that day in May two years we, and Manchester City fans, are in for a treat.

Manchester City v West Ham United

 City’s performance against Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa on Wednesday was very impressive. Having struggled to create chances in the opening 45 minutes, City piled up four goals in the second half, capped off by one of the players of the season, Yaya Touré’s typically gut-busting run from inside his own half, slotting coolly past Brad Guzan, and sparking wild celebrations.

It was not a glamorous victory, despite what the score-line suggests. City did not inspire, and it was not a particularly pretty game. What was impressive, though, was the nerve the team and the manager showed, to calm the evident nerves of the fans inside the stadium, and clinically finish off Aston Villa when chances presented themselves. At half time the TV cameras panned round the Etihad, seeking out City fans biting nails and covering faces. They were plentiful. But while the fans worried, the players clearly believed they could deliver the victory, which they did with gumption. It was the kind of victory we are used to seeing from the other side of Manchester; a performance leaving the losing team wondering how they had been given such a hiding. It was a huge performance in the context of the run-in, and especially impressive given the ever-scoring Sergio Agüero missed out through injury.

West Ham provide the last test for City. Much like Palace, West Ham have been much improved under Big Sam, who has guided the Hammers away from the fascinating battle at the bottom of the table with relative ease in the latter half of the season. West Ham have little to play for now, a reality that is unlikely to aid the manager’s attempts to better his club’s record against the league’s top five teams (the Hammers have earned just one point out of a possible 27 this season). Much like the situation at half time on Wednesday, Pellegrini’s men will know half the battle is mental. The fans expect, and the owners demand success. But the players have shown they can rise to the occasion when the pressure is on. City fans will take another QPR 2012 if they must, but they’ll be praying they don’t have to.

Liverpool v Newcastle United

 The sight of Luis Suarez hyperventilating on the pitch at Crystal Palace on Monday night spoke louder than any words could – he believes the battle is lost. In a bizarre twist, a rampant Liverpool managed to concede three goals in the final 15 minutes, having looked like scoring six or seven themselves at a canter – a result that would have put real pressure on Man City before their midweek game. A draw with Palace can be forgiven – The Eagles have won four of their last six Premier League games (the other two matches coming against City and Liverpool), and made Selhurst Park an exceedingly difficult place to get a result. All this means that this squad have secured the club’s best ever finish in the Premier League, and all but wins Tony Pulis the Manager of the Year award (Rodgers would have been a shoe-in for this had Liverpool won the title). But it is these games that matter so much when the run-in is as close as it is, and it is champions that eek out results when they have their backs against the walls.

Liverpool host Newcastle this weekend, requiring a goal-fest on their side to put any kind of strain on City. Luckily for Rodgers’ side, the Newcastle team they face are perhaps the team that have impressed the least in the post-Christmas period. Having ensured survival thanks to a strong start to their campaign, the Toon have had little more than pride (or at least what they can salvage of it) and their loyal fans to play for. The task for the Magpies was admittedly made more difficult by the sale of one of the Premier League’s best talents, Yohan Cabaye, and the senseless – though embarrassingly unsurprising – actions of Alan Pardew in that infamous incident against Hull.

Few neutrals are fans of Liverpool’s individuals – attacks on opposing players, be they physical or verbal, have done for Suarez, for example – but the team as a whole and the style they have implemented has won their cause many begrudging admirers, at least.

Brendon Rodgers must be commended on his ability to bring out the best of the considerably unpolished talent the club possesses, but if he is serious about continuing to pose problems for the other clubs at the top, he needs to invest serious time and resources to sorting out what can only be described as lacklustre defending. Daniel Agger, a regular and solid centre back for Liverpool in recent seasons, has fallen out of favour under Rodgers, who still seems unsure over what formation is best for his squad. The problem with the decision to leave out the Dane is that Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho have all but shone as a defensive pairing, securing just one clean sheet in 17 games together. Liverpool’s porous defence has conceded an average of two goals per game since the start of April, and whilst the neutral may love the excitement of goals, the Kop are tired of seeing their strikers let down by shoddy marking and individual errors.

Rumours in the press currently suggest Rodgers has offered £20 million for Southampton’s English revelation Adam Lallana. Whilst no-one can doubt the midfielder’s brilliance this season, many will query Rodgers’ decision to invest such considerable funds in a position already covered by some top-class players (Coutinho, Sterling, Lucas, and even Suarez have played the central role that Lallana has thrived in). The late surge and incredible run of goal-filled victories since the turn of the year will most likely secure Liverpool the most exciting second place in the history of the Premier League, and a points tally to match that considerable effort. But given the apparent intent of the other top clubs to strengthen considerably in the summer, there is little doubt this was their chance. Championship-winning squads are built on solid defences, especially if the club seeks long-term success.

Cardiff City v Chelsea

 Chelsea fans will see this season out by asking the same ‘what if’ questions they have all year. Whilst it is fair to say that lacking a ‘world class’ striker has severely hampered the Blues’ title charge, it must also be noted that the three primary strikers – Eto’o, Torres and Ba – are all proven goalscorers. It may be a while since Torres and Eto’o has had ‘it’, but Demba Ba has recently scored for fun in the same league, and for a Newcastle team with much less creative flair than the current Blues’ outfit. One might remind the fans, too, that the dearth of attacking prowess this season is not some freak coincidence. Romelu Lukaku is a Chelsea player – in fact, he was arguably the best performing Chelsea player in preseason games, before being shipped off to Everton where, like at West Bromwich Albion before, he has excelled. Criticism of the Chelsea hierarchy for offloading Daniel Sturridge in light of what has happened this season has been surprisingly scarce, too – make no mistake, he was an exceptional talent long before Rodgers and Suarez. Finally, Mourinho and co. had time and money in summer, and again in January, to fill the gap – in the short-term at least.

Chelsea will go into the final game of the season, therefore, wondering about what might have been if they had performed better, all over the pitch. Mourinho’s first ever league loss at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea manager, to Sunderland, then bottom of the league, was frankly unforeseeable. That, and the goalless draw at home to Norwich last weekend are indicative of a bizarre season of results for Chelsea: having beaten Arsenal 6-0, Spurs 4-0 and City 0-1, the Blues lost to the likes of Crystal Palace, Stoke, Aston Villa and Basel. That inconsistency will be a worry for Mourinho, though it should please his staff, and fill Blues fans with hope, that their manager still apparently has what it takes in the big matches. If they can keep hold of their best players – continual minor but public spats between Hazard and Mourinho fuels speculation regularly – and add one or two capable of consistently scoring goals, Chelsea will be up there this time next year.

City should win the title. But it is not over yet. At various times last weekend, it looked like Barcelona, and then Real Madrid, were out of the La Liga title race. Getafe’s late equaliser at Camp Nou rocked Barca, and Real Madrid required a similarly timely intervention against Valencia to keep their team in mathematical contention. It looked for all money that Atletico had the league sewn up. And then they lost. This Premier League season has been filled with pundits declaring ‘nobody can beat them’, and ‘they’ve won it now’, and yet we come to the final weekend with still two possible winners remaining, and a third likely to finish fewer than five points off the pace (one should not forget, too, that Arsenal are still the team that have spent the longest time in first place in the league this season). The year has been full of surprises, and there may yet be another twist in the tale. Sunday, then, is unlikely to be boring.

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