LONDON: Two different mini-competitions have evolved in the upper reaches of the Premier League. One concerns the league title itself and that is plainly now between only champions Manchester United and neighbours Manchester City.
The other concerns the four-way battle for places three and four which also offer entry into the Champions League next season – and dictates the status and quality of the players which the two ‘lucky’ clubs will be able to attract during the summer transfer window.
The busy easter programme is always considered a decisive stage of the season but, in the case of the Champions League places, the ‘competition’ couldrun right to the last day of the season because none of the four clubs involved – Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Newcastle – have demonstrated consistency of form.
Arsenal made their worst start to a season for more than 50 years and it took the short-term, emergency acquisitions of experienced reinforcements such as Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta to help turn results around. The Gunners then suffered another mid-season ‘blip’ when they badly missed injured fullbacks Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs.
If any of the other clubs had shown consistent form then Arsenal would not be as high as third. The fact that they are owes most to captain Robin Van Persie. The Dutchman is enjoying the finest season of his career.
He is the league top scorer with 26 goals and has demonstrated leadership qualities on and off the pitch which would amaze his early-career coaches back at Feyenoord.
Never during Arsene Wenger’s 17-year tenure as manager have Arsenal ever finished below neighbours Tottenham in the league and it says everything about Spurs’ spring slump that Wenger’s record may remain intact.
Spurs have played some outstanding football. Their results have fully justified chairman Daniel Levy’s determination to keep playmaker Luka Modric out of Chelsea’s clutches last summer and his wise acquisition of England anchor Scott Parker plus loan signing of Manchester City centre-forward Emmanuel Adebayor (top-scoring 13 goals).
It may have been coincidence that Tottenham’s results dipped when manager Harry Redknapp was suddenly the subject of speculation linking him with the England job. Their victory over Swansea last weekend was their first in six league games.
Chelsea have had their own managerial problems, of course, with Andre Villas-Boas’s naivety about how to deal with his big-ego veterans on a personal level contributing to his downfall after only eight months. The Blues have recovered with great spirit under caretaker Roberto Di Matteo but even he concedes that the prospects of a top-four finish are unrealistic.
Newcastle have the early-term goals of Demba Ba and the springtime emergence of Papiss Cisse to thank for their surprisingly high status. Alan Pardew, who needed time to win over the fans, has managed his resources astutely but the perception remains that they are punching above their station.
Pardew says: “It’s great to see us sixth in the table but the strength of the Premier League is that there are no easy games. The teams at the bottom of the table are as much of a danger as the teams at the top – particularly at this time of year when so much is at stake.”
In terms of remaining fixtures, Arsenal’s seven include two against top-six teams (Manchester City and Chelsea) while Spurs face only none of them, albeit they do have the distractions of an FA Cup semi-final Chelsea mixed in.
Chelsea not only have the FA Cup on their mind but an ageing squad has had to use up more valuable energy by progressing further in European competition than any other English club. Their run-in includes a visit to Arsenal, home game against Newcastle and visit to unpredictable Liverpool.
Newcastle, apart from going away to Chelsea, are also home to Manchester City on the penultimate day of the season.
The balance thus points to the positions as they are now remaining the same at the end of the day on May 13 – with the only possible alteration being Tottenham sneaking ahead of their north London neighbours.
That would be worth a Spurs celebration all by itself.