EPL: 10 Critical Matches That Will Shape the Remainder of the Season
Hello again everyone, I hope you're all enjoying your Easter break.
As the Premier League nears its conclusion for another season, things are shaping up to be one of the most exciting campaigns of all time. There are three teams still chasing the League crown, a further three gunning for fourth and a Champions League spot whilst any team from a list of six will be looking around nervously as the threat of relegation looms.
In this slideshow, I'll be looking ahead to what I feel will be the ten most important fixtures that will determine who wins, who survives and those who will end the season heartbroken.
So without further ado...
10. Arsenal v. Manchester United, Sunday 1st May
Not 24 hours ago and this match would of found itself at the opposite end of this list.
As it is though, yesterday's defeat at Bolton has left Arsenal with 9 points to catch Man Utd from a possible 12, though the Gunners can still influence this season's winners.
A visit to the Emirates is not an appealing fixture at the best of times, especially when you are chasing a record 19th League title as the Red Devils are doing but a win in north London all but secures the trophy.
Arsenal won't go down without a fight though as they remain desperate to end their current silverware draft. Managers Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson are two of the game's best attacking tacticians. This one has fireworks all over it.
9. Manchester City v. Tottenham Hotspur, Tuesday 10th May
I've already covered this fixture in more detail in a previous article, give it a read if you fancy a more in-depth preview, I'll put the link at the bottom
This match makes the list as it will be crucial in the race for fourth position and a Champions League spot.
Spurs did themselves no favours over the weekend when they could only manage a draw at home to West Brom (a result that sees the Baggies safe, as a sidenote) and now sit a single point behind City having played a game more.
Providing the Citizens slip up, this game could prove to be the decider for that lucrative Champions League spot, an exact replica of the situation last season where Spurs won 1-0 at Eastlands to overtake City.
Can, and will, history repeat itself?
8. Blackpool v. Stoke, Saturday 30th April
The first in this list that concerns the battle to avoid relegation.
After Saturday's draw away at Aston Villa, Tony Pulis' side are safe and will be playing Premier League football again next season.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Blackpool.
An unfortunate draw with Newcastle has left the Seasiders out of the drop zone only on goal difference. This fixture makes it on the list as it is only one of two home games Blackpool have left, the other being against Bolton, but either side of that match are visits to White Hart Lane to play Spurs and a quick trip down the coast to face Man Utd at Old Trafford.
This essentially makes the two games to be played at Bloomfield Road must wins if Blackpool are to stave off relegation. The first game is key, the Tangerines will need the confidence a win would bring here especially since it's now been two months since Ian Holloway's men tasted victory.
One thing that may work for Blackpool though is that, with Stoke safe, and an FA Cup Final on the horizon, Tony Pulis may decide to rest players.
7. Liverpool v. Tottenham Hotspur, Sunday 15th May
Another Spurs fixture, I'm sure this will be an interesting match, it has the potential to be truly fascinating.
By this time, Man City could of choked a big one and be out of running for fourth leaving these two sides fighting for the position.
Or, Tottenham could of continued a run of average form, leading them fighting with the Merseysiders for fifth place and both sides' last chance of playing European football next season.
A final possibility, albeit the least likely, is both Spurs and City enduring an exceptionally bad run and Liverpool looking to secure their place in the top four.
Out of all these, the second situation is the most likely but even though it's just for the Europa League, both sides will want to play in Europe, both sets of fans demand it.
Regardless of what the two teams are fighting for, this could be game of the season, and would of been higher in the list had City not opened up the gap they have.
6. Birmingham City v. Wolves, Sunday 1st May
The first of a couple of relegation so-called "six-pointers" on the list sees a somewhat resurgent Wolves travel to St.Andrews to take on a Birmingham side no one would of put in a relegation battle at the season's start.
If Wolves manage a point in their midweek game against Stoke, they will move out of the bottom three on goal difference something which would provide a huge morale boost going into this fixture.
A win at Stoke, followed up by a win here, would see Mick McCarthy's men leapfrog the Brummies altogether, and that won't be a fact lost on the players.
Birmingham will come into the game feeling sore after a 5-0 hammering at the hands of Liverpool. The Carling Cup winners will of had a whole week's rest though and they will hope to use that to their advantage.
5. Manchester City v. Stoke City, FA Cup Final, Saturday 14th May
Yes that's right folks, not the League outing, the FA Cup Final itself could have a huge impact on the league, purely because of the different situations that arise based on who wins.
Now bear with me here, things may get a little confusing.
If City win and remain in fourth place, the team finishing sixth in the League will qualify for the Europa League.
If City win and drop to fifth, the teams finishing in sixth will qualify for the Europa League.
Of course, if Stoke win, the spot is theirs and your team will have to finish fifth or above to be playing European football next season.
When this is tied into the fact that the Cup is two weeks earlier than usual thanks to Wembley also hosting the Champions League final, it throws open the possibility of all sorts of exciting mini-battles for fifth and sixth all adding to the intrigue of an already blockbuster final day.
