So you thought the Premier League title race was over, didn’t you.
Monday night’s win in the Manchester derby gave City the crucial advantage, with Vincent Kompany’s header proving the difference against United and moving the two teams level on points.
However, the Citizens goal difference swings things dramatically in their favour, with an eight-goal advantage that even a fantasy XI picked by Sir Alex Ferguson would struggle to overhaul.
Judging by the performance on Monday night, it might well need something of fantasy to rescue the Red Devils after one of their poorest performances in recent history.
So often the team for the big occasion, United failed to muster a shot on target when it mattered, with Ferguson’s defensive 4-5-1 formation failing to stop the hosts from creating chances through the midfield.
That said, it was a set-piece which served as the breaking point for the visitors, with Kompany taking advantage of a positional error from Chris Smalling and powering home from six yards out.
There was always a fear that Newcastle could pose Manchester City a problem, a point proved by their continuing persistence in pursuit of a top four finish this season.
However, a humbling 4-0 defeat at Wigan Athletic last Saturday was expected to end their challenge, crucially giving them nothing to play for at St. James’ Park on Sunday.
Alan Pardew’s side forgot to read the script on Wednesday night though, capitalising on Chelsea’s squad rotation at Stamford Bridge to record a famous 2-0 victory over the FA Cup and Champions League finalists.
In the swipe of Papiss Demba Cisse’s foot, Newcastle are back in the mix for a return to the European Cup, sitting level on points with fourth-placed Spurs, and just one behind Arsenal in the position ahead.
From nothing to play for apart from hope and the Europa League, the Magpies can now legitimately believe that they will finish in the top four. One slip from either Harry Redknapp or Arsene Wenger’s sides, and the Toon are very much ready to pounce.
Beating Chelsea is a must for them now, and with Cisse, Demba Ba, Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa in the side, they have the ammunition to shoot-down Roberto Mancini’s side when it really matters.
For United, they are in the unusual position of needing other teams to do them a favour. With Swansea at home followed by Sunderland away, it will be far from easy. But, the way Ferguson runs his ship, you’d bet good money that United will claim maximum points against two sides with little to play for.
Newcastle won’t be doing it for United at the weekend – far from it in fact. Most City fans would put their cap on the Citizens if they were forced to pick between the two Manchester clubs, with a United rivalry stemming back to the days when Kevin Keegan’s side crumbled to the mind games of the Scot.
They will be doing it for themselves though, with this group of players chasing a chance to play alongside the elite teams of Europe. The likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus could lay in wait with a fourth-place finish – providing Chelsea lose to Munich on May 19th of course.
And then there is the small matter of a final day clash against QPR, who could well be fighting for their lives at the wrong-end of the table. Currently sat deep in the relegation mix, Mark Hughes’ side has plenty of danger-men, but hasn’t been able to click at the highest level. The match against City might be their last chance.
Hughes also has the added incentive of trying to prove his worth against former employers, with the former United striker cast aside soon after the arrival of vast riches at the Etihad Stadium. He was never the man they wanted, and would love to show them what they missed on the biggest day in the club’s recent history.
The table doesn’t lie though, and QPR will be big underdogs. Newcastle provide the bigger threat on paper, but more importantly in reality given their fine form all season.
And, if last night’s result is anything to go by, they still have plenty to offer at the penultimate weekend of the season. United will certainly be hoping they can deliver the goods.
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