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!


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.


Bendtner rubs in Liverpool’s late defeat by Arsenal

Liverpool have almost completed a tricky run of league games, a sequence in which they started off as outsiders for a top four finish, and now find themselves with only the FA Cup left to play for.

Their inconsistency in the league hadn’t been an issue as such before Arsenal’s fortunes turned around in recent games. As the business part of the campaign got underway Liverpool’s rivals for a top four finish reacted to the season thus far in different ways – Chelsea changed its manager while Arsenal established a ten point advantage over Liverpool, helped by three points at Anfield thanks to a last minute winner last weekend.

Liverpool won the Carling Cup and with it a place in next season’s Europa League, but had they got themselves into a stronger position after six months of the season then they probably could have afforded three consecutive defeats, including the one against Arsenal.

Kenny Dalglish’s comments after yesterday’s 1-0 defeat at Sunderland suggested he would have happily taken a point, when a predictable share of the spoils for them at the Stadium of Light in March, while seventh in the table, (with all respect to the Black Cats) wouldn’t have taken them very far.

“I don’t think it was much of a game and the only difference between a draw and a win was a bit of good fortune for them,” said Dalglish after Nicklas Bendtner’s second half winner consigned his team to a seventh league defeat in 14 away games.


Dreaming of Wembley gets reluctanty put on hold

However unlikely, Liverpool could be as little as one point behind Chelsea in the league by next Tuesday night.

But first of all they go to Sunderland tomorrow, where if they were to come away with less than three points, you would probably expect them to rest players in the Merseyside derby in preparation for the FA Cup. Sunderland themselves might be looking ahead to Everton next weekend, but after consecutive games without a win their priority should be on trying to resolve their current mid-table standing in the league, before turning their attention to the cup quarter finals.

Since beating Wolves 3-0 at the end of January, Liverpool’s next three games were against opposition currently in the top four. A goalless draw at home to Spurs was followed by a pair of 2-1 defeats, which were the first two occasions this season that Liverpool have scored in games which they have gone on to lose – some explanation as to how their shortage of goals hasn’t held them back too much.

The critics of course can now confidently state that Liverpool’s shortage of goals is to blame for them missing out on a top four finish. So perhaps a good response would be for them to get involved in a few high scoring encounters between now and the end of the season and see how the fans respond to that after a campaign that has so far included eight 0-0 or 1-1 draws in the league at Anfield.

The Black Cats of course had their local derby last weekend, in which they narrowly missed out on taking all three points, but they will be missing two key players through suspension. They remain 10 points behind Newcastle who travel down to Arsenal on Monday, so there’s certainly a potential chance of that gap becoming slightly narrower.


Passionately fought derby ends amid late drama

Simon Mignolet was a few minutes away from becoming a Sunderland legend last Sunday but the goalkeeper’s penalty save could only temporarily maintain the visitors’ 1-0 lead from the first half. Voted man-of-the-match by Black Cats supporters after he had denied Demba Ba from the penalty spot, Mignolet was eventually beaten by Newcastle substitute Shola Ameobi in the final minute of the derby.

The fierce nature of the contest spilled from the pitch to the two managers on the touchline at times as Sunderland were reduced to ten players for the final half an hour following Stephane Sessegnon’s dismissal for a swung elbow at an opponent in full view of referee Mike Dean. And after the final whistle Dean showed Sunderland’s Lee Cattermole the second red card of the afternoon.

With Sessegnon and Cattermole set to miss a total of seven games between them, their manager Martin O’Neill said he felt the home side could consider themselves fortunate to come away with a full compliment of players. O’Neill praised his team’s performance without condoning the actions of either of his red carded players. He said, “The players were intent on not letting anybody down, particularly the supporters, and I think they did that admirably today.”


Only pride left to play for in the north east derby

I’m prepared to make a bold statement just 15 minutes before the big north east derby kicks off: Neither Newcastle United or Sunderland will finish in the top five this season. I believe that Liverpool have also already blown their chances largely as a consequence of their last three league games.

Even if Newcastle earn three points this lunchtime to go level on points with Chelsea, the Londoners goal difference is far superior. It’s been at home that Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea have enjoyed comfortable wins, whereas the clubs below them have sometimes struggled to. Whatever the outcome at the Sports Direct Arena today, Newcastle supporters will no doubt still be dreaming of a European place next season, while Sunderland could of course still qualify via the FA Cup.

However, I cannot see any one of the trio of London clubs messing up to such an extent that an other will be allowed to slip in front of them come the end of the season. But since there’s much more at stake than just the points today, it can hardly be billed as a meaningless fixture. It’s more one which the visitors would do rather well to win.