Off topic, who thinks it fair that Stoke don't get awarded the European spot by default and it goes to a League position instead? Isn't that place what gives the smaller clubs the incentive to try and do well in the Cup, rather than concentrating on League position? Comments below, Bleachers.
4. Chelsea v. Tottenham Hotspur, Saturday 30th April
For the first time, we welcome title challengers, and current Champions, Chelsea to the list.
For the third time, we see Spurs making an appearance. They really do have a horrible run in, don't they?
Chelsea had a good weekend, but it could of been even better had Man Utd's Javier Hernandez netted a late winner against Everton.
Even so, Arsenal's capitulation at the Reebok Stadium paired with Fernando Torres' maiden goal after his £50 million signing has left Blues boss Carlo Ancelotti with plenty to smile about going into this derby fixture.
Chelsea are now the main contenders to Man Utd's occupation of the top spot but will know that destiny lays in the hands of their title rivals and their opponents, and the Chelsea faithful will be hoping for s slip or two. You may even see a couple cheering on Arsenal the following day. Maybe.
However, they'll also know they have to keep the pressure up and the only way to do that is by winning. And we already know from earlier in this list, that's exactly what Spurs have to do to keep the heat on Man City.
A must win game for both sides. And it's a London derby? Should be a good 'un....
3. Blackburn Rovers v. Manchester United, Saturday 14th May
This may raise a few eyebrows initially, but hear me out, I have my reasons.
Cast your mind back, if you will, to last season. Towards the end, Man Utd had to travel to Ewood Park to play Blackburn. Sound familiar?
On that day, the score was 0-0 and it all but ended Utd's challenge for the trophy that season. Make no mistake, SAF's men will be determined to ensure that this is not the case this time around.
What makes it a little bit more interesting is that the Red Devils will be coming of a gruelling fixture list that sees them play Schalke twice in the Champions League semi-final as well as the already discussed trip to the Emirates. Could tiredness be a factor?
Of course, the game holds no small significance for the home side. As things stand they are a single point of the drop zone and could very well find themselves in the bottom three when this fixtures comes around.
Before the 14th, they have a home game against the blue side of Manchester this evening followed by a trip to relegation arch-rivals West Ham a fortnight later.
Blackburn do enjoy a significant goal difference advantage over their fellow relegation combatants, but earlier this season Utd strolled to a 7-1 win over the Riversiders. This game could win the league for someone and relegate someone else. That's why it makes my list.
2. Wigan Athletic v. West Ham United, Sunday 15th May
If this game was played today it would 18th (Wigan) versus 20th (West Ham) with two points and just one goal separating the two. A win for either side would lift them out of the relegation zone.
Now, I know a lot can change in the three weeks that precede this match but my gut tells me the winner stays up and the loser goes down.
Neither side has a particularly pleasant build up to this game with West Ham journeying up north to face Man City whilst Wigan will entertain Everton before North West derby at Bolton.
West Ham, though, could have the timely confidence boost of a win over similarly relegation threatened Blackburn the week before, a win which could see Rovers slip into the bottom three whilst the Hammers climb out.
The London side showing the least impressive form of the two though, with only one point picked up from the last 18, whilst Wigan have looked promising a solid win away at Blackpool was followed this weekend by harsh defeat at Sunderland and preceded by an even harsher defeat to Chelsea.
Neither of these two teams should really be embroiled in a relegation scrap, but that's the beautiful unpredictability of the Premier League, especially this season.
Also, who'd of though Wigan v. West Ham would ever be an unmissable League game?!
(Just messing all you Latics and Hammers!)
1. Manchester United v. Chelsea, Sunday 8th May
As I mentioned in the second slide, 24 hours ago what is currently at number 10 would be here and vice versa. Football, eh?
Put simply, this is likely to be a League decider. If both sides win their League games coming up this one, Chelsea will know that nothing short of victory will be good enough if they want to retain their status as Champions.
On the other hand, United will know that anything that isn't defeat will likely be good enough for them to go on and secure a record 19th League trophy, becoming the most successful English domestic League side, overtaking fierce rivals Liverpool in the process.
Of course, it's not plain sailing.
Man Utd's League game before this is away at title outsiders Arsenal, whilst Chelsea will play a derby match against Spurs. Utd also have to contend with their Champions League exploits.
I've already explored the implications of those games in their respective slides, so I shan't bore you by repeating myself, though I will mention an Arsenal win over the Red Devils, coupled with a Spurs victory over Chelsea and a draw here at Old Trafford, and you never know....
Once again - football, eh?
So there ends my guide to then top ten games remaining this season. I hope you've enjoyed the read, and I hope even more you're able to catch what should be some top drawer football.
All that's left for me to do now is tell you how I think things will end up:
Champions: Manchester United
Champions League (2nd - 4th): Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City
Europa League qualifiers: Liverpool, Stoke City (as FA Cup winners) and Birmingham City (as Carling Cup winners)
Relegated: Blackpool, Wigan, Wolves
As ever, let me know what you think, and throw your own predictions in the comments below.
Until next time,