In my last posting, I was expressing hope that last week would give us a clearer picture on a number of issues. The weekend delivered because there are several things that are now almost certain as we approach the end of the European football season, especially at the top end of England’s Barclays Premier League. We now know the teams that will be competing for the title and fighting for places in European football next season.
By falling to Aston Villa on Saturday, Chelsea opened up the title race—which was hitherto largely considered a two-horse fight—for the Arsenal and my Liverpool and the two teams welcomed the invitation with both arms by registering important wins albeit in different fashion. Pundits described the result at Villa Park as a surprise, but Jose Mourinho will be the first to know that he has never won there since he was born.
With the gap at the top staying at seven points, it was now left to the Reds and the Gunners to seek to reduce it the following day and boy! did they oblige. Brendan Rodgers travelled to Old Trafford where Liverpool last won in 2009 when they last seriously fought for the league title. That time, Rafael Benitez’s men were behind Sir Alex Ferguson’s charges, but this time the Merseysiders were looking to extend the gap with the defending champions.
Many people, including yours truly, predicted a hotly contested affair which both sides would fight with great and unrelenting passion from start to finish. Come kick-off, there was, in fact, only one side in it. Two of the goals might have come from the penalty spot, with another dubious one missed, but there was no doubt that the 3-0 margin actually flattered the hosts who tamely gave in to their more determined guests.
The anguish of the United fans was palpable during and after the match because they are not used not only to losing as many as nine matches with a quarter of the season to go but also playing second fiddle to their Northwest rivals. It was, therefore, not exactly surprising that doubts over manager David Moyes’s suitability for the job became louder than they have ever been since he walked through the door at Carrington.
Come Wednesday night, it was a different story altogether. The Red Devils were facing a huge test of overturning a disappointing 2-0 first-leg defeat to Greek champions-elect Olympiakos in the Uefa Champions League Round of 16. They needed a three-goal margin victory and not many gave them a chance, but they showed rare resolve and desire to get the result they needed on the night and were in yesterday’s quarter-final draw.
The Champions League remains United’s only chance of not only winning a trophy this season but also finding themselves back in the competition next season. That is because one of the things that were almost confirmed last week is that they will not make the top four. Indeed, the four teams that currently occupy those positions look certain to remain there with only the order being the issue under contention in the run-in.
Of course, United will have a significant say in deciding the champions and the European places. They are, for example, likely going to have support from unlikely quarters on Tuesday night when they host their noisy neighbours Manchester City. The Citizens are the only team whose title chances are fully in their own hands and the other contenders will be seeking some help from the Red Devils who are now steeped in a three-way battle for the Europa League spots with Everton and Tottenham Hotspur.
Strange days, huh?