EPL: 10 Things Football Fans Want to Finish off the 2010/11 Season
Last night, Newcastle United and Manchester United played out what was hopefully the last dreary match of the 2010/11 Premier League season.
And while Javier Hernandez's unsuccessful penalty appeal in stoppage time was the only notable moment in a tepid encounter, United boss Sir Alex Ferguson could rue his side's inability to break down a stubborn Magpies defence.
The 0-0 result means that the leaders will be keeping a close eye on the tonight's two games as Chelsea have a final fling at pulling off what is surely Mission Impossible–defending their title—and Arsenal clash with Spurs at White Hart Lane knowing that only a victory will keep their hopes alive of winning a first trophy in six years.
There are six games remaining for most teams. Among these are 12 derbies, two clashes between the top four sides and one between the bottom four.
In the context of the previous 32 rounds, there is every chance that the championship, European places and relegation struggle will be decided on the last matchday, Sunday 22 May—especially as there are only eight points separating Aston Villa in 10th place from rivals Wolves in 20th.
So what will make the last five weeks of the season memorable? In this slideshow, I give you ten reasons to witness what could be a spectacular end to a dramatic season.
10: A Cracking North London Derby
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An eery case of deja vu?
Last season, on 14 April, little known young Tottenham Hotspur winger Danny Rose scored a spectacular early goal on his full debut to hand his team a 2-1 win against Arsenal and condemn The Gunners to another trophyless season.
The odds of a repeat are unlikely as Rose has struggled to make any impact at all this season, but Arsenal have again wobbled when the stakes are high and tonight's fixture could bring drama and goals galore.
And a Spurs win would again end Arsenal's title chase and be instrumental to their chances of qualifying again for the Champions League.
All eyes will be not only on the two managers. Harry Redknapp has recently criticised a minority of Arsenal fans who have booed Arsene Wenger, referring to them as ''sad idiots'' but there is no doubt, following skipper Cesc Fabregas' recently aired frustrations, that the Arsenal players are feeling the pressure and that change may be afoot at the Emirates Stadium.
This matchup has brought us some spectacular games in the modern era—the 4-4 draw in Redknapp's first game in charge of Spurs comes to mind instantly—so expect nothing less tonight!
9: Goals, Glorious Goals
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Less than a year ago, England and Manchester United forward Wayne Rooney's career seemed to be in freefall, criticism of his public life a free-for-all.
Forward the tape a bit and that Scouser is on fire: seven goals in the last two months have helped maintain his team's position at the top of the table and he is back in the fans' good book, having threatened to leave a club he thought was unambitious.
While he won't win any awards this year, Rooney (and Torres) has proven just how much goals can change personal circumstances and individual and team morale.
What Wigan manager Roberto Martinez would give for just a few of Rooney's goals as his toothless attack struggles to keep the Latics in the top flight.
West Ham manager Avram Grant signed Robbie Keane in January as he thought the Irishman's goals would be crucial towards the end of the season. Alas, his early strike failed to stop the Hammers from crashing to another defeat at home to Aston Villa last weekend.
In reality, for all of the spoilsports in the footballing world who believe that good football is a tight, tactical game where you wait for your opponent to make the first move, wouldn't it be nice if we all hoped and prayed for agressive, positive, flowing matches decided by the odd goal in seven!
You never know...
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Last weekend, Sir Alex Ferguson was consigned to watching his team crash out of the FA Cup to rivals Manchester City from the stands.
This was punishment for his criticism of referee Martin Atkinson's performance during his team's 2-1 league defeat at Chelsea.
Atkinson's decision not to send off Blues defender David Luiz amazed Ferguson, who suggested that the official was not fit for the game in his post-match comments:
“It was a major game for both clubs and you want a fair referee. You want a strong referee anyway and we didn’t get that.
“I don’t know why he’s got the game. I must say that when I saw who was refereeing it, I feared the worst.”
You did not hear Ferguson criticising his team for a mediocre performance or shouldering some of the blame himself for his inability to master the course of the match. Instead, it was the poor old referee who Ferguson made scapegoat.
It is no surprise, given this kind of treatment, that officials are reluctant to discuss their decisions to the public in front of the camera.
So please let's have more praise for officials when they do a good job and more introspection after things get tough...I'm not just talking about Ferguson...Mick McCarthy and Arsene Wenger are also too often guilty of this utter lack of respect.
7: Blackpool Rock, Holloway to Get His Just Desserts
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Just a few years ago, you'd be mad to even suggest that Blackpool would be lighting up the Premier League as entertainers and winning many neutral fans and that Ian Holloway would have helped turn skipper Charlie Adam into a £10-million player.
But that is just how the man from Bristol's tenure as boss of the league's smallest team has transpired.
The Seasiders opened the season with a firework display, showing ambition, skill and tenacity, thumping neighbours Wigan Athletic by four goals to nil on Day 1 and the team maintained fine league form until the end of the year.
But 2011 has been a real struggle for The Tangerines and they find themselves in 18th with 33 points, despite having scored three more goals than fifth-placed Tottenham has managed.
For the neutral, for the sake of the beautiful game and for the value of drama and entertainment, this is one team who must hang on in there.
