The penultimate round of fixtures in this year’s Barclays Premier League were played last weekend and the results left some issues still to be decided. As we approach the climax of what has been a rollercoaster of a season, the most unpredictable and exciting in recent memory, there still remains uncertainty at the top, the bottom and the race for fourth place, all of which will have to be resolved on the final day.
One of the clubs that is now aware of its immediate future is Blackburn Rovers. Following their 0-1 home defeat by Wigan on Monday night, Antolin Alcaraz with the late winner (87), the Lancashire club will be plying its trade in the Championship next season. Rovers have had a turbulent season, especially manager Steve Kean, as they and he have borne the brunt of fans frustration and anger at the Venkys group which took over ownership of the club last season.
Having faced repeated protests, fan marches and constant calls for his head, Kean looked to have weathered the storm and achieved the impossible when, after Christmas, Rovers climbed clear of the bottom three following an excellent run of performances and results. Perhaps a little complacency began to set in, who can be sure? But since then Blackburn’s form has dipped dramatically and their results have followed suit.
The latest loss against Wigan means that Rovers have picked up just 3 points from the last 24 available to them, seven defeats from eight games, home and away, absolute relegation form. When you consider that in the same time frame, Wigan, who for so long this season looked as if they weren’t going to have enough to survive, have picked up 18 from the same 24, it is pretty clear why Rovers have gone down and Wigan have secured survival.
Well done to Roberto Martinez, the Premier League’s youngest manager, and his Wigan team. In truth, they have played entertaining, attractive, attacking football all season but had been let down by individual, defensive errors and poor finishing, however, in the last two months those mistakes have been avoided and the goals have started to come. Victories against Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle have very much earned the Latics the right to stay up and, for me, the Premier League is most certainly better off with Wigan in it.
As for Steve Kean and Blackburn, despite the manager’s dignity in the face of such fierce criticism and his consistently sunny, optimistic attitude, the statistics speak for themselves. 22 defeats from 37 league games and just 8 victories is simply not good enough. Since Steve Kean took the job, he has managed to guide Rovers to victory in just 17 games out of 65, a win percentage of only 26.15%. Not a statistic that is likely to keep a club or a manager in, arguably, the best league in the world.
The race for the two remaining Champions’ League places is down to three clubs following Liverpool’s demolition job on Chelsea at Anfield on Tuesday night. Roberto di Matteo made eight changes from the team that took the field for the F.A. Cup final but still had £139 million worth of talent on display in the North West. Chelsea, desperate to reach next season’s Champions’ League for the financial implications more than anything else, will now have to rely on beating Bayern Munich in Munich next Saturday to achieve just that. A very risky ploy indeed!
Liverpool, keen for revenge after a half-hearted display in the first 55 minutes at Wembley and needing to sign off at Anfield in style after what has been a lacklustre season at their usually impenetrable home ground, accomplished both of those aims with aplomb.
Luis Suarez’s fantastic jinking dribble set up the first goal in the 19th minute. Picking up the ball on the far right touchline, Suarez got away from one defender before making his way towards the area. Nutmegging John Terry for the second time in the game, Suarez got to the byline, cut the ball back low with pace and, the retreating, Michael Essien could not avoid bundling the ball into his own net.
If Suarez was playing well, Carroll was rampant. Later described as unplayable by his manager and by Wayne Rooney, via Twitter, the England hopeful embarrassed Terry by megging him for a third time on the night, something which drew a foul and a yellow card from the former England Captain. Henderson compounded the controversial centre-back’s misery when, capitalising on a slip from Terry, he raced on the Maxi’s through-ball and executed a classy side-foot curler from 25 yards, which beat Turnbull all ends up (25).
Carroll then got the better of the hapless, or hopeless, Terry again; racing clear from halfway, he tried a left-foot curler from 16 yards which Turnbull palmed away. Just moments later Carroll turned provider, getting up at the backpost to unselfishly head a corner back across goal, allowing Daniel Agger to notch the Reds’ third (28).
Earlier in the half, Essien had been more than fortunate to stay on the pitch following a horrendous, two-footed tackle from behind on the 6ft 4in striker, not the first time in his career that the Chelsea midfielder has produced a horror tackle against Liverpool, ask Didi Hamman. Just before the break, it was Ivanovic who should’ve gone; inexplicably receiving just a yellow card for a clearly pre-meditated elbow into the throat of Andy Carroll.
Such cynical fouls go a long way to proving how thoroughly unable the Blues were to deal with the big Geordie’s presence and this second assault earned Liverpool a penalty. Unfortunately for the Reds, their failures from the spot this season continued; Stewart Downing hitting the inside of the post. Having hit the bar with an earlier volley, the England man’s frustration was obvious.
