EPL Final Day Preview
English Premier League
Sunday 13th May 2012
While the vast majority of the media attention will inevitably be focused upon the title-deciding events unfolding in Manchester and Sunderland, the battle for fourth place will also go right down to the wire and Newcastle United remain very much in the mix.
Should the Magpies manage to pick up three points at Everton and either Spurs or Arsenal fail to do likewise in their respective games against Fulham and West Brom, the men from the north-east will be playing Champions League football next season.
And what an achievement that would be on the part of manager Alan Pardew who has enjoyed nowhere near the budget allocated to either Harry Redknapp or Arsene Wenger and yet has assembled a side that came flying out of the blocks at the start of the season and has not looked back since.
The likes of Yohan Cabaye, Cheik Tiote, Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse have proved to be magnificent bargain buys, Tim Krul has been outstanding in goal and unsung heroes such as Ryan Taylor, Danny Simpson and Mike Williamson have all played key roles in what has been a season to remember for the St James’ Park, or Sports Direct Arena if you prefer, faithful.
Unbeaten until early November, the Tyneside club did come a little unstuck over Christmas, but those who predicted that they would come down with the decorations were proved totally wrong as they swiftly roared back into form and they will head to Goodison Park on Sunday searching for an eighth win in ten games.
Pardew’s side threatened to poop Manchester City’s party for a large chunk of last week’s clash with the champions-elect, before eventually succumbing, but they did not appear to pick up any fresh injuries in that 2-0 home reverse.
Pardew has confirmed that Danny Simpson won’t feature on Sunday as he continues to nurse the ankle injury he picked up against Wigan, meaning James Perch will again deputise in the back four.
Everton, meanwhile, can also reflect on a reasonably successful season irrespective of whether they end it on a winning note.
Continuing what has become a set pattern in recent years, their financial limitations prevented the Toffees from doing much in the way of squad strengthening over the summer and they then made another awful start to the campaign before duly rallying, finding some form and ultimately earning a very creditable top ten finish.
They also managed to reach the FA Cup Semi-Finals along the way and the big question on the blue side of Merseyside in the coming weeks will be whether manager David Moyes decides that after more than ten years at the helm, he has taken the club as far as he can.
Yet even if the Scot is looking to leave, it’s hard to see exactly where he might go.
He has been touted as Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor at Old Trafford, but his fellow-countryman seems very unlikely to retire this year, especially if City pip United to the title and he was also strongly linked with a move to Tottenham, but with Harry Redknapp now missing out on the England job, that door seems to have been shut as well.
And those suggesting that he could make the short trip across Stanley Park to Anfield should Kenny Dalglish get dumped by the Reds in the near future will surely be dismissed by both sets of fans as mere mischief-makers.
So as it stands, Moyes may well stay put and will presumably be a little disappointed that the season is ending given that his charges have lost only twice in the league since early January.
That impressive run of form has coincided with the arrival of Nikica Jelavic from Rangers who has already helped himself to ten goals and should he replicate that form with Croatia at next month’s European Championships, may well be linked with a big-money exit from GoodisonPark.
Steven Pienaar has also been in sensational form since returning from Spurs on loan and the Toffees will surely make bringing the South African midfielder back on a permanent basis one of their main priorities in the off-season.
In terms of Sunday’s season finale, Phil Neville is again set to miss out due to a hamstring strain and Denis Stracqualursi may be preferred to James McFadden after an impressive cameo off the bench on last week’s 0-0 draw at Wolves.
Newcastle may have prevailed when the two sides met on Tyneside back in November, but they have only picked up three points once in their last nine trips to Goodison and the Toffees have lost just twice at home since the turn of the year.
The home side certainly won’t be lacking in motivation as they know that a victory would ensure a seventh-placed finish above Liverpool and they have it in them to foil Newcastle’s Champions League dreams by claiming a point.
Prediction: Everton 1-1 Newcastle United
Sunday 13th May 2012
44 years have elapsed since Manchester City were last crowned the kings of English football.
Since then, 24 managers have come and gone, the men in sky blue have slipped down as far as League One, frequently teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, endured false dawn after false dawn and all the while had their faces repeatedly rubbed in it by their all-conquering rivals from across the city.
So regardless of the rights and wrongs concerning the virtually unlimited resources now provided by City’s Middle Eastern owners, it’s hard not to be glad for their long-suffering and superbly loyal supporters as they stand on the edge of glory.
But they do still have to seal the deal and City fans would be well advised not to dismiss Sunday’s visitors Queens Park Rangers as mere bit-part extras in an all-singing, all-dancing sky blue spectacular.
For the West Londoners have a massive incentive themselves, knowing that if Bolton win at Stoke and they fail to claim a point at the Etihad, they will be making an immediate return to the Championship.
There were wild scenes of celebration at Loftus Road last weekend as substitute Djibril Cisse popped up to grab a late winner against Stoke, but the same fans who jubilantly poured onto the pitch at the final whistle will head north on Sunday knowing that another ninety minutes of unbearable tension is in store.
