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Saturday, May 21, 2011
Five teams battle to avoid relegation
LONDON — It is billed as Survival Sunday and as the most exciting season many fans can remember reaches a climax Wigan, Blackpool, Birmingham, Wolves and Blackburn will be fighting for their Premier League lives and a television contract next season worth a minimum of £40 million.
Two from the fearing five will join West Ham in the Championship and the clubs battling against relegation are so evenly matched it could be that goals scored rather than goal difference will decide who stays up.
The scenarios would test Einstein — a team could win yet go down or lose but stay up. If two sides finish level on points and goal difference, a distinct possibility, then the number of goals scored comes into the equation, and Birmingham's paltry total of 36 leaves it vulnerable.
Too many of its players have mentally switched off after winning the League Cup and next season it could be in the Championship and Europa League, an ignominious double.
Birmingham plays at Tottenham, which needs to win to ensure fifth position and a place in the Europa League. Incredibly, some Birmingham players were seen drinking in the small hours after last Monday's end of season awards night.
Blues travel to White Hart Lane needing to at least match Wigan and Blackpool's results to avoid the drop, and manager Alex McLeish was, to say the least, unhappy with the boozy players' excesses.
Why is it that players with English clubs still cannot be trusted?
McLeish said: "I told the players it was a gross error of judgment. They've taken it on the chin and have to give a big performance. Sometimes you can't defend the indefensible."
In many ways the most intriguing game will be at Old Trafford, where champions Manchester United take on Blackpool. When the United team sheet is handed to referee Mike Dean it will bear little resemblance to the side that will face Barcelona in the Champions League final next Saturday.
Premier League Rule E20 states that "in every league match each participating club shall field a full strength team," while Rule B13 says that "each club shall behave towards each other club and the league with the utmost good faith."
Such rules are spurious and subjective.
Blackpool and Wolves have been fined by the Premier League for fielding weakened teams, but such is the strength in depth at Sir Alex Ferguson's disposal he could field a second-string side yet still beat Schalke in the Champions League semifinal, second leg.
The team to play Blackpool could be: Kuszczak, Rafael, Brown, Smalling, O'Shea, Anderson, Fletcher, Gibson, Scholes, Berbatov, Owen.
Blackpool has been a breath of fresh air in its first season among English football's elite. It will not put up the shutters at Old Trafford — it can't, it isn't Blackpool's way — and survival would be an appropriate reward for a side that has provided so much entertainment over the past nine months.
Few neutrals would shed a tear if Blackburn went down after new owner Venkys' savage and unnecessary sacking of Sam Allardyce midseason.
It wasn't broke and didn't need fixing.
His successor, Steve Kean, is a decent man working for owners whose knowledge of football is minimal. Venky's insisted Kean flew to India earlier this week for talks, thus missing a day's training as Blackburn prepares for the game that will define its season.
I have no idea what was discussed in India, but I cannot for the life of me see how it could have been more important than the manager doing his proper day job.
Rovers travel to Wolves, who are ending the season in good form (they needed to), and manager Mick McCarthy wrote on the board in the changing room "Beat Blackburn."
He said: "I don't want to get involved in talk about permutations, what might or might not happen. Ours is a winner-takes-all match. We have to beat Blackburn."
Wigan takes on a Stoke side whose morale has been affected by its hugely disappointing F.A. Cup final performance in the 1-0 defeat by Manchester City last Saturday.
Roberto Martinez's team is as likely to score three goals as concede three, but Stoke's attitude will decide the outcome of this nail-biter rather than Wigan's usual gung-ho approach.
The overall standard of the Premier League has been questioned, but few can doubt the entertainment and excitement level. Manchester United's team may not be the best Ferguson has assembled but it has lost a league-low four games, scored more and conceded fewer goals than anyone else, is in the final of the Champions League, while their youngsters are in the Youth Cup final.
Fergie would probably have settled for that last August.
* * *
ARSENAL DID a lap of thanks — it can hardly be called honor — to a near empty Emirates Stadium after last Sunday's home defeat to Aston Villa. The team was booed off the pitch after its eight defeat of the season, a run of three wins in its last 14 matches a dismal end to a campaign that had promised so much.
But that has been the story of Arsenal over the last six years -plenty of promise, zero silverware.
Arsene Wenger believed his team deserved some reward and said: "The potential of the team was right and that we were very close in every competition. You cannot say we failed quality-wise because we have produced fantastic games and the energy this team has given is amazing. I wanted them to be rewarded so much that I got more and more frustrated."
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.