Chelsea, who’d hit the post through Ivanovic and the bar through Torres in the opening forty five, got a goal back out of nothing just minutes into the second-half when Ramires touched in Malouda’s free-kick, Pepe Reina again found wanting. There was no sign of a fightback though and Jonjo Shelvey’s first Premier League goal for Liverpool restored the three goal advantage. Stand-in goalkeeper Turnbull made a dreadful hash of his clearance, Shelvey controlled the ball 35 yards out and hit an unerringly accurate half-volley into the far corner with the keeper struggling to regain his position.
4-1 the final score; although there were chances for both sides to add to the scoreline. Reina produced a brilliant reaction stop from, substitute, Lukaku to restore some of his confidence, whilst Carrroll and Suarez both had chances to get their names on the score-sheet. Liverpool; very happy to regain some much needed pride in front of their home fans and will be hopeful that Carroll has now finally found his feet in a red shirt. Chelsea; no doubt di Matteo has done a good job of steadying the ship but failure to beat Munich in the Champions’ League final could prove costly, both for the Italian and for the club.
At the top of the table, both Manchester Clubs remain separated by goal-difference only, after each recorded two goal victories. Manchester City avoided a potential banana skin at St. James’s Park, where they overcame high-flying Newcastle, courtesy of two second half strikes from Yaya Toure. Manager Roberto Mancini can take the plaudits for the victory as his introduction of Nigel de Jong, just minutes earlier, allowed the Ivorian the license to get forward and join up in attack.
Toure’s first goal (70), was a perfectly placed curler from twenty yards which bent into the far left corner of Tim Krul’s goal, leaving the impressive Dutch stopper no chance. His second came in the 89th minute and was a close range finish following a sweeping counter attack. Newcastle acquitted themselves well but were eventually undone in the face of almost relentless second-half pressure from the visitors. They now need to beat Everton at Goodison on the last day to stand any chance of making next season’s Champions’ League. City just need to beat Q.P.R. at the Etihad to secure their first title of the Premier League era.
Manchester United saw off Brendan Rodgers’s Swansea at Old Trafford by a similar scoreline to their neighbours’. Paul Scholes flicked Michael Carrick’s shot past Michel Vorm on 28 minutes to give the home side the lead, before Ashley Young found the bottom-left corner of Vorm’s goal with a stylish effort four minutes before the break.
Young’s recovery of the ball from the net in the aftermath of his strike showed United’s desire to score more goals in an effort to reduce the goal difference between them and City, however, despite numerous second half chances they were unable to add to their tally. Frustration reigned as Rooney, Hernandez and Young all wasted good chances whilst, at the other end De Gea was forced into good saves, twice from Sigurdsson and again by Graham. United must beat Sunderland on the last day and hope that Rangers can manage a miracle at Eastlands, otherwise the title which seemed to be their’s a month ago will make the short journey across Manchester on Sunday afternoon.
Bolton Wanderers threw away a two goal lead against West Bromwich Albion in their fight to avoid the drop. Wanderers took the lead through Martin Petrov (24), who scored from the spot after Mulumbu had fouled Mark Davies in the area. A Billy Jones o.g 18 minutes from time seemed to have secured all three points for the long-time relegation battlers, but unfortunately for them and their fans, it wasn’t to be.
Wanderers’ home form has been abject all season, with just 4 wins at the Reebok going into the game and that number would not change as Bolton proceeded to collapse. Fifteen minutes from time Chris Brunt lashed in a response from Albion and, in the 90th minute, James Morrison finished off a splendid passing move with a comfortable finish at the far post. Wanderers had survival in their hands. Had they held on they would only have needed a draw against Stoke from their final game, with Q.PR. unlikely to get anything at the Etihad. However, they now need to win at the Britannia and hope that Rangers don’t manage to scrape an unlikely point against City.
Bolton’s collapse meant that Aston Villa’s solitary point against Spurs was enough to secure another year in the Premier League for Alex McCleish’s team. Ciaran Clarke put the home side ahead, massively against the run of play, when his shot deflected off Willam Gallas and flew past, the helpless, Brad Friedel in the 35th minute.
Not long after the break, Spurs lost Danny Rose to a straight red card. The award appeared to be slightly harsh, granted Alan Hutton was left injured by the tackle, however, Rose appeared to play the ball before receiving a nudge in the back from a Villa player which caused him to lose his footing and go to ground while in the midst of the tackle.
The sending off didn’t really hamper Tottenham who continued to domninate possession and, on 62 minutes they were awarded a penalty, after a thoroughly crass lunge from David Dunne. Adebayor duly scored and it looked as if Spurs might make light of their numerical disadvantage and condemn Villa to a last day sweat. However, Tottenham’s pressure did not pay off in terms of creating clear cut chances and, with a goal and three points all important for the visitors in their quest for the Champions’ League, Redknapp’s decision not to introduce Jermain Defoe for the final twenty minutes puzzled most observers.