The presence of Mark Hughes in the visitors’ dug-out will of course add an intriguing sub-plot to what is already shaping up to be dramatic afternoon.
The Welshman, of course, was famously enraged by the way Roberto Mancini succeeded him in the City hot-seat, claiming that the Italian broke the unspoken code of managerial conduct by shamelessly touting himself for the job and openly meeting with the club’s owners while Hughes was still in charge.
Then there are Hughes’ intrinsic links to Manchester United whose fans will be praying that their former favourite can do them the favour of all favours by securing the boilover that would almost certainly lead to the title heading, yet again, to the red side of the city.
The stats, however, suggest that the R’s chances of securing their own safety and dealing City the most savage of blows in the process, are slim to none.
Mancini’s men have been nothing short of formidable at home this term, winning seventeen of their eighteen league games, scoring 52 goals and conceding just ten in the process.
Rangers, meanwhile, have picked up only eleven points away fromLoftus Road all season, the last of their road victories coming way back in November when they beat Stoke 3-2.
They have also slipped into a curiously regular pattern of results dating back to their defeat at Bolton in early March, since when they have won every home game and lost each subsequent away game right up until last week’s victory over Stoke.
Another defeat on Sunday would maintain this solidly consistent level of inconsistency and could well condemn Hughes’ men to the drop.
In terms of team news for the visitors, midfielder Diakite Samba should make the travelling part after shaking off the effects of a virus and Hughes may well opt to take a more defensive approach than he did against Stoke, with Jamie Mackie possibly dropping down to the bench.
As for the hosts, it’s hard to imagine that Mancini will opt to tinker with the side that turned in such a polished and professional performance at Newcastle last time out.
That triumph in the north-east was City’s fifth on the bounce and again they appeared to come through the game without picking up any major injuries.
Mario Balotelli didn’t even make the bench at the Sports Direct Arena and it will be interesting to see if the eccentric Italian is included this weekend, with speculation growing in the north-west that his City days could be coming to an end.
Yaya Toure will look to continue his stunning run of late-season form, as will Gareth Barry as he aims to lock down a place in England’s European Championship squad, while Carlos Tevez will also be keen to end a fraught campaign on a high note.
Rangers did give the league leaders an almighty scare back in November when the visitors eventually scrambled to a 3-2 win at Loftus Road and indeed have not lost in their last three trips to City.
All of those games took place in the late 90s, however, when the hosts were a very different animal and while there may be some tension around Etihad Stadium during the early exchanges, Mancini’s men will ultimately get the job done.
And Rangers will be left sweating on news from the Potteries to determine whether they can join in with what should be a party to remember.
Prediction: Manchester City 2-0 Queens Park Rangers
Sunday 13th May 2012
It was almost possible to taste the tension at the Reebok Stadium last weekend as Bolton Wanderers squandered a two goal lead against West Brom to strike a blow to their survival hopes that could ultimately prove fatal.
That result left Owen Coyle’s men knowing that they must pick up three points at the expense of Stoke City on Sunday and hope that QPR fail to secure anything from their daunting trip to Manchester City.
It may not be an ideal situation for the Trotters to find themselves in, but given that the chances of QPR shocking City are minimal, they at least know that if they hold up their end of the bargain, there’s every chance they will be enjoying top flight football again next term.
In fairness, Coyle’s men played well against West Brom until the nerves kicked in and seemed to paralyse them and having won more games on the road this term than they have at home, travelling to the Britannia shouldn’t faze them too much.
The visitors can also take at least some heart from the fact that they produced arguably their best performance of the season against the Potters back in November, trouncing them 5-0 at the Reebok.
They will be up against a Stoke side who looked a touch jaded at QPR last time out and little wonder given that Tony Pulis’ men have already played more than 50 games in all competitions, starting way back in late July.
Having won just one of their last eleven outings, the hosts are clearly ready for a little bit of r and r and it will be interesting to see if they can lift themselves sufficiently to down what will be a frenziedly-motivated Bolton side and sign off in front of their home fans on a winning note.
Pulis will retain Thomas Sorensen in goal ahead of Asmir Begovic in a bid to assist with the Dane’s preparations for the European Championships, Ryan Shotton may come in for Marc Wilson and Kenwyne Jones could get the nod up front ahead of Cameron Jerome who squandered several gilt-edged chances at Loftus Road last weekend.
And on the injury front, Jermaine Pennant and Salif Diao both remain major doubts.
Wanderers boss Coyle, meanwhile, will have to make at least one change at the back after David Wheater suffered a serious knee ligament injury in the draw withWest Brom.
Zat Knight is set to replace the luckless former Middlesbroughman, while up front, Coyle may be tempted to counter Stoke’s defensive physicality by pairing the abrasive Kevin Davies with the equally combative Ivan Klasnic.
That would mean David Ngog dropping down to the bench, but having scored only four goals all season, the $6 million Frenchman could have few complaints.
