Let’s get down to the serious business
Well, it’s the business end of the season and this weekend has seen one team relegated from the Premier League and a twist at the top that not too many would have expected. Let’s start at the top, where I believe that the balance has undoubtedly turned in Manchester City’s favour after a shock 4-4 draw for Manchester United at home to Everton.
It was a thoroughly entertaining game at Old Trafford, where Everton came and took the game to United and, in fact, gained a deserved lead. When United equalised and then went on to make it 3-1, then 4-2, never could I have imagined what was coming next. Everton got a draw and, to be honest, really deserved it.
From a neutral’s point of view, it was good to see a so-called lesser club go to Old Trafford and take the game to United. Over the years, when I have played against United at their home, I have had some good results and some absolute hammerings as well. Old Trafford always used to have a fear factor with visiting teams and, 90 per cent of the time, teams were beaten before the first whistle blew, such was the dread of the clubs going there.
I haven’t seen that this year and although they are still top, I believe that the title is there for City to lose now. It was a very unlike United performance. Usually at this stage of the season, they know how to grind out the results. But to let a two-goal lead slip at home, twice, is close to unheard of from a Sir Alex Ferguson team.
The thing is, though, it’s the clubs that have beaten United this year that is the suprising factor. Blackburn Rovers defeated them at Old Trafford in a game that United were expected to win at a canter. Wigan Athletic away is another one that springs to mind. Everybody saw it as an away banker.
Yet you look at the top four and United have fared mainly very well, apart from the stunning 6-1 loss against City. So the question that needs to be asked is, is complacency setting in due to not having an on-field leader who will tell you in no uncertain terms how to to get the result and carry you along? I’m talking about a Roy Keane-type figure that United seem to be missing. Someone who isn’t afraid to bollock a team-mate if he sees them getting sloppy.
I remember playing against a United team with Keane at his very best and the way he controlled the game and gave out rollockings if he saw the slightest bit of complacency setting in. He was a true leader on the pitch and if he was playing for United today, there is no way on earth United would have drawn against Everton.
United have done exceptionally well this season, with what I believe is one of their lesser squads over the last ten years, but against Everton was the complete opposite of what you would expect from their team. OK, so Everton had nothing to lose and everything to gain and maybe United are starting to feel the pressure of their great rivals getting closer by the week, but the players on the pitch, you would have expected, should know how to deal with it.
It all leads nicely to the derby at the Etihad Stadium on 30 April, which the winner – very possibly – will take all and the loser will be the also-ran. It will be interesting to see how both teams approach it, with City knowing that they need to win whereas United know that, if they avoid defeat, they should go on to win the title.
Do United sit back and soak up the pressure and hope to catch City on the break? Or do City go gung-ho and take the game straight to United from the off to try to get the early goal? One thing is for sure is that it will be the most important derby in modern times and I’m sure the kidology from Messrs Ferguson and Mancini leading up to it will be priceless.
If United go on to to win the league, I believe it will be Ferguson’s greatest achievment to date. The way his team responded to the drubbing by City was second to none and they have kicked on after Christmas to take it to the final few games after everyone was writing them off. If they finish runners-up, the players and management will still deserve a lot of credit.
On to City’s game, a 2-0 win over Wolves, and they seem to be hitting form again just at the right time. Is this because the pressure of being top is off them, so they can free the shackles a bit? Or is it because they can smell the blood of United? Either way, the way they took Wolves apart without really getting out of second gear was enough to have us all believing that the Premier League trophy could well be heading over to the blue half of Manchester.
Yes, Wolves have been poor this year, but remember that they knew that they were relegated unless they beat City, so that changes the nature of the beast. I hate to say it, after all he has done this season, but Carlos Tevez really seems to have made a difference and if he had not gone on “holiday” for such a long time, then I’m a firm believer that the title race would already be over.
City’s star players seem to be hitting form at just the right time. What will be interesting, now, is the fact that the pressure is back on City and, next Monday, we will see if they are true champions. Whoever wins the league will have fully deserved it and will be worthy champions.
Now to the battle for fourth place. In my eyes, regardless of how they finish, Alan Pardew is unquestionably the manager of the season. At the start of the campaign, I’m sure like many others, I couldn’t see Newcastle United lasting near the top. But full credit to the manager and the scouts there, who have unearthed some gems in the transfer market.
Pardew seems to have established a great team spirit and harmony throughout the team that has carried them on the crest of a wave all season and it’s great to see them up at the top. There is no doubt, they are a huge club that is starting to live up to its potential.
Spurs look like they have hit a brick wall. The free-flowing football that was a pleasure to watch early on in the season has been replaced with huff and puff. There is no doubt that they are a quality side, with some world-class individuals, but, for whatever reason, they seem to be falling at the final hurdle.
There is no doubt that Harry Redknapp is a great manager and I hope that he gets the England job. I believe that he will still lead Spurs to that elusive fourth spot and a Champions League place, which would be a great achievement with which to leave and take up the England reigns. I believe that, if appointed the national team boss, he will have a great Euro 2012 because, for a change, the lack of expectancy on England’s shoulders.
Now, down at the bottom, it’s a sad day for Wolves but the day has been a long time in coming and I feel that they signed their own fate by sacking Mick McCarthy when they did. He knew the Wolves players inside out and he has got them out of similar situations over the last few years.
I feel for Terry Connor. He wasn’t as much handed the job as had it thrust on him, when the club couldn’t get the man they wanted. It will be interesting to see if he is in charge come the start of next season but I doubt it very much. And I doubt it will bother him too much because, by all accounts, he is a top coach and I’m sure he will be back doing what he knows best and, hopefully, at Wolves.
The remaining relegation spots are still very much undecided. I said a few weeks ago that I fancied Wigan Athletic to go down along with QPR and Wolves but, from what I have seen recently, I believe that both of these teams will get out of it. Roberto Martinez, the Wigan manager, has to receive great plaudits for the way that he has his team playing.
I saw them at Arsenal earlier in the week – in their 2-1 win – and the freedom that they are playing with is due to the manager taking all the pressure off his players and letting them go out to express themselves. QPR seem to be having a change of fortune and, with the players they have, you would feel that even with the tough run-in that they have, they should have enough to steer clear.
Blackburn Rovers don’t seem to be able to pull away and although Bolton Wanderers still have games in hand, I now fear for the two Lancashire clubs. It’s going to be an interesting final few weeks in the Premier League, with tears of joy and despair aplenty, and I can see everything going down to the final day at the top and bottom. For fans of a neutral perspective, it will be addictive viewing.
Let the final rollercoaster commence …