6: Another Fernando Torres Goal
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I have to pause for a moment before I describe life as ''tough'' for a young, millionaire footballer who has won a World Cup and is in rude health.
But Spanish forward Fernando Torres' £50 million switch from Liverpool to Chelsea has heaped pressure on the 27-year-old's drooping shoulders.
He has only scored a single goal in and is clearly feeling the tension.
Manager Carlo Ancelotti has done his best to focus on the team but his tactics reveal the situation he finds himself in: a pawn in a vain and desperate Russian billionaire's renewed attempts to win the Champions League and revive a fading Blues legacy.
It would be a real shame for Premier League football if this situation did not start to improve as it would possibly lose both Ancelotti and Torres, whose behaviour and performances are generally immaculate.
5: Resourceful Match of the Day Punditry
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At the beginning of the season, Newcastle United and England legend Alan Shearer committed a faux pas on the BBC's flagship Premier League football highlights programme, Match of the Day.
When asked about his former team's new poster boy, Hatem Ben Arfa, he claimed to know nothing abouth the young Frenchman.
This prompted rival TV analyst and former England colleague Stan Collymore to bemoan the lack of professionalism and insight of many former players who were being paid handsomely to talk nonsense.
Collymore defended his decision to attack Shearer's apparent indifference thus:
''It’s not anti-Alan Shearer it’s anti-pundits that turn up and say ‘this is what I’ve done in my football career this is enough’. And it’s not enough.”
Last weekend, sister programme Match of the Day 2 presenter Colin Murray went one step further than Collymore to promote insight and cut out monotonous drivel and thoughtless comment by banning predictions.
4: Sweat, Blood and Tears...Old-Fashioned Style
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There was widespread condemnation of veteran Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes's late, high tackle in last weekend's FA Cup semi-final, which led to the referee sending him off.
There was no doubting that Scholes mistimed his tackle and caught Pablo Zabaleta high on the leg. There was even less doubt that Scholes did so with his eye on the ball and his intention noble.
So why do so many pundits and punters insist on blowing a slightly late tackle out of proportion when there are many more ugly and unsportsmanlike acts being committed regularly in the Premier League: players and managers disrespecting each other and officials, spectators chanting abusive songs and players trying to trick officials to gain an unfair advantage.
Now is the time to remember that football is a contact game and to realise that the real fans' heroes are players who are dedicated, loyal and noble.
3: More Managerial Stability
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This may not be a popular entry, but it is hard to ignore the damages of Premier League owners' short-termism: millions of pounds thrown to and fro between agents, chairmen and players, unreasonable expectations among fans and a cold shoulder to the ethos of bringing young English through youth systems and into the first-team.
But the biggest victims of this worrying and grotesque situation is the unnatural pressure being placed on the shoulders of managers, who increasingly seem to fall victim to a team's underachievement, irrespective of mitigating circumstances.
Much indignation followed former Newcastle United manager Chris Hughton's dismissal by billionaire club owner Mike Ashley earlier this season.
This was a man who had learned his trade over many years as a respected assistant to a series of Spurs managers and who was finally handed the chance he deserved to make his name as a No. 1.
Despite leading the Magpies to the Premier League and seeing them to mid-table comfort, he was disposed of swiftly following a handful of mediocre performances.
His players, more guilty than he, carried on receiving their hefty weekly cheques, safe in the knowledge that there would always be another club on the phone at the end of the season if they could not turn their team's fortunes around.
So I hope that chairmen stay calm, focussed and reasonable and continue to back their managers, who often work longer hours with more stress and less reward than those who they have been put in charge of.
2: It's Only a Game!
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The footballing world was shocked to hear the news today that Celtic manager Neil Lennon (pictured) was sent a letter bomb by rival fans.
While tensions run high in Scottish football between the two big Glasgow rivals, Celtic and Rangers, and there is an often dangerous religious history between the clubs, it was an act of despicable brutality and astounding stupidity.
After all, football was always supposed to be a game and a pastime!
Not a matter of life or death, not a starting point for a quarrel or a fight.
In an ideal world, fans would gather in Premier League stadia to come together to support their team, have fun with friends and family and maintain respectful relationships with all players, management and officials.
Reports of racist chanting such as those emanating from Tottenham fans in Madrid last week in the Champions League quarter-final should not be tolerated and everyone in the sport must learn to have enough maturity and sense to always draw a line between passion and rage.
1: A Dramatic Last Day
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Last season, Chelsea romped to the Premier League title with a final-day 8-0 procession against lowly Wigan.
Aston Villa and Liverpool confirmed European places and Burnley went out on a high in their sole season in the top flight.
This year, it is likely that the last 10 matches will be even more important than they were a year ago, with more than half of the league's teams likely to be fighting against relegation or battling to qualify for European football.
Three games in particular stand out: West Ham v. Sunderland and Wolves v. Blackburn might be worth £50 million to the two victors; Manchester United v Blackpool will see a team full of stars engage in combat against a team of eleven more humble professionals looking to use every ounce of energy and know-how to keep their team afloat and their and their fans' miraculous dream alive.
The stakes are high and it promises to be an afternoon full of twists and turns, tears and joy for the thousands of cameras to capture in high-definition and the fans to take in.