Transformed Sunderland set to test Arsenal’s belief

When Martin O’Neill took over as manager at the Stadium of Light two months and ten league games ago, he acquired a Sunderland team that had just lost back-to-back games against Wigan and Wolves.

In his very first game in charge, against Blackburn, despite leaving it very late, O’Neill’s Sunderland won by the best of three goals for a change. David Vaughan and Seb Larsson, two players Steve Bruce had signed in the summer on free transfers from Blackpool and Birmingham respectively, following both teams relegation from the top flight, were the goalscorers that day. And O’Neill had also introduced James McClean, a summer signing from Derry City, for his debut.

O’Neill saw potential in the squad Bruce had put together, and there was to be very little in the way of new arrivals and/or departures from the club in the January window. Finding the back of the net had been the major problem following Darren Bent and Gyan’s exits. Meanwhile £8m summer signing Connor Wickham and Nicklas Bendtner, loaned from Arsenal, both struggled with injury in the opening months of the campaign. Stephane Sessegnon, who got among the goals recently when Sunderland scored four at Wigan, and thrashed Norwich 3-0 at home, is their top scorer after last night’s FA Cup replay.

The prize for beating Middlesbrough after extra time was a fifth round clash to come against Arsenal, a repeat of this Saturday’s Premier League fixture. For the visitors, there’s no rest time in between the two meetings. They will be off to Milan in midweek for the first leg of their Champions League tie, and you have to wonder where the FA Cup will be on Arsenal’s list of priorities with European club competition back on the agenda.

The Gunners, who started the year by losing three in a row, might only be able to afford another slip up this Saturday because on the same day, two of their rivals for fourth place, Liverpool and Newcastle both have tricky fixtures of their own away from home, although that might only increase the pressure on Arsenal, and on Chelsea who are at Everton. However, the Blues don’t face Napoli in the Champions League until the following week.

Can Arsenal move up into at least fifth place this weekend? I think we might not see too many changes.


Improvement at SoL might have to wait until January window

Following his first defeat as Sunderland manager, Martin O’Neill remarked: “We just need to score a few more goals, that is pretty plain.”

Teenager Connor Wickham, who was signed from Ipswich Town for £8m last summer has started on both occasions so far under O’Neill, having only previously made three starts this season. Due to a knee injury picked up in the third, that was also previously his last before getting re-called to the team by the new manager. But after picking up a knock the unlucky striker had to be replaced at half time in his latest appearance.

The Black Cats’ even goal difference before Sunday’s 1-0 defeat at Spurs, combined with them having fewer points on the board than the number of games they have played “might suggest there is a lot of pressure on us to hold out in games” O’Neill added.

Only the current bottom three have fewer points than the Black Cats at this stage. However, under Bruce, and at White Hart Lane, not one of the eight defeats suffered has been by more than one goal. This season they have been perceived, like Everton have, as teams who have struggled more than had been expected - whilst the teams around them in the table have poor goal differences after 16 matches - these two clubs have evidently kept it consistently tight at the back.

But the thing that has worked against Bruce and also David Moyes, is the desire of football supporters to see their team score goals. And as O’Neill has pointed out this week, a few more goals scored would make a massive difference.


Martin O’Neill set up for challenging second Sunderland game

Spurs were officially eliminated from the Europa League this week, closing their participation in the competition with a 4-0 win away from home. Despite only managing a goalless draw over in PAOK – Tottenham’s fate was sealed by Harry Redknapp’s underestimation of the Greek side – the eventual group winners who also finished above Rubin Kazan, thanks largely to their 2-1 victory at White Hart Lane a fortnight ago. The only highlight of the group stage for Spurs was their 1-0 win against the Russians in London at the end of October. However, that scoreline was reversed in the return meeting a couple of weeks later, while the manager recovered at home following minor heart surgery.

Now with a Champions League finish their target Spurs must return to winning ways in the Premier League after their triffic league form since the start of September ended at Stoke City last weekend. Perhaps tomorrow is a perfect time to be hosting a team which has only taken 14 points from their first 15 games of the season? Although maybe it isn’t so ideal given that they have recently changed managers, and after one game under Martin O’Neill arrive in London with a 100% record – Sunderland were 1-0 behind at home against fellow strugglers Blackburn Rovers with eight minutes remaining last Sunday - but they managed to turn the result on its head before the end to create a bit of Christmas time confidence. However, let’s wait to see how the Black Cats are fairing after the round of Boxing Day fixtures, because points are more likely to come from games which follow the first of their two visits to the capital in the coming days.


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