Seven contenders compete for three or four prizes

This is my last ever post here on Premier League football, and to mark the final day of the 2011-12 season I’m going to back the underdog in the different categories that still remain up for grabs tomorrow afternoon.

The qualification place or places for next season’s Champions League still to be decided have three teams left in the running. If there’s no positional changes in the table after the 38th game then Arsenal would qualify in third place while Tottenham would need Bayern Munich to win the Champions League at Chelsea’s expense in one week’s time to eventually claim their place via fourth spot.  However Newcastle United can’t be ruled out of pipping either or both north London teams at the last.

The biggest focus will of course be on the title race. Manchester City in the driving seat go into their home game against QPR with an eight goal advantage over United, while their rivals must travel to Sunderland. And at the other end of the table it will be just as tense with QPR, currently a couple of points and nine goals better off than relegation rivals Bolton Wanderers who head to Stoke City needing three points and (most probably) for QPR to get nothing at the Etihad Stadium, to survive. Put more simply Bolton Wanderers and Manchester United fans will not be celebrating together tomorrow, though Bolton and City or United and QPR fans might be. The latter realise they can afford to lose over 90 minutes at what would be City’s party and still be in the mood to celebrate if Bolton should fail to win at the Britannia Stadium.

This is the point where I should apologise to any Newcastle United supporters for a claim I made on here back on March 4th. When you won the derby I said your home form would stand in the way of a top five finish, and yet with the help of Chelsea’s capitualation in the league in the final weeks of the season, top five is already secured. They’ve won 11 times at the Sports Direct Arena this season while Arsenal accumulated 12 home wins, although the Gunners have scored ten more goals and goal difference could yet prove to be the difference IF Newcastle were to win at Everton AND Arsenal could only manage a draw at West Brom, how ever unlikely both outcomes may seem. It would also present Tottenham with the opportunity of stealing third place, although that would still require Harry Redknapp’s team to take all three points at home to Fulham unless West Brom defeated Arsenal by at least a two goal margin AND Newcastle were unable to take all three points from Goodison Park - in which case a draw would still settle it in Tottenham’s favour.

It’s away from home that Newcastle and Arsenal have identical records going into their final games – having both won eight but lost seven. Alan Pardew has just been named the Premier League manager of the season. As the underdog for third place and hot on the heels of their 2-0 win at Chelsea, could they really cause an upset amongst the competition from London? Sorry, but once again I think not!


Wigan almost safe as Blackburn stare relegation in the face

There were slightly strange scenes at around 4 o’clock yesterday at two Premier League grounds. After Djibril Cisse had scored QPR’s winner at home to Stoke City, supporters were on the pitch celebrating their survival despite it possibly being out of their control should they lose their final fixture next weekend at Manchester City. Meanwhile Aston Villa were able to hold out for a point at home to 10-man Spurs which meant they do stay up after an awful run of recent results, but supporters didn’t celebrate at Villa Park.

Perhaps QPR will have much more to celebrate than Villa if they do extend their stay in the top flight for another season, and a dramatic late winning goal marked an opportunity for their home supporters to be carried away by the moment at the end of their last home game of the season. But it was only Villa, who have now drawn 17 of their 37 league games this campaign, who got themselves safe and head into the final weekend without further concern.

Bolton are two points behind Mark Hughes’ team, Blackburn Rovers three behind IF they beat Wigan at Ewood Park this evening. Steve Kean’s side have suffered five defeats in their last six games since they lost 2-1 at Bolton in March. A win today would need to be followed by all three points at FA Cup winners Chelsea next Sunday AND then for either Wigan or QPR to lose their final game.

So there may not be a realistic route out of the bottom three for Rovers, but Bolton could win at the Britannia Stadium and stay up, despite throwing away a 2-0 lead at home to West Brom yesterday. If Wigan, who have begun to regularly find the net at just the right stage of the season, takes anything at all at Blackburn tonight, it would not only relegate their neighbours but greatly enhance their own position. Had they managed to hold out for a point at Fulham recently and then followed it up with last week’s winning performance against Newcastle then manager Roberto Martinez could have enjoyed his Manager of the month accolade.


FA Cup win can ensure Chelsea’s season ends on a high

Like their opposition at Wembley this afternoon, Chelsea have reached two cup finals this season, but they blew a big opportunity in midweek to finish fourth in the Premier League.

After a goalless draw against Tottenham at Stamford Bridge in March the gap in the table between themselves and their London rivals was five points. But despite Tottenham taking only a point from three consecutive league games last month, a considerable gap of four points remained following Chelsea’s 2-0 defeat to Newcastle while Spurs won consecutive league games for the first time since January. With two games remaining it’s going to be a tall order for Chelsea to finish in the top five this season.

Liverpool have already won silverware this season and will be keen to complete an FA Cup and League Cup double. Chelsea have the Champions League Final to look forward to later this month, but today’s FA Cup Final is their only remaining chance to celebrate domestic success in a season during which they changed their manager when they were three points outside the top four after 27 games.

