The 2013-14 English Premier League football season is near its conclusion, and although there were only two matches on Wednesday, both of them offered some shocking developments in the EPL table early in Week 35.
Although there is only an outside chance remaining for Manchester City to challenge for the trophy, they blew a big opportunity to notch three points in drawing 2-2 versus last-place Sunderland. Everton's bid to qualify for the 2014-15 UEFA Champions League was set back, as the Toffees remained outside the top four in the standings following a 3-2 loss to Crystal Palace.
At least getting a point helps Sunderland's cause to avoid relegation, but it will take a strong effort in the final weeks to get out of the league cellar.
Arsenal have to feel fortunate that Everton was unable to capitalize on a golden chance versus a club that has been promoted to the EPL just this season. The Gunners maintain a one-point lead over the Toffees, who no longer have an extra match in hand in the race for fourth.
Below is a look at the table as it stands entering the rest of Week 35's action, along with some more extended analysis on what Wednesday's fixtures mean moving forward.
|12||West Ham United||34||10||7||17||-9||37|
|16||West Bromwich Albion||33||6||15||12||-11||33|
Sunderland 2, Manchester City 2
The craziest part about this match was that City actually took the lead in the second minute, courtesy of a quality strike from Fernandinho. Then the Sky Blues clung to the one-goal advantage, only to be undone by two late goals from Connor Wickham at 73' and 83'.
City almost emerged from this clash with no points to show for it before Samir Nasri saved the day in the 88th minute by notching the equaliser. Nasri's playmaking ability was a big part of what helped the Sky Blues salvage a tie, per Squawka Football:
Despite the strong road result, Wickham was left wanting more for the Black Cats, per the EPL's official Twitter account:
Sunderland's two-goal hero Connor Wickham: “We knew we had to get something today and we dominated the game and should have won it" #MCISUN— Premier League (@premierleague) April 16, 2014
Playing host to the worst club in the league at Etihad Stadium almost guaranteed City three points, but they came out flat and were outworked by an opponent that had managed just one draw and five losses in six previous EPL contests.
Manager Manuel Pellegrini expressed disappointment that his side didn't come away with an outright victory, as the Citizens sit six points off Liverpool's leading pace and four behind Chelsea:
Man City boss Manuel Pellegrini: “A draw is not enough because Liverpool and Chelsea are top of the table and we needed three points."— Premier League (@premierleague) April 16, 2014
The chances of City rallying back to take down the Reds have slimmed, as their difficult stretch in league play continues. Credit Sunderland for fighting through a rather bleak outlook and salvaging a point when they had no business doing so on paper.
This is another example of why relegation is such an excellent concept that should be introduced in other sports if possible. It gives incentive for even the worst teams to put forth maximum effort during an otherwise lost season, leading to upsets like the one witnessed in Manchester on Wednesday.
Crystal Palace 3, Everton 2
Adding insult to injury was the fact that this match took place in the Toffees' own Goodison Park, which left fans booing at the end of the match when Everton looked certain to be defeated.
A 2-0 deficit turned out to be too much for the hosts to overcome, as the Eagles' Cameron Jerome (73') answered a goal in the 61st minute by Steven Naismith to give the underdogs a commanding advantage with minimal time left. Kevin Mirallas cut the deficit to 3-2 in the 86th minute, but it was too late, for Everton's fate had already been sealed.
Retired player Fabrice Muamba gave praise to Crystal Palace boss Tony Pulis, who has done an exceptional job in elevating his club from possible relegation to being far more secure at remaining in the EPL:
Tony Pulis is doing unbelievable job at Crystal palace.— fabrice muamba (@fmuamba) April 16, 2014
Toffees boss Roberto Martinez was confident that Everton could still catch Arsenal for fourth, per the Daily Mirror's David Anderson:
I don't think that Arsenal will take full points from now until the end of the season. When you are one point behind them with goal difference in our favour, then we very much realise what we can do. If you look at the table, you could think that it is out of our hands, but I feel it is in our hands because it is down to how many points we can get from now until the end of the season.
The pressure to continue winning and building the momentum of this drastic late-season charge seemed to weigh on Everton, and against an opponent perceived to be inferior in Crystal Palace, it was just enough of a letdown for Pulis' well-prepared bunch to steal three points away from Goodison Park.
What is a more likely scenario based on Wednesday's results?
There is reason to believe Martinez's testimony, but the Gunners are likely to win their next match versus Hull City. Meanwhile, the Toffees will try to pick up the pieces after seeing their seven-match winning streak in the EPL snapped, taking on the reigning trophy bearers in Manchester United on Sunday.
Since the Champions League is well within reach for Everton and Manchester City were unable to pull off what should have been an easy triumph at home, the race at the top of the table in the final weeks should be as thrilling as ever. But don't sleep on the relegation race, because until Wednesday, there was still a small chance that Crystal Palace could collapse and fall into the bottom three.
Sunderland looked like a lock to finish 20th, yet they could be a tough force to reckon with for the remainder of the season. Now that they've seen just how close they can come to taking three points from one of the league's top squads, the Black Cats may muster enough magic to climb to 17th or better.
This calibre of competition across the board is part of what makes the English Premier League so captivating. Staying tuned for the next several weeks will be a wise move for even casual world football fans as clubs jockey for position and seek to build a promising foundation entering next season.