Chelsea has its nose in front

Published : May 13, 2010 00:00 IST

With a single-point lead and a goal-difference of nine over Manchester United, Chelsea's task in the final round looks easy, as all it needs is a draw against humble Wigan to win the EPL. But it could lose, in which case all Manchester United needs is a simple victory over Stoke in its final fixture. What will happen? Over to Ayon Sengupta.

Following a season of highs and lows, and more than the occasional unanticipated twirl, the English Premier League race could now be done and dusted for good. Buoyed by the 7-0 thumping of Stoke, Chelsea, the race leader, had an easy 2-0 win over the much-pedigreed but disastrously underperforming Liverpool, thus maintaining its single-point lead over Manchester United.

Even a draw against humble Wigan at home on the last day of the championship (May 9) is enough to give Carlo Ancelloti's men their fourth League title, unless of course Man United pumps in at least 10 goals past a stubborn, defensive Stoke in its last match on May 9 to better its goal quotient. (Chelsea currently enjoys a nine-goal cushion over the defending champion.) But this is highly unlikely considering Stoke has one of the better defensive records amongst the mid-table floaters, with only 44 goals conceded in 36 games. In case Chelsea were to lose, all Manchester United requires is a simple victory.

A hard-fought 2-1 victory over Manchester United weeks ago put Chelsea firmly at the rooftop with a seemingly unbridgeable four-point lead and a stronger goal-difference. However, this season, things in the EPL have changed faster than a luge alters its course downhill at breakneck speed. Tottenham Hotspur, the favourite for the fourth place, threw the title race wide open with back-to-back wins against Arsenal and Chelsea in the space of four days. And with the Blues stuck at 77 points, the Red Devils took full advantage by edging their affluent cross-city rival and another Champions League hopeful Manchester City with a chic injury-time header from the fizzy Paul Scholes.

Continuing to exploit Chelsea's slip, United surged ahead on the points table temporarily, ending Spurs' giant-slaying run with a 3-1 demolition at Old Trafford. In the absence of the talismanic Wayne Rooney, United turned to the evergreen Ryan Giggs who converted two spot-kicks. And a deft chip from Nani, aspiring to fill the void left by Cristiano Ronaldo, completed the scoring for the Red Devils. The fightback was truly on, and Sir Alex Ferguson's boys were ready to chase Chelsea till the very end.

A tricky penultimate week clash at Liverpool was all Chelsea was worried about. A victory for the home team, a joint 18-time League winner with United, could have set up Red Devils' 19th League title, making them the most successful unit in English football history. But such prayers of the United fans were not to be answered, as a rare gaffe from Steven Gerrard — it sent the conspiracy theorists into overdrive — allowed Didier Drogba to go level with Rooney on top of the goal-scorers chart. Frank Lampard then scored Chelsea's second goal in the second half that dashed Liverpool's hopes of a comeback and any late attempt by the Merseyside club to take the final Champions League slot.

Chelsea's dominating run this season has been largely possible because of its attacking troika of Drogba, Lampard and the French international Florent Malouda. Playing a brand of free-flowing football, the three strikers have scored 59 goals between them.

Manchester United, though, has increasingly turned out to be a one-man goal-scoring unit with Rooney alone accounting for 26 goals, while his striking partner Dimitar Berbatov has had another uninspiring season with only 12 goals from 31 games.

With an impressive roster including Drogba, Anelka, Lampard, Deco, Malouda, Joe Cole, Michael Essien and Michael Ballack to chose from, Ancelotti has been blessed with diverse but healthy attacking options that induce jealousy among his peers. With no high-profile arrivals, or more importantly departures from Stamford Bridge last summer or this winter, the Italian has had no problems with continuity of established match-winners to carry on the campaign.

In contrast, Ferguson has had to deal with the transfer of two of his most talented lieutenants, Ronaldo (to Real Madrid) and Carlos Tevez (to Manchester City). And the new arrivals, Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia, were never going to restore the efficiency of the departing duo.

As for the other teams from the ‘big-four', Liverpool, with the departure of its midfield general Xavi Alonso, never looked composed. And Arsenal was denied the services of its most gifted ball player Cesc Fabregas during various phases and also its principal striker Robin van Persie for virtually the entire campaign. Though out of the title race, it's safe to say that Arsenal has taken the third place in the EPL table and with it has ensured its place in the Champions League.

Both Tottenham (67 points) and Manchester City (66 points), with two matches in hand, have the chance of filling up the final Champions League slot.

Since England was handed four automatic Champions League spots in 2004 it will be for the first time that one of the ‘big-four' will not figure in Europe's elite club competition. Even in 2005, when Everton finished fourth, Liverpool was allowed to join the usual suspects from fifth place as it was the holder.

This year the Reds had a horrific season and a change of guard at the helm with the departure of Spaniard Rafa Benitez looks imminent. The side, increasingly dependent on the ability of Fernando Torres and Gerrard, stares at a bleak future unless its American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr, infuse the much-needed moolah for making heavy purchases in the summer. Without the efforts of Torres and skipper Gerrard, Liverpool would have finished further down the ladder (the team is expected to finish seventh which will ensure the club's presence in Europe's tier II competition, the Europa League).

The English Premiership title this season, however, has been truly for Chelsea's taking. The fact that the team boasts a 100 per cent record against Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool suggests that Chelsea is well equipped to dance its way to a comfortable triumph.

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