Fergie’s Farewell and the Race for the Champions League: The English Premier League Draws to a Close

It hasn't been a season for the ages but a landmark day approaches for Sir Alex Ferguson

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ANDREW YATES / AFP / Getty Images

Retiring iconic Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson (right) and his players hold the Premier League trophy outside the town hall in Manchester, north west England, on May 13, 2013 during the team's victory parade to celebrate winning the Premier League for the 13th time.

The story goes that no sooner had Manchester United lost their English Premier League title to local rivals Manchester City in dramatic circumstances at the end of the 2011/12 season, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson had a plan. Quite simply, he knew that relinquishing control of a league his charges had won 12 times since the inception of the EPL in 1992, because of an inferior goal differance (both teams had 89 points) could be rectified by signing a striker. And even though Ferguson didn’t often bring in players approaching their thirties, or in their thirties, a bid of £24 million ($36.5 million) for Arsenal’s 29-year-old Robin van Persie (who only had a year left on his contract, meaning he could soon leave for nothing) was more than enough to tempt the London club into selling arguably their most important player. Manchester City’s manager, Roberto Mancini, was also keen on signing the Dutchman but it wasn’t to be. As it turns out, that failure might have cost Mancini his job.

United’s new signing, also known as RVP, justified Ferguson’s faith by scoring 25 goals as United eased to their 13th EPL title, and 20th triumph in the top flight in total. This is probably not Ferguson’s best United side since he started to win the league on a regular basis in 1992/93, but United were still too good for everyone else. Heading into their 38th and final league match of the season this Sunday at West Bromwich Albion, United have only lost five games. City only lost five times as well but have five fewer wins and a home defeat to United last December was pivotal: had they won, the teams would have been level on points but United’s last-minute winner in a thrilling 3-2 win opened up a six-point gap and they wouldn’t be denied. Who scored the winner that day? A certain RVP.

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And it was around this time that Ferguson, who has been in charge at Old Trafford since 1986, reportedly decided that he wanted to retire so he could devote more time to his wife Cathy, who lost her sister last October. He managed to keep it a secret from pretty much everyone and when the news was confirmed earlier this month, the tributes poured in from around the world. His 1500th and final game will be another emotional moment for the Scot, who gave a gracious speech after last weekend’s home game against Swansea City. After a typically late winning goal, Fergie took to the pitch and implored – or rather instructed – the fans to give their full support to the incoming manager, fellow Scot David Moyes, who is leaving Everton after 11 years. And two players who owe Ferguson such a debt of gratitude from playing under him at United, David Beckham and Paul Scholes, are also retiring at the end of the season.

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Across Manchester, second-placed City decided to dispense with the services of Mancini this week, who, according to the club, “had failed to achieve any of the club’s targets, with the exception of qualification for next season’s Champions League.” Malaga’s Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini is expected to leave the Spanish side and replace Mancini on a two-year deal. But if success isn’t forthcoming, it won’t be a shock if Pellegrini gets sacked just like he was by Real Madrid not so long ago (by contrast, United handed Moyes a six-year contract). On the field, City never sparkled as they did during the previous season and it appears that Mancini’s poor communication and relationships with players and executives – witness his complex father-son ways with Mario Balotelli, who also left the club this year – might have also done for him. But the “noisy neighbors,” as Ferguson has called City, won’t go away and, with the funds available to the club thanks to their wealthy Abu Dhabi owners, City should be able to sign a host of top players during the summer to provide a stern challenge to United.

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Down in London, another wealthy team that plays in blue are also set to undergo a managerial change. Chelsea’s interim boss, Rafael Benítez, can consider himself rather unfortunate to be looking for work after guiding the West London outfit to a top four finish in the domestic standings and Europa League final against Benfica. Former boss Jose Mourinho is expected to return to Stamford Bridge. But for a brief few days, Chelsea have become the kings of Europe as their 2-1 triumph on Wednesday over the Portugese side meant that they now hold the Europa League and Champions League crowns. On May 25, German sides Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund will contest this season’s Champions League final at Wembley in England.

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Speaking of finals, and Swansea City, the first ever Welsh side to grace the EPL continued the good progress made by Brendan Rodgers last season (he left for Liverpool) by employing the Dane Michael Laudrup, who led them to a top ten finish in the league. Just as impressive was his delivering of the Swans’ first major piece of silverware, as they thrashed plucky Bradford City 5-0 in the final of the League Cup (Bradford plays in the fourth tier of English football and were 1500 to 1 outsiders to win the trophy at the start of the season). Laudrup must presumably be pleased with his scouting set-up as the Spaniard Michu, who only cost £2 million ($3 million), was surely the signing of the season, scoring 18 goals from his advanced midfield position. The key for Swansea, who will be joined by neighbors Cardiff City next season, will be to keep hold of their manager and star player.

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The other domestic winners of a major trophy were Wigan Athletic, who stunned Manchester City to win the prestigious FA Cup, which was also the first significant trophy in Wigan’s history. Not since the “Crazy Gang” of Wimbledon turned over Liverpool in 1988 has there been such a shock in the FA Cup final. Wigan thoroughly deserved their success, which was soured just 72 hours later by being relegated from the EPL after losing 4-1 at Arsenal. Wigan will take their place in the Championship, the division directly below the top flight, with Reading and Queens Park Rangers, who both went down after playing out a drab 0-0 tie a few weeks ago. All three sides will find it tough going, especially QPR who will probably have to sell some of their priciest assets.

And so the final game is nearly here for the 20 EPL clubs, with pride and bragging rights almost the only order of the day. But those North London rivals, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, do have something significant at stake (there is also an unlikely scenario which sucks in Chelsea). A solitary point separates the sides – Arsenal has 70 to Tottenham’s 69 – and if Arsenal fails to win at Newcastle United, Tottenham can sneak in and nab fourth place in the standings, which results in Champions League qualification, if they beat Sunderland at home. Arsenal have won 11 of their last 15 EPL games but have tied their previous two games at Newcastle, including a crazy game in 2011 when they threw away a 4-0 lead to tie 4-4. But they’ll be going all out for victory, which would have the added bonus of denying Tottenham. When it comes to ruining the neighbors’ season, Manchester United have already been there and done that. It must be some small crumb of comfort to City – and the other 18 teams – that when battle resumes in August, Sir Alex Ferguson won’t be in charge.

MORE: Alex Ferguson’s Illustrious Career in Photos