Darren Pratley seems unlikely to feature in the squad as he is yet to fully overcome a virus, but one man who is very much on the comeback trail is fellow-midfielder Chung-Yong Lee who made a welcome appearance off the bench last week having missed the entire season through injury.
In fairness to the Lancashire side, they have endured a wretched run of luck with injuries, losing the likes of Lee, Stuart Holden, Tyrone Mears and Fabrice Muamba for long periods of the campaign, as well as having to cover for the absence of defensive talisman Gary Cahill following his January switch to Chelsea.
Coyle is widely expected to retain his post even if Wanderers do slip through the relegation trapdoor and if they survive, he will surely look to dramatically overhaul his under-performing squad during the off-season.
Stoke certainly made QPR work hard for their victory last weekend and will be even more obstinate in front of their own fans, but if the visitors can learn the lessons from their draw with West Brom and keep their nerve, they are capable of securing the victory that should be enough to ensure a return trip to the Britannia next season.
Bolton to edge a tight one.
Prediction: Stoke City 1-2 Bolton Wanderers
Stadium of Light
Sunday 13th May 2012
Strange as it may sound, should Manchester United fail to retain their Premier League crown this weekend, it might actually benefit the club in the longer term.
Sir Alex Ferguson worked wonders to lead a very limited squad to the title last year and deserves plenty of credit for bringing them to the brink of glory again this term.
Yet a second successive league triumph would only serve to paper over the cracks that have been growing ever deeper since the Glazer family took over at Old Trafford.
Yes, the Americans did dig deep to fund the capture of Phil Jones and Ashley Young in particular, but United’s squad needed a more comprehensive overhaul last summer and the extra resources required to do that effectively clearly weren’t forthcoming.
The Red Devils have been crying out for a world class central midfielder for two years and yet none has arrived, forcing Ferguson to drag Paul Scholes out of retirement to ride to the rescue.
The likes of Anderson, Michael Owen, Dimitar Berbatov need to be shipped out and replaced with younger, hungrier talents who can carry the mantle as Scholes and Ryan Giggs finally fade gloriously from view.
Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck, Chris Smalling and Jones have the potential to be United stars for years to come, but the support cast needs to be improved and improved quickly if the club’s humiliating European experience earlier this term is not to be repeated on a regular basis.
As it stands, if United do somehow pip City to the title on Sunday, the Glazers will readily claim that the current squad’s success shows that things are ticking along rather nicely as they are, thank you very much.
And with Ferguson seemingly unable or unwilling to rock the boat, it would almost inevitably be a case of same old, same old again next season.
If they finish as runners-up, however, allied to their woeful displays in Europe, the level of concern within the club might just rise enough to prompt the kind of sweeping changes that are surely required if the Red Devils are to compete not only with their nouveau-riche neighbours, but also with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
But first and foremost, Fergie and co must focus their attentions upon Sunday and picking up three points at the expense of a Sunderland side for whom the end of the season cannot come soon enough.
Black Cats boss Martin O’Neill is another man eyeing a squad overhaul having seen his current charges labour to just a solitary victory from their last eleven games.
Fortunately for the Ulsterman, the upsurge in form that immediately followed his arrival at the Stadium of Light ultimately proved enough to steer the Wearsiders away from the danger zone and safely into mid-table, but he is not one to settle for mediocrity and will doubtless be pressing the board for a healthy injection of funds with which to put his mark on what essentially remains a squad assembled by his predecessor, Steve Bruce.
A top class striker is likely to be at the top of O’Neill’s summer shopping list given that eleven-goal leading scorer Nicklas Bendtner is poised to return to Arsenal once his loan spell expires and that the future of record-signing Asamoah Gyan remains very much up in the air following his bizarre mid-season loan move to United Arab Emirates-based club Al-Ain.
Question marks also remain over Connor Wickham who has thus far shown precious little to justify the massively-inflated $13 million fee Steve Bruce paid to bring him to the north-east from Ipswich.
Bendtner is set to regain his starting place for the United game after being replaced by Ji Dong-Won at Fulham last weekend, while in-form winger James McClean should be brimming with confidence having been selected in Ireland’s squad for next month’s European Championship.
Unfortunately for the home side, they are again set to be without long-term absentees Wes Brown, Seb Larsson and Kieran Richardson, while Wickham is also a major doubt due to an ankle injury.
In terms of early team news for United, Chris Smalling will undergo a late fitness test on a groin strain and Wellbeck is similarly battling an ankle injury in time to feature, but central defensive duo Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans should both be fit and available.
While United fans may have little faith in QPR’s ability to upset the apple cart at Etihad Stadium, they can at least travel to Wearside boosted by the knowledge that their side has established a 16-game unbeaten run against Sunday’s opponents dating back to 2000.
The visitors look nailed-on to beat a Sunderland side that seems to be well and truly on holiday already, but it’s unlikely to be enough for them to retain their crown.
And that could just pave the way for one of the most fascinating and potentially pivotal off-seasons in the club’s long and illustrious history.
Prediction: Sunderland 1-3 Manchester United