Crazy, crazy football season, isn't it?
Nobody wants the easy way out.
There are valuable league positions up for grabs—first, third, fourth and 18th, to name four—but no one seems to want them.
Look at the title race over the past few weeks. Manchester City, who have led the league for most of the season, suddenly decided to have a wobble. In a crazy run between March 11th and April 8th, they dropped as many as 10 points in five games, losing two and drawing two, thereby handing over the initiative and the lead to Manchester United.
United, being the Good Samaritans they are, decided to repay the favor immediately. In a kamikaze run of their own between April 11th-30th, they dropped eight points from four games, losing at Wigan and most bizarrely throwing away a 4-2 lead at home against Everton, with seven minutes remaining on the clock.
I say "most bizarrely" from a United perspective, of course. Being an Arsenal fan, I see that sort of thing happen every other week!
And so, with one game to go, our mutually generous league finds itself looking like this. City are level on points with United, but with a superior goal difference of as many as eight goals, they find themselves holding all the aces.
If they win their last game at home to Queens Park Rangers, the Premier League trophy will reside in the blue areas of Manchester for the first time since 1968, irrespective of almost any result that Manchester United have against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. I really don't see them winning by a margin of nine goals, so let's not even go there.
Seems straight-forward enough for the Citizens, doesn't it?
Not for me though. Somehow, something in me says that come next Sunday, Manchester United will be lifting their 20th league title. Want to know why? Read on, then.
This is a must-win game for Manchester United if they are to have any chance of winning the league. But having said that, I believe the pressure is off Sir Alex Ferguson's side.
It was evident from both the team's and the crowd's demeanor during the Swansea game that they believe that the title has been relinquished.
But all said and done, they will destroy Sunderland, whose season seems to have ended for a few weeks now. They have taken just five points from the last eight games, their last win coming on March 24th against, coincidentally, Queens Park Rangers.
History also indicates that a win is on the cards for the visitors. United have won eight and drawn two of their last 10 fixtures against the Black Cats.
I predict a fairly routine win for United, by three or four goals.
QPR currently occupy 16th spot in the Premier League table and sit two points above the relegation zone. If Wigan extend their sensational sequence of results by defeating—and relegating—Blackburn Rovers Monday night, as they should, the Hoops will slip to 17th.
They will then find themselves in direct confrontation with Bolton, who are currently 18th on 35 points, two less than QPR. Bolton travel to Stoke for their last game, and while that is not the easiest place to visit, it is not beyond the realms of imagination to see them picking up three points.
Should that happen, QPR must pick up at least one point against Manchester City to avoid relegation, on goal difference. As always, next Sunday's games will be held concurrently, so QPR will be desperate to get at least that one additional point they need.
Who'd be a fourth official?
If ever there were a time for Sir Alex Ferguson's renowned "mind games," this is it.
He has been strangely subdued this season, but I have seen the spark.
He first lost his fuse in the Manchester derby, squaring up against his counterpart on the touchline before reeling off a string of accusations in his post-match interview.
He was out on that touchline the whole game haranguing the referee, the fourth official and the linesmen. The minute I come off the bench for a bad tackle by De Jong on Welbeck, he was out again. He can't have it both ways. He's been complaining about referees this season but he won't be complaining tonight that's for sure.
And Mancini, who has this season largely refrained from getting into a war of words with his vastly experienced rival, shot back with a sarcastic "Who said this? Him, no? He doesn't talk with the referee or the fourth official? No, never."
QPR need a point and they're fighting for survival. The whole future of the club could be resting on the game and I only wish Sparky was playing. But Mark knows his job all right. He was sacked by City in a very unethical way and he'll remember that.
I think this is only the beginning, and I can foresee a week of mud-slinging between the pair. And as Kevin Keegan and Rafa Benitez, among others, will testify, you know who almost always wins.
Mark Hughes is a bitter man.
Ambition tempted him to dessert a promising "project" at Blackburn and head to moneybags City in 2008.
Just 18 months into the job, he was sacked in acrimonious circumstances and replaced by Roberto Mancini. To this very day, Hughes believes that he wasn't given a chance to complete what he had started and that he would have done as good a job as Mancini, if not better, had he still been manager.
That, of course, is a matter of opinion, but what is definitely a fact is that come Sunday, Mark Hughes will do everything he can to destroy his former employers'—City, not United—dreams of winning a first league title in 44 years.
Hughes said, "It would be a fantastic story if we can go there and get something,” whereas what he really would have wanted to say was, "Nothing will please me more than denying them the title and sending the trophy to Old Trafford."
Do that Sparky, and you'll be even more of a United legend than you are today.
Supporting Arsenal as I do, it is quite obvious that I believe that football teams should be "made" and not "bought." I trust you get the distinction.
Nothing could be more of a slap in the face of a football purist than the fact that a club like Manchester City could spend a billion pounds, buy some of the world's best players and build a world-beating team.
And while most of the smart money is on Manchester City joining the list of teams to have bought their way to a title, it would give me a great deal of joy were this not to happen.
Oh, and did someone mention "Nasri?"