Manchester United are set to win a record 20th league title at a canter, but the battle for Champions League qualification is far more compelling and far less certain
By Liam Twomey
After the most dramatic finish to a title race in living memory last season, the battle for the big cup in this Premier League campaign was always likely to be a bit of a comedown.
But even by standards significantly lower than those of Sergio Aguero wheeling away shirtless and screaming, or of Sir Alex Ferguson wearing the expression of a pensioner abandoned at a bus stop, this has been awful. There is no tension, and no hope of a Usual Suspects-like twist in the tale. Sooner rather than later, Manchester United are going to win a record 20th league title.
The gap, at 15 points, is simply too big. The season, at 30 games, is simply too far gone. United are too relentless but, just as importantly, Manchester City lack both the hunger and quality expected of champions. In the final reckoning they will lose out, as will those who crave a spectacle.
Yet while the main business is already settled, there remains plenty with the potential to set pulses racing. With its sackings, intensely high stakes and sheer unpredictability, the relegation dogfight once again looks set to be a genuine humdinger. Those with an eye for the Premier League’s more glamorous faces, however, will be drawn to the battle for the top four.
Last year there was drama aplenty. Tottenham looked to have third place sewn up, before a run of one win in nine matches allowed Arsenal to sneak in. As the season ended, they still thought they had done enough to secure a place in the Champions League, until Chelsea went and won the blasted thing in the most miraculous way possible.
This season the abject failure of English clubs in Europe’s elite club tournament means there will be no such last-ditch knife in the back. But the strength of domestic competition more than makes up for a lack of continental intrigue, with Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal and Everton all still in the running.
Andre Villas-Boas’ men currently have the edge, leading the Blues by two points and the Gunners by four. If both of the chasing pack win their games in hand, however, there will be just two points separating three teams with only a handful of matches still to play. Everton, six points back, are clearly outsiders, but remain in with a fighting chance.
But beyond the sheer proximity in terms of points, what makes this tussle so compelling is that each of the contenders are just as obviously vulnerable as they are talented.
Given the resources involved, Chelsea should already be well clear of this race. But they lack attacking firepower; Fernando Torres is a false nine in the worst possible sense and Demba Ba’s snazzy facemask appears to have shorn him of his clinical power.
They are also, more fundamentally, a club divided against itself: fans against the manager, players against the manager and themselves, and a manager against the world. At times it feels there is no limit to the appetite for self-destruction at Stamford Bridge, and as such it would be no seismic shock if a club which contrived to finish sixth last year missed out again.
Tottenham look impressive, roared on by the sensational Gareth Bale. But the fact they rely on him is both inevitable and a cause for concern. If he gets injured or even momentarily steps back down from the world-class pedestal he has assumed this season, Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor look incapable of taking up the mantle.
Arsenal, meanwhile, are just Arsenal. They are, traditionally, the Wigan of the top four race: always finding a way despite seemingly ever-diminishing resources. But their inconsistency has been even more maddening than usual this season, and their repeated failure to produce their best against their rivals in the top quarter of the Premier League might prove costly.
Everton are outsiders for a reason. They are on course to enjoy their best league campaign for three seasons, and the deficiencies of their rivals have kept them in the hunt. Yet they remain six points off the pace with matches running out fast, and one suspects they may lack the squad depth, the belief or the consistency to see off London’s finest.
With no convincing favourites and the momentum constantly shifting, the scene is set for a mouth-watering finale, punctuated by some fascinating individual contests.
Chelsea must still play Spurs, Liverpool, Manchester United and Everton, while Spurs also have tricky engagements with the Toffees and Manchester City. Arsenal will host United on April 28, while David Moyes’ men must still face all their top four rivals and negotiate a Merseyside derby before it is over.
For now it is too close to call. With so many points still available and so much high-pressure football still to play, predictions should be the sole reserve of the brave and the foolish. But for those not emotionally involved, there will surely be no shortage of drama or entertainment.
Pounds and prestige rather than trophies are the prize, but the battle will be no less heated for it. All that remains is to strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.