Hollywood take note. Whichever scriptwriters the English Premier League have been employing this season should be headhunted, or rather transferred, as soon as this crazy campaign reaches its conclusion this Sunday. At the top, there have been lead changes so unlikely between those Manchester giants, United and City, that even a movie wordsmith wouldn’t have given you the time of day if you’d suggested that City could win the league after losing 1-0 to Arsenal recently (Utd. were eight points ahead with a matter of games to play). Now, City controls its championship destiny.
Nestling below them is the fight for third and fourth place, which gives the former a guaranteed spot in the Champions League and leaves the latter biting their nails on May 19 when a Chelsea victory over Bayern Munich in this year’s Champions League final would consign the team in fourth to being demoted to the significantly less alluring Europa League. And then, of course, there is the dreaded battle to avoid the drop, with two sides fighting it out in their quest to not be playing lower division football alongside the already relegated Wolves and Blackburn Rovers.
As fans across the world prepare to keep tabs on the twists and turns of the final 90 minutes of the 2011/12 season (perhaps slightly more if Sir Alex Ferguson gets his way), Keeping Score offers a preview of the six games that truly matter this Sunday, in a most-to-least important order. As those Hollywood scribes would put it, we’re in for a blockbuster of a day.
Manchester City vs. Queens Park Rangers
Taken on its own merits, this match was tasty enough: City knows that a win gives the team its first title since 1968 whereas the opposition requires a point to be sure of their own safety and not make an instant return to the Championship after 15 long years away from the promised land of the Premier League. But now add in these factors: QPR’s manager Mark Hughes was unceremoniously sacked by City a few years ago and has brought in some former City players he worked with (as well as backroom staff), in addition to the players with City connections who already happened to be at Loftus Road. “Maybe it’s a little bit fated that I’m going back to City on the final day,” Hughes told the Guardian. “If we were to get something, it would be a fantastic story. They’re going for the title, we’re trying to stay in the league … But maybe now the stars have aligned and things have fallen on our side of the line.”
And then of course there is the Manchester United factor. Hughes is an Old Trafford legend (the manager he once played under, Sir Alex Ferguson, who is still in charge, has said he wishes “Sparky” were playing this Sunday). QPR defender Anton Ferdinand’s brother Rio plays for Utd. And those with long memories will recall that in 1998, these two teams played at a similar stage of the season with a fair amount at stake (albeit both sides were at the wrong end of the standings in a lower league) and QPR salvaged a precious 2-2 tie thanks to a ludicrous own-goal by City’s Jamie Pollock. As a result, QPR fans voted him the “most influential man of the past 2,000 years” in an online poll, with Jesus in second. If Rangers find another hero this weekend (and never rule out City’s habit for self-destruction) and achieve the most unlikely of results, QPR fans might actually crash the internet for good. Prediction: 2-1
Sunderland vs. Manchester United
Although Utd. has a road game, they’re playing a Sunderland side whose season (no matter what live-wire manager Martin O’Neill would try and tell you) ended a while ago, with safety secured for yet another season. Nothing can be considered a given in football, but you’d expect Utd. to at least fulfill its part of the bargain and win the game, meaning that City will need to match them to take the title on goal difference (there is a theoretical scenario whereby both clubs have the same goal difference but it’s not even worth entertaining). If QPR does Utd. (and themselves) a massive favor by avoiding defeat then history will show that this might have been Ferguson’s greatest triumph, considering that his team never really clicked this season (and were thumped 1-6 at home by City to say nothing of losing at Old Trafford to Blackburn). But if reality bites, as it should, questions will be asked of Ferguson’s reliance on his more senior players and what the power shift in Manchester could mean for his future. He’ll never be sacked but Fergie may want to contemplate his future and enjoy a well-earned retirement sooner rather than later if he doesn’t make some changes during the summer. Prediction: 0-2
Stoke City vs. Bolton Wanderers
Manchester’s near neighbors, Bolton, are the current favorites to be the third and final side relegated (Aston Villa is mathematically still involved but will survive on goal difference even if they lose their last game). With 20 minutes to go last Sunday, life was looking rosy for the Trotters: they were 2-0 up against West Brom and QPR couldn’t break down a resilient Stoke side. Come the full-time whistle and Bolton’s world had been rocked – not only did QPR score a last-minute winner but Wanderers contrived to throw away their seemingly unassailable lead, meaning that only a win at Stoke combined with a QPR defeat can now secure their safety. The omens aren’t too good as Stoke rarely loses at home and Bolton don’t look capable of winning many games at the moment. It’s been an horrendous few months for the Trotters though the footballing world breathed a collective sigh of relief witnessing the miraculous recovery made by Fabrice Muamba, who suffered a cardiac arrest on the field of play in March. Muamba may even be able to pull on a Bolton shirt at some point, but will they be playing Championship football when that day hopefully happens? Prediction: 2-1
West Brom vs. Arsenal
The Gunners are in third place, which is good enough for automatic qualification to the lucrative Champions League, which Arsenal fans believe is their divine right to participate in (though it should be pointed out that they’ve never won it, and are trophy-less in all competitions since 2005). An appalling start to the season (an 8-2 loss at Man. Utd being the low point) has been righted in recent months, with the Londoners reeling off seven wins in a row at one point. But fans were yet again in despair after a roller coaster of a 3-3 tie last weekend at home to Norwich City. Their great rivals Spurs, however, failed to take advantage and win their own game, meaning that the Gunners’ fate is in their own hands. You feel that Champions League football is the bare minimum for star player Robin van Persie to sign a new contract (manager Arsène Wenger may want out too even if some fans probably won’t cry over his departure). But speaking of managers, West Brom’s boss Roy Hodgson takes charge of his charges for the final time before becoming England’s main man. What are the odds he signs off by inspiring his team to a famous victory? Prediction: 1-2
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Fulham
If Arsenal don’t pick up three points then Tottenham can nip in and steal third on the final day, though beating a resolute local rival in Fulham (managed by former Spurs boss Martin Jol) won’t be an easy task, especially with American star Clint Dempsey having the season of his life. Current manager Harry Redknapp was considered the nailed-on choice for the England job, which ended up going to Hodgson so he’ll want to end the season on a high and continue the solid progress being made at White Hart Lane. Redknapp has demanded that Spurs be “bold” during the summer and finance top-name signings (they’ll also need to keep Gareth Bale sweet to ensure he doesn’t leave for foreign climes) so that next season can see them challenging for honors in the league as well as domestic cups. And if they can sneak a Champions League place, seeing as they got such a taste for it last season, their attacking brand of football should see them cause a nuisance once again. But don’t expect Fulham to simply roll over. Prediction: 3-1
Everton vs. Newcastle
Has there been a more surprising story than Newcastle United defying the odds and producing an often scintillating style of football all season long, under manager Alan Pardew who wasn’t just taken seriously by football fans in general, but also the passionate supporters at the Sports Direct Arena (we know, we know, it’ll always be St. James’ Park). Newcastle’s forward players such as Demba Ba, Hatem Ben Arfa and the sensational recent signing of Papiss Cisse, who has scored 13 Premier League goals in a short space of time (at least one of them good enough to be a goal of the season contender) has put the Geordies within striking distance of fourth place. Normally, that would be enough to enter the qualifying stages of the Champions League but if Chelsea beats Bayern Munich in this year’s final, then the Blues would retain their spot in next season’s competition and whoever finishes fourth will have to reflect on harshly missing out. Be in no doubt: come the May 19 final, that team will be supporting the German side as if they were Munich citizens. Prediction: 2-2