ESPN commentator Jon Champion on the Premier League
ESPN’s man with the mic Jon Champion looks ahead to the weekend’s Premier League action. Watch ESPN’s exclusive action from the final day of Serie A on Sunday with Juventus v Atalanta at 1.30pm and Catania v Udinese at 7.15pm
FIXTURES Sun 13 May Chelsea v Blackburn, Everton v Newcastle, Man City v QPR, Norwich v Aston Villa, Stoke v Bolton, Sunderland v Man Utd, Swansea v Liverpool, Tottenham v Fulham, West Brom v Arsenal, Wigan v Wolves.
For only the sixth time in Premier League history, the title race has gone down to the last day of the season. It has never been decided on goal difference before but that is very much a possibility this time round.
The expectation going into the weekend is that Manchester City will beat Queens Park Rangers and everything else will be all but academic, but this season has thrown up so many twists and turns that you can never be quite certain.
Slightly less convincing is the prospect of Manchester United winning at Sunderland; the Stadium of Light has become a difficult place to visit since Martin O’Neill has got his feet under the table.
Should City beat QPR and become champions they will have been the best of a mediocre bunch. The fact the top two in the Premier League could both end with 89 points tells you that the rest of the league has been relatively weak - United won the league with 80 points last season and found points harder to come by. It’s difficult to see anything other than an imminent period of City domination going forward, unless there is similar significant investment in one of their main rivals.
The real springboard for City’s success was winning the FA Cup last year. That really put them on the trophy winning map and the winning league is a natural progression from that. Mancini’s side have made heavy weather of it though, sailing for the first six months and playing some tremendous stuff, they then lost their way and only really rediscovered that early-season ruthlessness in the last month.
The fact United were able to overtake City shows certain mental frailties in Mancini’s side, but it seems they’ll get away with them this year. It ultimately seems as though the key moment of the season was the first derby in November, City won 6-1, United’s citadel was stormed and for the first time in 81 years a visiting team had scored six at Old Trafford.
The fact it looks very possible they’ll win the title by merit of their marginally superior goal difference tells you exactly how crucial that emphatic victory has been.
From the race to the summit, to the desperate scramble to avoid the trapdoor - if QPR are swept aside by City, then a win at Stoke would be enough for Bolton to remain in the Premier League.
Owen Coyle’s men are much better off going to Stoke at this stage of the season rather than the first half, when Stoke were playing well. The Potters have now won just one of their last 10 games and seem to be easing off a little, much to the frustration of Tony Pulis.
It could be that everything is set up for one last hurrah for Kevin Davies - his parting gift after nearly a decade as a talismanic stalwart at Bolton could be to score the goal that keeps them in Premier League; it’s time for him to stand up one last time in the Bolton cause. I’m in no doubt that Owen Coyle will give the address of his life in the dressing room at the Britannia Stadium but teams in this situation either suffocate or thrive and Coyle must make sure they feel able to go out and play rather than be worried about the consequences of not performing.
Speaking of the consequences of not performing, Arsenal know if they fail to do so at West Brom, they may lose their Champions League berth. But if they win, they finish third and can consider that to be a reasonable season after plumbing the depths in the autumn and hitting the highs in the early spring.
They go to the Hawthorns, where Roy Hodgson will be looking to go out with a bang after what they’ll consider a good season. Having lost nine games at home, their form at the Hawthorns has improved recently and they have the prospect of finishing in the top half.
However Arsenal’s prize is much the greater - it’s worth millions of pounds and the future of certain players, most importantly Robin van Persie. This is a much bigger deal for Arsenal and it would be a surprise if they don’t go and win the game.
Back in North London, Tottenham will be hoping their rivals slip up, because then three points in their own game against Fulham would see them finish third – the position they held for much of the season. The extra incentive is there, as finishing fourth would leave them hoping Chelsea don’t win this season’s Champions League in order to enter it themselves next year.
I have been critical over the season of Martin Jol’s methods and it seems they’re still not hugely popular with one or two of the players, but they could finish seventh in the league which is a tremendous return for them, it would equal the type of league finish they were achieving under Roy Hodgson. They’ve won five of their last seven, they’re entertaining to watch especially with the likes of Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele.
