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Saturday, April 18, 2009

PREMIER REPORT

Final weeks promise intriguing story lines


LONDON — This is as good as it gets.

Christopher Davies

Manchester United can complete a clean sweep of five major trophies — Club World Cup, League Cup, Premier League, F.A. Cup, Champions League.

Chelsea is on course for a Premier League-F.A. Cup-Champions League Treble.

Arsenal can end the season with an F.A. Cup-Champions League Double.

Liverpool can concentrate on a Single — the Premier League.

There has never been a finale to an English season quite like this one.

With six weeks remaining the Premier League's Fab Four will battle it out for the major prizes and if the football continues to be of the quality seen over the past month, the world is in for a treat.

Liverpool 4, Real Madrid 0; Manchester United 1, Liverpool 4; Manchester United 3, Aston Villa 2; Chelsea 4, Liverpool 4; all have been stunning, breathtaking games.

Throw in last weekend's remarkable 3-3 draw between Aston Villa and Everton, and you have five matches where the drama was matched only by the entertainment and excitement. The only dull moments were the halftime intervals.

Chelsea meets Arsenal on Saturday in the first F.A. Cup semifinal at Wembley.

Sunday it's Manchester United vs. Everton.

In two weeks, the Champions League heavyweights will slug it out in the semifinals as Barcelona plays Chelsea and Arsenal goes head-to-head with United.

England is guaranteed a Champions League finalist for the fifth consecutive year. This is the third year in succession that the Premier League has three semifinalists.

Should Chelsea beat Barcelona, it will be the second straight season in which no English team has been knocked out by foreign opponents. Only other English clubs, it seems, can beat the Premier League's best.

Fasten your safety belts . . .

Arsenal has the best current form of the elite quartet, undefeated in its last 22 domestic fixtures. The return from injury of Cesc Fabregas, Emmanuel Adebayor and Theo Walcott has given its attack more of a cutting edge — the midfield battle between Fabregas and Michael Essien promises to be crucial.

Frank Lampard is playing superbly, and in between his irritating habit of falling over after almost every challenge, Didier Drogba remains a supreme striker.

The worry for Chelsea is the jittery form of goalkeeper Petr Cech and Michael Ballack's anonymity for long periods during games.

Don't expect a glut of goals — Arsenal 1-0.

United has not been convincing in recent weeks, its 1-0 win against FC Porto on Wednesday was due to a solid defensive display and a moment of inspiration by Cristiano Ronaldo.

Wayne Rooney is probably its only player whose form has not dipped, and his former club, Everton, has a poor record against the Reds.

Yet pound-for-pound no manager gets more from his players than David Moyes, who I believe has all the credentials to be Sir Alex Ferguson's successor.

This game could be spikey, and referee Mike Riley will need to keep a tight rein on things — it can be said with confidence there will be far more cards shown than goals scored.

Everton continues to grind out results and this one could go to penalties.

A potential United-Arsenal F.A. Cup final would add even more spice to their Champions League clashes — as if they needed it.

* * * * *

AFTER AN afternoon where only those with a heart of reinforced concrete did not shed a tear, Gerry Marsden was coming to the end of the Liverpool anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone."

Twenty-five thousand people were inside Anfield on the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster when 96 Liverpool supporters died at the F.A. Cup semifinal against Nottingham Forest.

As Marsden finished his song the camera panned in on a father, his distress there for all to see as he held a framed photo of his son who perished at Hillsborough.

If football can bring uncontrollable happiness, in April 1989 it brought a sadness Merseyside could never have imagined.

Few in Liverpool did not know someone who left home that sunny day to watch a football match but were never to return.

It took a tragedy to change the face of English football. The fences that were erected in the wake of hooliganism, and against which many fans were crushed, came down.

What happened at Hillsborough can never be repeated, but those who lost loved ones that day still feel a burning sense of injustice as well as grief.

Nobody has ever been held responsible for the deaths of the 96 who died.

The government has ruled out a new public inquiry after a coroner recorded verdicts of accidental death on those who lost their lives.

Christopher Davies covers the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.


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