The results are finally coming in for the 2013/14 season. After the weekend’s action, Fulham and Cardiff are now officially relegated. And in their place, Leicester are confirmed for next season. While Brighton, Derby, Wigan and QPR will do battle in the playoffs for the remaining two spots.
At the other end of the table, the pieces seem to be falling into place for Manchester City. Liverpool’s inaction until Monday combined with Chelsea’s surprise 0-0 draw with Norwich on Sunday puts City into the driving seat, perhaps ahead of schedule. In fact Chelsea were lucky not to have dropped all three points against a Norwich side fighting for their lives.
Terry very nearly gave away a penalty and the lead which a toothless Chelsea would have struggled to match. After their win against Liverpool, it’s been a bad week overall for Mourinho. They bowed out of Europe and on Sunday they effectively bowed out of the league.
Arsenal, on the other hand have secured the last Champions League place after Everton’s 3-2 defeat on Saturday. By Sunday, the Gunners 1-0 win over West Brom was merely academic and the nagging doubts over Arsenal’s competitiveness can be shelved, for now at least.
So from Arsenal in fourth, through Crystal Palace in eleventh there is no change. But below this there is a flurry of movement, largely inconsequential for most teams involved. Twelfth-placed West Ham through to Swansea, Villa and Hull are now finally free from the threat of relegation. Therefore eighteenth-placed Norwich, despite earning a point on Sunday, have only Sunderland and West Brom left to haul in.
Sunderland’s surprise win over Manchester United on Saturday moves Poyet closer to his unlikely great escape. They are now two points ahead of eighteenth-placed Norwich. And the Black Cats have two games remaining against West Brom on Wednesday and Stoke on Sunday. Whereas only Arsenal now awaits the Canaries and that is if Sunderland fail to pick up any points.
So it all looks rosy for Sunderland but there is a slight ‘if’. There are reports that Fulham, Cardiff and Norwich, unsurprisingly, are planning legal action against the Black Cats for fielding an ineligible player. Ji Dong-won, the player in question was only ineligible for one game in which Sunderland picked up only a point.
Sunderland have already been fined, and if points are deducted, they will only relate to those won in games that the ineligible player participated in. Therefore, in the unlikely event that Sunderland are deducted, it will have no bearing on Cardiff anyway.
While Fulham would still need to bridge a gap in goal difference of twenty six. It could potentially impact on Norwich but it looks highly unlikely that they will beat Arsenal on Sunday. So it all smells like sour grapes to me.
Normally Premier Snakes and Ladders gets its kicks from focusing on movement across the table after the weekend’s action. But we have to make an exception for this instalment. Cardiff and Fulham may not have moved places yet nonetheless they have crash landed into the Championship. So we’ll begin with the first casualties of the season, Championship Cardiff.
20th Cardiff #RELEGATED#
It must be embarrassing for Cardiff that on the day they were relegated, their departure from elite football wasn’t even the most momentous event of that afternoon. Protests against Pardew and Ashley culminated with the dramatic exit of 2,000 Newcastle supporters in the 69th minute. But Cardiff fans could be forgiven for not sympathising with these first-world problems as they watched their side limp back into Championship football.
Ultimately, last weekend’s 4-0 loss to Sunderland consigned Cardiff to their fate ever before this encounter. But to their credit, they battled on after Ameobi’s 18th minute opener. However two goals at the death from Remy and Taylor ended any remnants of Welch hope. Even a single Cardiff goal would have rattled the host’s brittle confidence and unleashed fans fury even further. But despite the negativity that engulfed St James Park, Cardiff were unable to capitalise.
For much of Solskjaer’s tenure, at least Cardiff were admirable for their fighting spirit. But on occasions over the last month or so, this spirit has disappeared. You suspect that the Norwegian enjoyed an extended honeymoon period that quickly evaporated once reality dawned on the players over the course of the final few critical games. But to Solskjaer’s credit, it was never going to be an easy task.
It is said that Tan replaced Mackay because he disapproved of the Scots transfer dealings. But Medel and Caulker, amongst others, have been rare positives for Solskjaer this season. But with the £40 million loss associated with relegation, reality will dawn quickly on the entire club as well. In the coming weeks, the word Mackay may come to haunt Solskjaer and especially Tan like never before.
1st Manchester City +2
Pellegrini’s men move top only on goal difference and Liverpool can strike back almost immediately against Crystal Palace on Monday. But it is goal difference; as it stands City have an advantage of nine, which will decide this year’s league. At this stage and with this season in particular, very small factors will separate first from second even after 38 long games.
Everton posed the greatest challenge to City in their final run in and as expected Martinez’s men made them work for the points. Barkley’s 11th minute opener, a 25 yard dipping volley, may have been a speculative effort. But Everton grabbed the initiative from the off before City reeled them back eleven minutes later with Aguero’s equaliser. Dzeko’s brace at either side of the break eventually decided the encounter. However Lukaku’s 65th minute header led to an anxious final twenty-five minutes for the champions elect.
So Liverpool play on Monday. But City can themselves respond on Wednesday against Villa before Sunday’s final fixtures. With their survival now confirmed, Villa may be even more under-motivated than of late. Equally West Ham, City’s final challengers, might be happy with their season’s work especially after already flirting with relegation this year. So unless Liverpool can beat Crystal Palace and Newcastle in an orgy of goals, the title will be heading back to the Etihad for the second time in three seasons.
19th Fulham #RELEGATED#
On Saturday, thirteen years of Premier League football came to a crashing end for Fulham with a 4-1 loss to Stoke City. In reality, Fulham can only look within for blame. Their poor performances over the New Year period were critical. But equally you get the impression that if Magath had another two or three games in charge; he might just have pulled it off.
I’m not sure what that says about the debate on mid-season managerial change, but Fulham’s fans won’t care much either way. Like Cardiff’s 4-0 loss to Sunderland last week. It looks now that the game was up for Fulham after their draw with Hull last weekend. Fulham looked set for the win on that occasion only for two late Hull goals.
But against Stoke on Saturday, the players looked already resigned to their faith. Fulham haven’t kept a clean sheet away from home since the start of the season and were outplayed at the Britannia. While Richardson’s goal in the 80th minute merely punctuated Stoke’s overall dominance rather than offer any real consolation for Fulham fans. Magath has already stated that he intends to stay but tough times are ahead. Al-Fayed was either very shrewd or lucky when he decided to sell.
No doubt Fulham fans will be devastated but perhaps neutrals will also feel a twinge of regret. While Fulham have never been the most glamorous or indeed successful outfits, they have been a mainstay in the changing Premier League over recent years. Indeed the image of Craven Cottage, small and old fashioned was a good reminder to us all of footballs’ more humble past.
Alan Casey, Pundit Arena.