Sunday, April 15, 2007

Premiership: Endgame

If it was a movie the hero would be preparing to enter the enemy fortress, defuse the nuclear bomb and get off with the girl. If it was a meal the diners would be loosening belts and perusing the dessert menu. If it was a political regime the leader would be fretting about his legacy. As it's the climax of the Premiership season that we await, let's get clairvoyant on it....

Title Tussle
By Jiminy, I think we've got a thrilling title race on our hands!
For the first time since the 1999 denouement (when a Manchester United win over Spurs gave them the first leg of that treble you may have subsequently heard of, on occasion) we could see the destiny of football's most lucre-laden league decided on its last day.

Supposing Chelsea and United maintain their current status (United three points, and three goals, to the good) until the two meet on Wednesday, May 9th, and supposing that that match results in either a draw or a Chelsea win, then the visits of West Ham and Everton to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge could provide the cue for much split-screen excitement on May 13th.

Judging by United's rootin'-tootin' attacking displays of recent weeks, it might seem as if Alex Ferguson's team are roaring up the finishing stretch, pulling wheelies like a geriatric, Scottish Valentino Rossi.

But United's golden statue could have feet of clay. At precisely the most inopportune moment, the defensive surety that has bedrocked United's success this season has wobbled. The injuries to Nemanja Vidic and Gary Neville would be difficult enough to cope with, but Edwin van der Saar's consequent jitters have not helped in the slightest.

Added to that, the sudden outbreak of harmony in Stamford Bridge - if the hug heard round the world turns out to mean a lasting detente between Jose Mourinho and Roman Abramovich - points to a club that have woken up after a difficult, uncomfortable sleep to find themselves well placed for an extraordinary quadruple haul of trophies.

The duel is therefore compelling: Chelsea's renewed focus and purpose, allied to their still intact indefatigability against United's high-wire walkers, desperately trying not to look down.

Both sides have mix of manageability, peskiness and peril amongst their remaining fixtures. United will expect to get the run-in off to a smooth start in their next two games, at home against Sheffield United and Middlesbrough. Chelsea, are away in their next two fixtures, travelling to those barflies at the last chance saloon, West Ham and then on to a Newcastle side with nothing to play for.

United then embark on what is undoubtedly the stress-test of their title ambitions. What the climb up Alpe d'Huez is to Tour de France competitors, or Amen Corner is to US Masters contenders, the road trip to Everton, Manchester City and Chelsea is for United's title hopes.

Chelsea, however, have by no means a gentle preamble to their hosting of United in the season's penultimate game. They entertain Bolton, then cross the city to the Emirates Stadium in the previous two matches, meeting two top six teams who are likely to be jousting for European berths to boot. It is conceivable, therefore, that both United and Chelsea could arrive at the season's explosive set-piece having shipped wounds.

If it does transpire that the title is decided on the last day, one suspects that West Ham - whose very nature predestines them to a preposterously heartbreaking last-gasp relegation - will have more to play for than Everton, who will probably arrive at Stamford Bridge with buckets and spades, their UEFA Cup status secured.

All the same, both of the top two should win their final games, which suggests that - calm down there Sky Sports! No-one likes a gloater! - their meeting could indeed be the evening of judgement for this year's Premiership title. 'Evening of Judgement'. I like it. Catchy.

Tomorrow: Mein Gott! Ooh La La! A look at European matters....

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