But Tottenham have found some form at the back end of the season, picking up a couple of wins and a draw in their last three, and they should have enough to see off Fulham, particularly with that home advantage.
Newcastle’s destiny is not in their own hands. The Magpies go to Everton hoping Spurs fail to win, or Arsenal lose – if either happens, they can grab a top four spot with a win at Goodison.
Most neutrals will hope Newcastle can do it, as they’ve brought so much to the table this season. It will be tough for them to replicate the form they’ve displayed this term next year. The likes of Chelsea and Liverpool are unlikely to perform as poorly next time out, and Newcastle may struggle to hold onto their better players. Their model has been to buy players relatively cheaply and sell them when a decent offer comes in, and it remains to be seen how resistant Mike Ashley will be when big clubs come along waving chequebooks for the likes of Fabricio Coloccini, Tim Krul, Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse etc. Whether the model works longer term we’re about to find out.
The Toffees, meanwhile, have only lost three times in the last 22 games and are starting to seem like their old, obdurate selves. They sit one point above Liverpool, which will give them every motivation to win.
Liverpool go to Swansea for what could be Kenny Dalglish’s final game in charge. I was very intrigued by his response at the end of the FA Cup final at Wembley, the camera panned to him and he had tears in his eyes which is unusual for a man who doesn’t portray much emotion; he seemed particularly melancholy, which is very un-Dalglish.
I just wonder if he knows the American owners have already made a decision to dispense with his services at the end of the season. If that decision has been made on league performances, you could understand why. They currently sit eighth in the table, with 30 points dropped at home, 13 Premier League defeats and 34 points from the top of the league; that is not what the Americans bought in to.
There'll be another managerial conundrum at Carrow Road, where Norwich host Aston Villa. Canaries boss Paul Lambert is being strongly linked with Villa, should they decide to part ways with Alex McLeish. Norwich are another team who have eased off towards the end of the season, although they did play very well in their 3-3 at Arsenal last weekend.
They’ll play with freedom and cause problems for Aston Villa, who are safe but are only really going to survive by default. They have been, without question, the most boring team to watch in the Premier League this season. I would expect Norwich to finish with a flourish and a win.
Another team finishing with aplomb are Wigan. For them to drag themselves to safety from a position of such hopelessness at the mid-way point of the season almost outstrips anything any other side has managed this season. Six wins from their last eight games and maintaining the belief in the way they should play football - we should applaud Roberto Martinez for getting his team out of trouble in such style, and the club's fans will certainly do that after Sunday's home game with relegated Wolves.
Finally, on to Chelsea against Blackburn, two consecutive league defeats for Roberto Di Matteo and only one win in five league games, but they finish six in the table whatever happens – and they’ll have that Champions League final on their minds.
Blackburn are a hopeless case and I fear it is just a matter of waiting for the implosion, both financially and in terms of players leaving Ewood Park. There seemed to be an air of denial about Steve Kean this week, with him making comments about giving it a go next season and hoping to get out of the Championship at the first time of asking.
The greater danger is the club going through the Championship and into League One, given the way the club is managed. They end the season the way they lived through it: in a total mess.
Jon Champion is lead football commentator for ESPN, broadcaster of the FA Cup and Barclays Premier League. Watch ESPN’s exclusive action from the final day of Serie A on Sunday with Juventus v Atalanta at 1.30pm and Catania v Udinese at 7.15pm
LATEST FOOTBALL NEWS
EPL fixtures: Champs start at Swansea
Thiago hat-trick leads Spain to Euro Under-21 crown
Australia, Iran and South Korea qualify for Brazil
Footballers' underage prostitute trial adjourned to 2014
Berlusconi: Allegri to stay on as Milan coach
75% of all TV is Bale
On the road to ruin
FourFourTwo is brought to you by Haymarket Consumer Media & FourFourTwo is part of Haymarket Sport
| International Licensing | © Haymarket Media Group 2010