Their 5-2 FA Cup quarter final win over Leicester City took interim manager Roberto Di Matteo’s record to four wins in all competitions in his first four games. The Blues scored another five goals in the semi-final against Spurs at Wembley last month, even if the second goal didn’t ever appear to cross the line. Didier Drogba opened the scoring that day after Liverpool’s Andy Carroll had netted the winner in dramatic fashion a day earlier as Everton’s dream of an appearance in the final was shattered.

Liverpool have struggled for form at home all season, and one point from their last four games at Anfield has included back-to-back 1-0 defeats. Hardly the form to take into a cup final, although a Luis Suarez hat-trick against Norwich last weekend marked their eighth league win on the road.

My prediction: A close encounter that Chelsea are likely to edge and make up for a league campaign where they’ve always been there or thereabouts, even under Andre Villas-Boas, but have always tended to miss out when it matters most.


United can afford to lose this so-called title decider

The champions are the team in better form despite last weekend’s setback against Everton.

Should City win tonight they go top of the table by virtue of a superior goal difference, with just two games remaining.

But go back to January 22nd and Mario Balotelli’s last minute penalty winner against Tottenham while United were to win at Arsenal and recall a time when it was United who trailed in the race. City’s three point gap stayed in tact that weekend but since then United have only dropped points on three occasions, including two high scoring draws. City on the other hand have lost 1-0 three times away from home in the same period covering the last 13 games, and drawn twice including the 3-3 draw against Sunderland at the end of March, which has so far been the only time Roberto Mancini’s team have dropped league points at home all season. City’s defeat at Swansea can be ranked alongside United’s at Wigan for their shock value while City’s 1-1 draw at Stoke City, after going behind to a wonderful goal by Peter Crouch, has contributed to the fact United can afford to lose this evening because it would still only require City to drop points in one or other of their remaining fixtures.

City and United have both scored a total of eight goals in their last two games with Wayne Rooney, Sergio Aguero and former United striker Carlos Tevez amongst them. So United’s defensive frailties against Everton are likely to be exposed once again. Sir Alex Ferguson has responded to Mancini’s continued stance in recent weeks that United have already won the league by saying that a United defeat at the Etihad Stadium would hand the title to City, but despite the FA Cup final taking place this weekend, the Premier League campaign still has another two weeks to run.


Can Aston Villa ensure top flight survival stays in their hands?

At the start of February, West Brom manager Roy Hodgson was in Alex McLeish’s shoes – his team were too close to the bottom of the Premier League table for comfort, with a Midlands derby at Wolves lined-up next. The Baggies won that game 5-1 and without any cup distractions they have quietly strung good results together over eleven games which has helped move them up into the top half following last Sunday’s 1-0 win at Liverpool. They have also won three of their last four as well as four of their last five at home.

McLeish’s Aston Villa take on Hodgson’s team at the Hawthorns this afternoon, four days after they were dragged into relegation contention by a 2-1 home defeat by Bolton Wanderers. Within a minute of going in front just after the hour mark, the visitors drew level with a penalty before going in front themselves a minute later. Afterwards McLeish said: “We just have to find the back of the net more regularly and at the same time I am disappointed with the soft goals we conceded.”

The only stat McLeish can take heart from is the fact West Brom, along with Villa and relegated Wolves, have scored the least number of goals at home this season, though of course West Brom’s poor form at home in the first half of the season contributed to that. They’ve scored 11 goals in their most recent six home games including four against Sunderland and three against Blackburn Rovers. Meanwhile Villa have suffered heavy defeats at both Arsenal and Manchester United and drawn at Wigan Athletic and Blackburn. Those points might prove their saviour in the end, but while another point today mightn’t be a total disaster (depending on results elsewhere) they are badly in need of a win from somewhere.


Share of the points would suit Bolton more than Villa

It could be said that Aston Villa need only take a point tonight against Bolton Wanderers in the re-arranged fixture at Villa Park to stave off growing relegation concerns.

Alex McLeish’s side have not been short of producing league draws this campaign (15 in total) but it’s only four wins at home which has contributed most to their low league position (15th).

Villa fans aren’t used to spending time in the bottom half of the table, let alone finishing outside the top ten, so whatever the outcome from the remaining games, McLeish’s first season can already be labelled ‘unsuccessful’.

McLeish and Birmingham City were relegated with a total of three points more than Villa have currently with three games remaining after tonight, although in some past campaigns a total of 36 points has been enough to stay up. In each of Birmingham’s two recent relegation campaigns they earned 26 points at St Andrews – that’s two more than Villa’s maximum possible return from their home games this season, with a visit from Tottenham remaining on the penultimate weekend.

Bolton go there in even more desperate need of points it might be argued, and that is only likely to make the task more difficult for the home side.

QPR and Wigan (both on 34 points from 35 games) would have Bolton breathing down their necks in the table if Owen Coyle’s team were to come out as winners tonight. They currently sit three points adrift but this is the first of two games in hand.

Following their 2-0 defeat at Newcastle United on Easter Monday, Coyle said: “We will have to pick ourselves up and go again. We know we have got enough quality to stay in the league.” They went to Dubai for some warm weather training before returning to action at the Reebok last Saturday for a 1-1 draw and a  point against Swansea City.

