English football season has had more than its fair share of madness this season, but the race for the title is starting to give off a hint of being the title race that no-one wins. Only one of the top three clubs in the Premier League have been able to manage all three points, and even that came at the end of a less than inspiring performance with yet another injury time winner. Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal were all long ago guaranteed their places in the Champions League, and perhaps it is this that is firing the most nervy end of season run-in for several seasons.
The three matches were staggered over the course of the weekend, starting on Saturday lunchtime with a Manchester derby which failed to live up to its billing as “The Most Important Manchester Derby Ever/For Forty Years/Since The last One”. In truth, Manchester United’s performance at Eastlands was a pretty soporific one, and Paul Scholes’ injury time winner was a reward that their performance scarcely deserved. After their recent defeats at the hands of Chelsea and Bayern Munich they had, yet again this season, been written off. For all the faults of their current team, however, it is difficult to escape the feeling that they are now being propelled towards the finishing line by sheer will alone.
The psychological affects of such a win on Manchester City will likely be discussed to death in the national press over the next few days. What may be just as significant could be the affect that it had upon Chelsea and Arsenal on Saturday afternoon. From being in a position in which they could further extend their lead, with a flick of Paul Scholes’ head, the pressure was back upon them and this seemed to show when Chelsea went to White Hart Lane on Saturday evening. Every time Chelsea have looked like pulling away at the top of the season they have frozen, and the sudden desertation of their customary arrogance was again in evidence against a Tottenham Hotspur team that has had one of the oddest seven days in the entire history of the club.
Spurs couldn’t have looked much more different between last weekend, when they were supine in allowing themselves to be rolled over by Portsmouth in the FA Cup, and Wednesday, when they outplayed Arsenal for their first Premier League win against their North London neighbours in over ten years. If anything, they were even stronger won Saturday evening against Chelsea. A Jermaine Defoe penalty and a low shot from Gareth Bale gave them a two goal lead, and only an excellent performance from the Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech prevented them from significantly increasing this advantage, even though Chelsea did manage a late, late consolation through Frank Lampard.
It was a result that opened the Premier League title race back up into a three-horse race. Arsenal had been considered to be finally out of the race by Wednesday night’s defeat at White Hart Lane, but the fact of Chelsea’ s defeat at the same venue allowed their championship challenge to splutter back to life. If they could go – and, theoretically, of course, they should – to Wigan Athletic and pick up three points, then they would still be in with a chance of overhauling the top two. This season, however, very little has been as simple as it might seem and Arsenal themselves came unstuck in Lancashire earlier on this afternoon.
Everything seemed to be going to plan for Arsene Wenger, with Theo Walcott and Michael Silvestre putting them into a comfortable 2-0 lead. With ten minutes left to play, however, their season caved in once and for all. Ben Watson pulled one back for Wigan, and in the closing minutes Titus Bramble scored after a mistake from Lukasz Fabianski which further underlined Wenger’s need for a new goalkeeper, before, deep into injury time, Charles N’Zobgia scored the winning goal. It was a result that more or less ended Arsenal’s championship challenge once and for all and meant even more to Wigan, for whom the three points more or less guaranteed Premier League survival for another season.
There have been exenuating circumstances surrounding the subtle decline of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal this season. Injuries have aggravated all three of them – on Saturday, with all three substitutions having been made, Didier Drogba pulled up injured and may well have been replaced had Chelsea not already used up all three of their substitutions – and Chelsea and Manchester United have, in different ways, both been the subject of extra curricular distractions. It’s difficult to quantify the exact extent to which Manchester City and Tottenham Hospur have closed the gap on them (and it still seems almost certain that they will complete a clean sweep of the trophies this season), but the possibility of a championship challenge next season coming from elsewhere remains on the horizon – a slight one, admittedly, but it seems for likely than for a number of years.
There is still plenty of time for further twists and turns in the Premier League, even with only three matches of the season left to play. It’s Manchester United’s turn to play Tottenham Hotspur next and, should they fail to win that match, Chelsea may be able to open up a little more of a gap at the top of the table. Chelsea travel to Anfield the following day, a diffcult enough game in itself. It seems likely that the title race will go to the final day of the season, and if both Manchester United and Chelsea were to both lose next week, it is even possible that Arsenal (who are at home against Manchester City next Saturday) could be dragged back into the title race. At the moment, it feels as if no conclusion to the Premier League season could be too unlikely to come to pass.