Premiership 2005-2006: Endgame
The good Lord giveth, and the good Lord taketh away. Its one of life's cruel jokes that, just as one's mood begins to lift at the lengthening of the evenings, the brightening of the weather (no, really) and the skimpening of ladies garments, so too does the crushing reality of the end of the football season become apparent.
Its a time of year all football fans dread; as March rolls into April and the Easter fixtures are negotiated, a sense of denial takes hold. After the youthful exuberance of the season's opening months, and the mature acceptance of the winter trudge, if your team is not involved in an 'issue' yet to be resolved, the closing weeks can often seem like a slow death - no-one wants it to end, but the joy has often gone. But, if there is still something at stake for your team, the next couple of months can be the most exciting of all, ample distraction from the impending emptiness of summer.
So what remains to be decided in this Premiership season?
"Don't be daft!", I hear you say, "Chelsea have that long wrapped up!" You may be right, you very, very probably are right. But they've been a bit rickety of late haven't they? Losing at a Fulham team who are in dire form is certainly not the sign of a team galloping away to their second title and there is a sense that, after the Barcelona and West Brom debacles, Jose Mourinho's idiosyncracies are getting a little old. Manchester United have been in excellent form and if they win their game in hand and Chelsea drop points at gnarly away grounds like Ewood Park and the Reebok Stadium, then maybe, just maybe, there will yet be something to play for when the teams meet on 29 April.
The perennial shaking of heads will soon ensue, as pundits and hacks bemoan a modern game which makes the claiming of fourth place in the league tantamount to winning a trophy in itself. A field of four line-up for this one. Its Spurs by a nose at the moment, with Arsenal, the form team, closing rapidly on them. Blackburn Rovers, also in terrific form, are only a point behind, then come Bolton. Sam Allardyce's men have two games in hand and would leapfrog all three into fourth should they win them. Bolton must play Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs however, the latter also having a tricky run-in. Blackburn and Arsenal's closing fixtures are easier - Rovers still have all three bottom sides left to play - and they are the teams in form, with Arsenal's momentum and experience taking them over the line.
With one of the FA Cup semi-finals featuring teams unlikely to qualify for Europe by their league position - Middlesbrough (who could yet win the UEFA Cup), West Ham and Charlton - and therefore providing a finalist who will enter the UEFA Cup through the FA Cup route, it now seems likely that only fifth and sixth in the league will be awarded European places. Basically,two of the four Champions League chasers will receive this consolation, with the fourth left contemplating the indignity of the Intertoto Cup.
Like last season, one team will be celebrating a great escape come 7 May. Sunderland are, of course, long gone. Three points separate West Brom, Birmingham City and Portsmouth. None of their run-ins look charitable, with Birmingham's being chock-full of top-half sides and finished off with a daunting trip to Bolton on the final day. West Brom have previous with escapology, but Portsmouth have suddenly stumbled upon some form, are scoring a few goals, and while their last game is against Liverpool, it is at home and may be against a side with nothing to play for.