But enough about Bolton who I think can prevent Villa from recording only their fifth home win in the league this season. Just six games ago after Villa’s most recent league win, on March 10th, they were 11 points above the relegation places and ten points better off than Bolton. Now there’s only a five point gap between themselves and 18th place Blackburn, with the gap down to Bolton reduced to just six points despite having played a game more.


Bolton concede opportunity to move nearer safety

Bolton Wanderers started the Easter weekend in the strongest position of the bottom five clubs in the Premier League. A point better off and home advantage against a mid-table Fulham side on Saturday, while their rivals all played away. But the outcome at the Reebok Stadium went badly against the home side who had strung together three wins in a row including two home wins prior to the Cottagers’ visit.

In some ways Owen Coyle’s side were fortunate given that the other three relegation contenders that played yesterday also all lost, while QPR take on Manchester United at Old Trafford today, but the fixture calendar throws Bolton back into action tomorrow, while the others have longer to prepare for home games in midweek. They must go to Newcastle United who have an eye back on qualifying for Europe next season after four consecutive wins, and a pair of clean sheets last week. Bolton can’t fancy their chances much especially given the goalscoring form Magpies’ Papiss Cisse is currently in.

After the 3-0 defeat Coyle said, “My disappointment is the goals we have conceded. The free-kick is something we don’t have to give away, and then the second right on half-time we have given away with a poor pass and Damien Duff sets up a great ball and we want defenders or midfielders to sense danger but Dempsey is allowed to run unmarked with a free header.

“Second half we changed it, we scrapped around at 2-0 without creating anything gilt-edged and we needed the next goal but then we give away another poor goal on the counter.

“But I feel that the first goal is always vital and that turned the game on its head today.”


Credit must go to Bolton Wanderers for never giving up

Bolton Wanderers may have been fortuitous in the first of three consecutive league wins, after the officials at the Reebok Stadium had failed to spot a goal while 0-0 scored by QPR, but there was nothing lucky about them beating an in-form Blackburn Rovers 2-1 two weeks later.

Manager Owen Coyle paid tribute to the performance by his players just seven days after Fabrice Muamba’s cardiac arrest. He said, “The spirit and quality we showed was fantastic. It was difficult when Blackburn pulled it back to 2-1, given what has happened over the last week and the mental fatigue that can cause, but every single player stood strong.”

Three further points at bottom-of-the-table Wolves last weekend marked Bolton’s best run of form in the league since December 2006. Now they are a point better off than QPR, Blackburn and Wigan Athletic and with a game in hand. They’re not out of trouble yet but avoiding defeat at home to Fulham this weekend will further help their cause, and potentially leave that trio of clubs immediately below them fighting for the one remaining place in the top flight for next season.

Tim Ream signed from New York Red Bulls as Chelsea bound Gary Cahill’s replacement along with loan acquisition Ryo Miyaichi from Arsenal this winter. Both players have helped improve Bolton’s fortunes with the exception of a home defeat (their ninth and fortunately for them their most recent this season) to Wigan in February. Coyle immediately introduced Ream to the side after that game.

Meanwhile, Martin Jol’s Cottagers ended their run of three consecutive defeats last weekend with victory at home to Norwich despite losing their January signing Pavel Pogrebnyak to an early injury. That led to a debut for former Liverpool youth team player Alex Kacaniklic who had spent the first three months of the year on loan at Watford in the Championship.


Sadly for Everton or Sunderland there has to be a loser

The FA Cup will reach it’s last four or five teams by the end of tonight, potentially setting up a Merseyside derby at Wembley next month. However, Sunderland stand in the way of Everton taking on Liverpool on semi-final weekend.

David Moyes’ team are away from home for the first time in this season’s competition. In comparison the Black Cats have been taken to one replay previously, which they won at Middlesbrough, and Martin O’Neill’s team have also beaten Arsenal at the Stadium of Light in the fifth round. So they go into this evening’s tie as favourites, following the 1-1 draw at Goodison Park. But if it’s level after another 90 minutes, then the Toffees could still be in with a good chance of reaching the next round.


Can Bolton really win two in a row at the Reebok?

Bolton Wanderers’ 2-1 win at neighbours Blackburn Rovers in December meant that Blackburn rather than Bolton were bottom of the Premier League table on Christmas Day after 17 games.

In Rovers’ 12 games since, they have taken almost two thirds of their total points this season. Bolton have taken less than half of their own points total in their 11 games since victory at Ewood Park.

As we know form goes out of the window in derby matches, but Steve Kean will be hoping this afternoon that it means his side improves in terms of winning away from home. The crucial 2-0 win at Wolves thanks to a double by Junior Hoilett a fortnight ago was their first three points on the road since they surprised Manchester United on New Years’ Eve.

Owen Coyle’s Bolton needed to take the lead twice, including an 86th minute winner scored by Ivan Klasnic, just six minutes after he’d come on as a substitute, to beat QPR in their last home game.


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