The Premier League In Review: One Heart, Waiting To Be Broken
The Premier League title itself is starting to look sewn up, but the race at the top of the Championship, the Second Division, has somehow wound up being as tight as could possibly be following this weekend’s matches. Three clubs – Burnley, Middlesbrough, and Brighton & Hove Albion – are all tied at the top of the table on eighty-seven points and with only three goals’ worth of goal difference between them. Burnley won a Friday evening derby at Preston North End thanks to a Joey Barton free-kick, whilst Brighton & Hove Albion laboured more than we might have expected at the already-relegated and furiously-protesting Charlton Athletic and Middlesbrough played out a tense goalless draw against Ipswich Town.
Next Friday, Middlesbrough travel to St Andrews to play Birmingham City, whilst on Sunday afternoon Brighton are at home against Derby County and Burnley are at home against Queens Park Rangers. Then, on the last day of the season, Burnley are away to Charlton, whilst Middlesbrough entertain Brighton. Burnley seem to have the more comfortable of the remaining fixtures, against a mid-table team that may not be over-working with no play-offs to go for, and the aforementioned already-relegated and furiously-protesting club. Middlesbrough and Brighton have to play each other, of course, and the permutations of who could need what from this match are somewhat head-spinning.
As time goes on, the feeling that there isn’t going to be a close race this season is finally starting to accelerate. Leicester City, replete without Jamie Vardy and four games away from the Premier League title, could have been forgiven a little of the Championship nervousness, even in playing a Swansea City team that has been looking pretty disinterested in football, of late. There were no such nerves on display, and Leiecster brushed Swansea aside which indicates that they could well end up the champions with something to spare. A four-nil win and a performance of complete control at such a point in the season is an extraordinary achievement, and it’s difficult to imagine what set of circumstances could end with them not winning the league.
This year’s FA Cup final, meanwhile, will be between Manchester United and Crystal Palace. Is it possible that Anthony Martial’s ninety-third minute goal against Everton will come to be remembered as a pivotal moment in the club’s waxing and waning? Time shall tell, but such drama was an appropriately melodramatic end to a surprisingly entertaining ninety minutes, from which Everton probably deserved to take more than they ultimately did. Crystal Palace deservedly nudged their way past Watford in the other semi-final. Could an FA Cup win possibly be enough to keep Louis Van Gaal in the Manchester United manager’s job? We may be set to see.
Back in the Premier League, meanwhile, Manchester City nudged ahead of Arsenal into third place in the table following a routine enough four-nil win against Stoke City, who are continuing to look as if their season has already finished. Arsenal, meanwhile, toiled and laboured their way to a goalless draw, a curious result after they came roaring out of the traps in the manner of a team that hadn’t quite given up on the mathematical possibility of winning the league championship. They remain five points ahead of Manchester United, though Manchester United have a game in hand. Arsenal’s recent form has been encouraging enough to allow the belief that they will still be resolute enough to cling on for fourth spot, though.
This result was of at least equal significance at the other end of the Premier League table. With Norwich City not playing on account of FA Cup semi-finals, both Sunderland and Newcastle United picked up unlikely points to further muddy the waters at the bottom of the table. Sunderland were attritional in playing out their draw with Arsenal, whilst Newcastle United showed further signs of life with a two-all draw at Anfield which required them to come from two goals behind. It continues to feel as though Newcastle might have been saved, had they dropped Steve McClaren a month or two earlier. As a notebook coach. Rafael Benitez takes a while to impress himself upon a team, but in recent weeks Newcastle have been transformed. Just a point separates Norwich, Sunderland and Newcastle now, though Norwich and Sunderland do still have a game in hand.
Elsewhere in the Premier League, Chelsea wrought revenge for their recent defeats against Manchester City and Swansea City with a little flat-track bullying of Bournemouth, at Dean Court. Bournemouth are safe of relegation, of course, but if good defending is a habit, then it’s one that the club’s defenders will certainly have to reacquaint themselves with after their recent run. At Villa Park, meanwhile, the crowd for the match between Aston Villa and Southampton saw a reported attendance of below 30,000 people and six goals, four of which were scored by the visitors. Southampton retain optimism that they could manage a place in Europe for next season. Aston Villa, drained of colour, leadership, direction, quality and belief, continue their tail-spin towards the Football League against a backdrop of protest placards. A portmanteau of nothing overlaid on top of a background of withered resignation, bitterness, and recrimination.
And this is what the clubs from a level below are fighting to become a part of. Funny old world.