Premier League review week 37
15:21, 08 May 2012
From Manchester City passing every test but one to the most unpredictable last-day battle of all, Miguel Delaney picks out the key themes from the weekend as well as his team of the week
The last test
In the progress of any ambitious team, no matter how wealthy or well-equipped, a number of thresholds still have to be crossed. Always gradually, sometimes painfully.
On Sunday, Manchester City faced two of their biggest. As it closed in on 60 minutes at St James’s Park, they still hadn’t broken through Newcastle. On the bench, anxiety was rising. At Old Trafford, optimism was rising.
It was a familiar feeling. And a familiar situation.
As we’ve illustrated before on these pages, City have had two primary issues this season which suggested they might be prevented from lifting a first title in 44 years.
One, they’ve struggled to win games that haven’t been going their way after an hour. Two, Roberto Mancini has so far been relatively ineffective in affecting change in such games.
Indeed, there were a few murmurs of disapproval as the Italian made a common counter-intuitive change on 63 minutes. An attacker in Samir Nasri was hauled off, a defensive midfielder in Nigel De Jong was thrown on.
Previously, it hasn’t exactly paid off. This time, it proved perfect. At last absolved of defensive responsibilities, a vibrant Yaya Toure was at last allowed to surge forward and run at a retreating Newcastle.
Previously, City had just been suffocating Newcastle. After the switch, they finally cut them off.
What’s more, City had evidently learned from other earlier errors. Back in March and April, they had buckled under pressure to yield first place to Manchester United. Only an unprecedented choke from Alex Ferguson’s side let them back in. And, once back in position, City have only built on it.
It shouldn’t be discounted that they have now put in two hugely convincing and comprehensive successive performances in the season’s two crunch games. Whatever of what went before, that will make them deserving champions... so long as they pass the last domestic test: win the ultimate pressure occasion.
Go fourth... and stagnate
While the top of the table has seen two significant swings in initiative, how many has the race just beneath it witnessed? And not just over the course of the season but over the course of the last few weeks?
The Champions League chase may well end up the most exciting of the lot simply because it’s the most unpredictable. Whereas it will take a huge shock for City not to beat QPR on Sunday (thereby also conditioning the relegation battle), would you confidently bet on any of the four teams to win their next game based on recent results? Arsenal have badly faded again only to be spared by Tottenham’s toils while Newcastle must again pick themselves up from a beating. That takes its toll, but still not as much as a fixture pile-up which Chelsea have clearly endured.
By about 4.30pm on Sunday, the likelihood is that most eyes on the Champions League chase.
This isn’t so much the time to step as the time to just not stumble too badly. Arsenal can testify to that after being let off the hook.
Gone in 60 seconds
Given the hyperbolic nature of the modern football media, the effect of individual moments can often be wildly exaggerated. One more notable error can often be fixated on over the series of similar mistakes that ultimately allowed and accounted for it; a last stretched tackle can suddenly be lionised despite the otherwise lax movement that necessitated.
Individual, supposedly revealing, instances, however, are still only ever products of wider realities. Last-minute winners, after all, are usually either the product of a fitter team with better belief and attitude or a lesser team governed by fear.
In saying all that, though, it may well be difficult to escape the assertion that the 90th minute of Sunday’s three o’clock games will effectively set the season for as many as three teams. And worse, given the premium on points at the bottom, it could – and probably should – have been radically different.
In the 89th, after all, Bolton were 2-1 up against West Brom and two points clear of QPR. Not only that, they were within a point of an atrocious, free-falling Aston Villa who would suddenly have had to concern themselves with a very real last-day relegation battle. The sudden pressure might well have tipped what has been a dismal team over the edge.
Then, for Owen Coyle, all changed. Changed utterly. West Brom equalised and QPR struck against Stoke. Villa were safe and Bolton were back in the most perilous position of all.
As a result, it is now a straight fight between the Londoners and the Lancashire teams – two sides that have showed an admirable amount of greater fight than Alex McLeish’s.
Ultimately, though, Villa got sufficient victories early on. As cruel as the campaign may be Bolton, they only have themselves to blame for collapsing. But, at the least, they have one last day – and the welcome fixture of QPR’s visit to City – to rectify it.
Team of the week
1. Shay Given (Aston Villa)
2. Philip Bardsley (Sunderland)
3. John Arne Riise (Fulham)
4. Antolin Alcaraz (Wigan)
5. Vincent Kompany (Manchester City)
6. Yaya Toure (Manchester City)
7. Victor Moses (Wigan)
8. James McArthur (Wigan)
9. Robin van Persie (Arsenal)
10. Djibril Cisse (QPR)
11. Grant Holt (Norwich City)
Miguel Delaney is a European football journalist who writes for the Evening Herald, the Irish Examiner, ESPN, the London Independent and ourselves. In 2011, he was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year.
Follow him @migueldelaney
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @eircomSportsHub