1-1 the final score, Villa just about safe after an utterly terrible season, whether McCleish can hold onto his job after delivering such poor results and such a thoroughly mind numbing style of play remains to be seen. Tottenham are still in the mix for the Champions’ League and provided Everton don’t lose to Newcastle, their top four spot is assured. If Newcastle win at Goodison, Spurs must beat Fulham at home on the final day and, even if Tottenham finish fourth, a Chelsea victory in Munich will see them dumped into the Europa League.
Queens Park Rangers gave themselves a chance of staying up by defeating Stoke 1-0 at Loftus Road on Sunday. Djibril Cisse came on as a late substitute to score an even later winner, heading in Anton Ferdinand’s flick on from a Taraabt corner in the 89th minute. Q.P.R. must either take a point at the Etihad, unlikely given City’s home form and their own away form, or hope that Stoke don’t lose to Bolton at the Britannia. Provided that game results in a draw or a Stoke victory, Rangers will stay up.
Fulham continued their rich vein of form by beating Sunderland 2-1 at Craven Cottage on Sunday afternoon. Clint Dempsey’s stunning 25 yard free-kick, his 23rd goal of a prolific season, gave the Cottagers the lead in the twelfth minute. Phil Bardsley answered back on 34 minutes with a 20 yard piledriver, however, parity remained for less than sixty seconds, as Moussa Dembele was allowed to advance on the visitors’ area before hitting a shot which took a slight deflection on its way into the net.
Meanwhile at Molineux on Sunday, Wolves and Everton played out the only goal-less draw of the weekend. Everton, undoubtedly, had the best of the game and were very unlucky to have Jelavic’s first-half strike ruled out for offside, replays confirmed that the striker was in fact level with the last defender when Pienaar released the pass.
De Vries did well to keep out a Jelavic free-kick and Pienaar also came close but Terry Connor’s side battled hard to keep the visitors out and avoided sharing the unwanted record for most consecutive home defeats by holding on for the draw. Terry Connor has since been relieved of his post as Wolves manager and there will also be a lot of interest regarding David Moyes’s future this week.
The Everton boss is set fror crunch talks with chairman Bill Kenwright after the season finale, with many suggesting that Moyes may be on his way out of Goodison after 10 years in charge and no change in the club’s financial position. Manchester United has been touted as a possible destination for the Scot, with many tipping Alex Ferguson to step down at the end of the current campaign. However, with nothing certain at either club, this remains mere speculation.
Arsenal and Norwich played out a remarkable ninety minutes at the Emirates in Saturday’s only game. The Gunners took the lead through Yossi Benayoun in the second minute, curling a shot home after receiving the ball from Rosicky. The visitors responded well and levelled ten minutes later through Hoolahan, Szczesny not coving himself in glory. Grant Holt put Norwich ahead in the 27th minute, his shot deflecting up over Szczesny off Kieron Gibbs.
Having lost Sagna to an ankle problem, an injury which will now keep him out of this summer’s Euros, the Gunners could have had Benayoun sent off, his kick-out on Bennett going unpunished. The Canaries should also have had at least one penalty, both Hoolahan and Martin with legitimate claims, nothing doing however.
The second-half resumed at a similar pace, with chances at both ends. Jackson should have beaten Szczesny after leaving Vermaelen trailing, however, his effort was tame, whilst Hoolahan’s volley flew just wide after he’d been picked out by Holt. Benayoun had a great chance for Arsenal but his header from Rosicky’s free-kick was straight at John Ruddy.
Van Persie, so quiet for long periods of the game, sprang to life in the 72nd minute, volleying home the finishing touch from Song’s perfect pass; not the first time that Song’s provided the ammunition for the Dutch hitman this season. Van Persie scored again eight minutes later, his powerful shot too much for Ruddy to keep out, and it was looking like the Dutch ace had given the Gunners all three points again.
However, five minutes from time, substitute, Steve Morison finished expertly, with a low strike across Szczesny, when sent clear. Arsenal felt aggrieved when the referee failed to award them a late penalty for a nudge on van Persie but the decision would’ve been harsh on Norwich who deserved at least a point.
Arsenal remain third, one point ahead of Tottenham and a win at the Hawthorns on the final day will see them make certain of Champions’ League football. Any slip ups, however, and they could let both Tottenham and Newcastle in on the blind side.
For the first time in a very long time, it really is all to play for on the final day of what has been a breath-takingly exciting Barclays Premier League season. I, for one, can’t wait to see how it is all going to end.
Steve Kean Image by BBC Radio Lancashire musgrave_archives. Harry Image by Beacon Radio. Etihad Image by Richard Ayers.