Saturday, May 10, 2008

EPL: Stage set for Sunday showdown

For once, the English Premier League has gone right down to the wire, with the championship, European places and the relegation battle all to be decided on the final day of the season. At the top, Manchester United and Chelsea are even on 84 points, but United have a vastly superior goal differential (+56 to +39). Thus, if United can secure an away victory against Wigan at the JJB Stadium, they will claim the title and Chelsea's game at home against Bolton will be meaningless. The Red Devils should be in good shape in their bid to claim a tenth Premier League title, as they look to have regained their form of old after last week's brilliant 4-1 victory over West Ham United, where they prevailed despite being limited to ten men after Nani's first-half suspension. However, Chelsea have also been hot lately, and they eked out a narrow 2-1 victory over United two weeks ago at the Bridge.

United received some good news on the injury side this week, as Serbian central defender Nemanja Vidic is likely to be available. Vidic, who missed last week's match with a concussion suffered against Chelsea, is a key figure for the Reds: he, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Wes Brown have formed the most consistently effective defence in the Premiership this season, conceding a league-low 22 goals. United's offence has also been the best in the league, finding the net 78 times over the season: five more than second-best Arsenal and 14 more than sixth-best Chelsea. The Red Devils may get an offensive boost as well, as striker Wayne Rooney could be able to start on the bench. Rooney's been trying to recover from a hip injury for the last few weeks, and having him back would certainly be a boost.

The United lineup will be interesting to watch. Last week, Owen Hargreaves was again used as a right back, with Wes Brown shifted into the centre to cover for Vidic. With Vidic's return, there's a sudden competition for spots in the midfield, with Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, Hargreaves, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ji-Sung Park all looking for spots. The matter is only minorly less complicated by Nani's absence. I'd love to see Sir Alex Ferguson trot out a 4-5-1 here, pushing up Giggs and Ronaldo on the wings to help central attacker Tevez, and having Scholes and Carrick closely support from the midfield while Hargreaves plays the covering role he's so adept at. What's probably more likely is a traditional 4-4-2, though, with Ronaldo playing forward alongside Tevez, Park filling in on the wing and one of Hargreaves or Carrick starting on the bench.

Wigan have also been in good form lately, as they're undefeated in their last five matches. Former United star Steve Bruce has had an excellent season as the Lactics' manager, and they currently sit a respectable 13th in the table, not bad at all for a side that only earned promotion in 2005. They'll certainly give it their all on Sunday, and it won't be easy for United. A full-out win will likely be necessary, as Chelsea are almost certain to prevail at the Bridge against Bolton.

I'll be live-blogging the United match tomorrow, so check in here for updates. In a brilliant Premier League strategy, all the games take place at the same time (10 a.m. Eastern), so everything will happen at once: thus, I'll be updating the crucial other scores as well.

The battle at the bottom end of the table is also quite compelling. Derby County, the worst team in the history of the Premiership are already relegated with 11 points, but Birmingham (32 points), Reading (33) and Fulham (33) are all in severe danger, and two of the three are likely to go down. Bolton, on 36 points, are also mathematically threatened, but their -18 goal differential should see them clear, as Reading have a -29 mark and Fulham are -23: in order for the Trotters to go down, Reading and Fulham would have to win big and Chelsea would have to defeat Bolton handily.

Birmingham will be in tough, as they host the ninth-place Blackburn Rovers. Their survival would be ensured if they eke out a win and both Fulham and Reading lose or tie. However, their solid goal differential (-19) means that a draw with Blackburn combined with losses from both Fulham and Reading would also see them through.

Reading are also in severe danger. Their horrible goal differential, fed by several painful defeats this year, means that they're likely to go down if they and Fulham finish with the same results in Sunday's matches. Reading are away against Derby, a match that they should easily win: however, they'll really need to pile on the goals in case Fulham also win.

Fulham are also away, against eighth-place Portsmouth at Fratton Park. They're in good form coming in after a victory over Birmingham last week. On paper, this is a tougher matchup. However, they may be aided if Portsmouth decide to rest some veterans ahead of next Saturday's F.A. Cup final at Wembley. Personally, though, I think there's a good chance Reading will beat Derby and Fulham may slip up against Pompey, seeing them and Birmingham join Derby in the procession to the Championship.

One of the greatest things about the Premiership is the relegation race. It avoids the tanking for high draft picks that is so common in North American professional sports, and instead means that every team has something to play for for most of the season. Between the overall title, the European spots and relegation, there are surprisingly few meaningless games, the bane of any sport. In fact, the relegation battle is often more interesting than the title race, which frequently is wrapped up by this point. The significant financial rewards from maintaining Premiership status as opposed to returning to the Championship add further incentive to the fire: ESPN Soccernet's Phil Holland has stated that a club can make 60 million pounds in guaranteed revenue from just one season in the Premiership, which tends to multiply over time due to increased attendance and sponsorship numbers.

I'd love to see some North American leagues adopt a similar system: wouldn't it be great to see the worst MLS team drop down to the USL, or the Vancouver Whitecaps or Montreal Impact earn promotion? Similarly, the Tampa Bay Lightning could be tearing it up in the AHL next season instead of winning the Stamkos derby. Obviously, there are some issues that would need to be addressed, as many of the current minor-league clubs are mere feeder-franchises, but it would forever eliminate the issues of tanking to get draft picks and make games between teams in the lower halves of leagues near the end of the season both more watchable and interesting.

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