The focus on this season’s Premier League title race could quickly take a back seat if Manchester United beat Blackburn tonight.
All previous logic suggested that the clash between the Red Devils and Manchester City on Monday, 30th April would be a defining moment over where the crown will lie at the end of the season.
But, as the wheels fall off at the Etihad Stadium, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side are expected to make their experience count at Ewood Park tonight. A win will see them move five points clear at the top of the table, and with a favourable run of fixtures ahead, a 20th title looks set to be heading to Old Trafford.
Perhaps my thinking is premature though, baring in mind that Blackburn are fighting for their lives at the bottom of the league and beat United away earlier in the season.
Things have taken a dramatic turn under the guidance of Steve Kean, who was vilified in almost all quarters in Lancashire after a disastrous start to the campaign. But, like at other clubs fighting against the drop, things have recently turned around.
In their last six matches, Blackburn have won three matches – against QPR, Wolves and Sunderland. A draw against Aston Villa makes it ten points, and whilst they’ve lost to Manchester City and Bolton Wanderers, the club has a fighting chance of survival.
The same is true of the Trotters, whose victory against Blackburn was followed up with a win at Wolves over the weekend – a result that effectively sinks Terry O’Connor’s side.
Three wins on the spin have put Owen Coyle’s side on 29 points, one ahead of Blackburn, QPR and Wigan. The later two sit in the relegation zone courtesy of a worse goals scored and goal difference record respectively.
Whilst their was an element of luck to the win over the Hoops, the style of victory over the past fortnight – against the backdrop of Fabrice Muamba’s heart-attack against Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup – suggests that times appear to be changing at the Reebok Stadium.
Muamba’s situation – and subsequent improvement – appears to have galvanized this side, and at Molineux they produced some flowing football to go with a renowned fighting spirit.
For Wigan, it’s a case of role reversal. Roberto Martinez’s side always try to play football ‘the right way’, but questions have always been asked over whether they can do the dirty work in a fight for survival.
And without neglecting their principles, the Latics have also managed to create a spirit that has seen them lose just once in the last two months. A win over Bolton, as well as draws over Aston Villa and West Brom, shows Coyle’s side can take points off rivals at the bottom of the end of the table.
But, more importantly, wins over Liverpool and Stoke have lifted confidence to a new high at the DW Stadium, and realistically gives this team a chance of getting out of the bottom three.
It’s QPR who are the unknown quantity, scrapping for their lives less than 12 months after securing promotion as champions of the Championship. On paper, Mark Hughes has the most talented side at his disposal.
However, their recent form had been nothing short of ordinary, losing to Fulham, Blackburn, Wolves, Bolton and Sunderland since February. However, back-to-back home wins against Liverpool and Arsenal could well breathe fresh life into a side boasting the likes of Joey Barton, Bobby Zamora and Shaun Wright-Phillips.
And there are teams ahead of the pack who will now be nervously looking over their shoulder as the bottom sides string wins together.
Aston Villa, on 33 points, are now dangerously close to being dragged into a relegation battle. Without talisman Darren Bent up-front, goals are likely to be difficult to find, and with Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur still on the fixture list, the game against Bolton on April, 24th could be crucial.
West Bromwich Albion, three points further ahead, will be hoping to have their safety secured before the trip to Bolton on May 6th, with Blackburn and QPR traveling to the Hawthorns within a week period in April.
It’s perhaps not the number of teams in the fight for survival that makes this season so special at the bottom of the table, but the quality of football being showcased by all the teams fighting for their life.
As is often the case, one teams falls adrift from the others in their fight to survive, and this season it appears to be Wolverhampton Wanderers who have been cut adrift.
The closest battle to survive in recent times was in the 2004/05 season, when West Brom achieved the impossible on the final day, leapfrogging three teams to finish the season in 17th. Southampton, Norwich City and Crystal Palace went down, with 34 points enough to survive.
In 2006-07, it was goal difference that kept Wigan up and sent Sheffield United down, as a Carlos Tevez inspired West Ham United won on the final day to secure their own top-flight status. 38 points weren’t enough for the Blades that term.
The following year was also tight, as Reading went down on goal difference to Fulham (36 points), whilst Newcastle United’s 34 the following year didn’t save Alan Shearer’s Toon.
And last season, it was 40 points needed to survive, as Birmingham City’s final day defeat at Tottenham saw them sink to the Championship on 39. Winning the League Cup was minimal consolation.
Whilst this season’s points total could be lower than last for survival, that doesn’t take away from the quality of the current campaign. It’s a rarity to see all the bottom teams taking a high volume of points at the same time, but that’s exactly what’s happened with only seven (or eight for Blackburn and Bolton) games left in the campaign.
Everything now suggests that we could be looking at the best finish to a relegation scrap in the Premier League era, and if results continue in the same way we can expect a final day showdown that the Sky Sports television cameras just love to get carried away with.
We can hope for – and expect – drama to the last.