This week in: English Football – Chelsea Knock Out Barcelona
After knocking out Barcelona in the semi-finals, Chelsea will have the opportunity to win their second Champions League title, four years after their captain, John Terry, strode forward confidently, adjusted his armband to ensure the “C” was visible, and converted the penalty that secured a win over Manchester United in Moscow. Wait, hang on – he didn’t score it, he slipped on his backside and sent his shot wide, allowing United to claim their third European Cup and leaving Chelsea still searching for their first. Luckily for the Blues, history cannot repeat itself, since Terry will miss the final following his red-card in the Camp Nou for kneeing Alexis in the back, far away from the ball. The sending off came just after Barcelona had finally broken Chelsea down for the opening goal on the night, drawing the hosts level on aggregate after last week’s 1-0 loss at Stamford Bridge. Two minutes before the interval, Iniesta put Barca two goals up – and ahead overall in the tie – making it seem inevitable they would be able to rack up more goals for the rest of the game. However, in stoppage time at the end of the first 45 minutes of play, Ramires broke free of the defence and scored with a fantastic chip – of which Lionel Messi would have been proud – to make it 2-1 on the night, but gave Chelsea the advantage with an away goal. In the second half, Chelsea reverted to having all 10 men behind the ball, showing no attacking ambition and content to play spoiler to Barcelona – a plan that should have come apart when Cesc Fabregas was tripped in the box by Didier Drogba, but – the usually reliable – Lionel Messi hit the crossbar with his penalty. After that, the game consisted of Barcelona passing the ball around in front of the Chelsea penalty area, probing to find a way through the 10 men, but unable to do so. In the final minute, a long clearance sent Fernando Torres through, with just Victor Valdes to beat in the home team’s goal, and he finished with all the composure he used to display in his Atletico Madrid days. Over the two legs, Barcelona showed all the creativity, had more than 70% of the possession, and were the only team who were interesting to watch, yet Chelsea found a way to knock them out and their fans will not care what tactics they used to do it. They will face Bayern München – at the Allianz Arena in Munich – on May 19th.
That success for Chelsea added further intrigue to the race for qualification for the Champions League next season. Should they win the competition, the Blues will gain entry regardless of their finishing position in the league, meaning that the 4th placed team will have to wait after the league ends to find out if they will be in Europe’s top club competition, or the Europa League. Arsenal currently occupy third place, three points above Newcastle, but having played a game more, with Tottenham a further three points back and Chelsea one behind them. The remaining fixtures are as follows:Arsenal: Stoke (Away); Norwich (Home); West Brom (Away) Newcastle: Wigan (Away); Chelsea (Away); Manchester City (Home); Everton (Away) Tottenham: Blackburn (Home); Bolton (Away); Aston Villa (Away); Fulham (Home) Chelsea: QPR (Home); Newcastle (Home); Liverpool (Away); Blackburn (Home)
Third place would appear to be in the bag for Arsenal – they would expect to win all three of the remaining games, making them uncatchable by the teams below them. Newcastle have the hardest run-in on paper and will be hoping that Chelsea will be distracted by the two cup finals they have coming up and rest players for the league matches, but still face a Manchester City side competing for the title. Tottenham are Tottenham and will be lucky to get anything from their remaining games; and Chelsea, as well as that Newcastle game, have a derby game with QPR – who beat them at Loftus Road and are in a relegation fight – and a FA Cup Final rematch, four days after the main event, against Liverpool.
Prediction for the race for the Champions League: 3. Arsenal 74pts; 4. Newcastle 67pts; 5. Chelsea 66pts; 6. Spurs 64pts
The Title Race
Entering the final 10 minutes of their game at Old Trafford last Sunday, it looked certain that Manchester United would be heading into the derby knowing they could secure the title on their rival’s home ground. However, the 4-2 lead they had over Everton quickly evaporated, as two goals inside three minutes – from Nikica Jelavic and Steven Pienaar – earned David Moyes’ side a draw and gave Manchester City the opportunity to close the gap at the top to three points. Mancini’s men did not waste this chance, dispatching of Wolves 2-0 at Molineux – a result that also confirmed the hosts’ relegation to the Championship for next season.
With City and United set to meet on Monday, it puts both sides in the position of knowing that, should they win all of their remaining games, they will be champions (well, unless City win the derby but their rivals then overhaul the goal differential – currently 6 – between them in the last two fixtures). As Mancini’s men have only failed to win once in the league all season on their own ground – the 3-3 draw with Sunderland last month – they should feel confident in their chances of prevailing. However, United are the team that have the experience of being in this position before and are the reigning champions – plus they won their most recent visit to the Etihad, 3-2, in January’s FA Cup tie.
After the Manchester derby, United have two games they will expect to win – home to Swansea and away to Sunderland, whose form has dipped in recent weeks – while City face a visit to the Champions League chasing Newcastle, before finishing the season against a team fighting to avoid relegation, Queens Park Rangers. If Ferguson’s side avoid defeat on Monday, there is a very high probability they will win their 20th English league championship. Should Manchester City win, the title will not be clinched by either club until the final day of the Premiership season.
Prediction for the Title: 1. Manchester United 88pts; 2. Manchester City 82pts
Wolves defeat at home to Manchester City last week consigned them to Championship football next season, with two more clubs set to join them in the next few weeks. Since January, it appeared that the relegation fight was to be between five clubs, with only two able to survive, but a run of just one win in thirteen matches has added a sixth team – Aston Villa – to the battle. Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat at home to Bolton left Villa only three points above 18th place Wanderers, with the side from Birmingham having played a game more. This is how things stand at the bottom and the remaining fixtures still to be played for each club:15th Aston Villa 36pts: West Brom (Away); Tottenham (Home); Norwich (Away) 16th QPR 34pts: Chelsea (Away); Stoke (Home); Manchester City (Away) 17th Wigan 34pts: Newcastle (Home); Blackburn (Away); Wolves (Home) 18th Bolton 31pts: Sunderland (Away); Tottenham (Home); West Brom (Home); Stoke (Away) 19th Blackburn 31pts: Tottenham (Away); Wigan (Home); Chelsea (Away) 20th Wolves 23pts: Relegated
Realistically, Blackburn and Bolton need at least 7 points from their remaining fixtures to have any chance of survival. Rovers are unlikely to reach that number, even with a game against free-falling Spurs this weekend, while Wanderers will be optimistic of being able to obtain points in all of their last four matches. Any win for Villa should see them safe and West Brom’s home form – they have lost more than half their games at the Hawthornes this season – means that they have a great chance to get those three points in the Black Country derby on Saturday. QPR undoubtedly have the hardest remaining fixtures, though if City lose to United on Monday, their trip to the Etihad on the final day may be against a team that has nothing to play for. Wigan’s good run came to an end last week with their 2-1 loss at Fulham, but with Blackburn and Wolves their opponents in the last two weeks, Roberto Martinez will hope his side can achieve a second successive improbable escape from relegation.
Relegation prediction: 15. Aston Villa 40pts 16.Wigan 40pts 17. QPR 38pts 18. Bolton 37pts 19. Blackburn 35pts; 20. Wolves 24pts
PredictionsLast week 6-4; Season 145-170 Everton vs Fulham – Home win Stoke vs Arsenal – Away Win Sunderland vs Bolton – Draw Swansea vs Wolves – Home win West Brom vs Aston Villa – Draw Wigan vs Newcastle – Draw Norwich vs Liverpool – Home win Chelsea vs QPR – Home win Tottenham vs Blackburn – Draw Manchester City vs Manchester United – Draw
John Lally online at Political Footballs
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