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Saturday, May 12, 2012


Manchester City has title within grasp

LONDON — It has always been what Sir Alex Ferguson considered would be his worst nightmare, losing the title on goal difference.

Christopher Davies

What he had never envisaged, though, was being pipped by the noisy neighbors who have been kept fairly quiet during Fergie's 25 years in charge at Manchester United. In Ferguson's mind that is as bad as it can possibly get, and he is bracing himself for the reality of a mathematical defeat.

Both clubs have 86 points but Manchester City's goal-difference is +8. Yet it would be a fitting finale if a fascinating, unpredictable Premier League season which comes to an end Sunday had the most dramatic of climaxes.

Queens Park Rangers, managed by former United icon Mark Hughes, who was fired by City and succeeded by Roberto Mancini, takes his team to Etihad Stadium where the title and QPR's future among English football's elite will be decided.

Hughes would do his old club the biggest of favors if he completes the job he was brought in to do by Rangers. It would be a truly wonderful, remarkable story and one that would be spoken about for years to come.

The problem is that City have an almost perfect home record in the league with 17 wins and one draw from their 18 matches. For their part Rangers have lost 13 times on their travels.

There is also the little matter of United winning at Sunderland, which would love to finish the season with a victory over the reigning champions.

"You have to think there's hope," said Ferguson, which most would see as no more than an exercise in straw-clutching. "The way I look at it is, Queens Park Rangers have to go there to survive. I just wish Sparky [Hughes] was playing. Of course City are favorites, there's no doubt about that. The crowd will be right behind them. They will be on to the referee as they were doing against us to make sure they win the game."

A bit rich coming from ref baiter supreme Fergie, but the title is City's to lose and, yes, there is always hope in football, but United will no doubt be left to look back on the 4-4 draw against Everton at Old Trafford after leading 4-2 until the 83rd minute as the catalyst for giving their neighbors the opportunity to become even noisier.

It is not just the title that is up for grabs. Arsenal must beat West Bromwich at the Hawthorns, in what is sure to be an emotional match, as the Baggies bid farewell to Roy Hodgson, who has swapped club for country.

Tottenham is ready to take advantage of any Gunners slip, though Fulham manager Martin Jol, making his first return to White Hart Lane after a savage sacking by Spurs five years ago, would love to make a point and come away with three.

At the basement end of the table, Bolton can only pray QPR lose at City — probable — and they do the business at Stoke — possible but slim at best.

* * *

IN ANY OTHER industry the chairman and directors would have been run out of town by angry shareholders who had seen their company ruined by people who knew nothing about the business.

But of course football is not like the real world, so different rules apply. In football it is OK for Venky's, an Indian company which specializes in chicken processing, to take over Blackburn Rovers and transform the club from an established member of the Premier League's middle classes to one relegated to the Championship in 18 months.

They are able to fire Sam Allardyce, a respected, successful manager with a proven track record and replace him with the untried Steve Kean. Manager perhaps, but Kean was not in charge of transfers because Venky's brought in agent Jerome Anderson to "help."

Sir Alex Ferguson, who knows a thing or two about football, said this was proof "the game has gone mad."

Having finished 10th and 20 points off the relegation zone under Allardyce the previous season, after six months of the Kean era Rovers' Premier League place was salvaged on the last day of 2010-11 by beating Wolves 3-2.

Twelve months later a home defeat by Wigan opened the trap-door to the second tier of English football.

When they paid £23 million for the club Venky's said their target was Champions League football. Next season they will be playing Barnsley not Barcelona.

There have been regular protests by fans who, unusually, want both the board and manager sacked.

In fact, the only person dismissed is Paul Hunt, the club's deputy chief executive, after a letter he sent to Venky's was printed on the Sporting Intelligence web site though they denied the leak came from Hunt.

The letter, sent last December, was highly critical of Kean and Hunt urged the owners to make "significant changes" sooner rather than later.

Kean, who has become little more than an apologist for the owners — his claim that Venky's are "100 percent right for Blackburn" would be funny if it were not so sad — remains but as Rovers have become football's Titanic there will indeed be significant changes this summer when there will be the inevitable fire sale.

Out will go the likes of Martin Olsson, Junior Hoilett, Yakubu — in fact anyone the club can get a decent fee for will join Chris Samba and Phil Jones out of the Ewood Park departure lounge. Relegation has cost Blackburn a minimum of £30 (thirty) million so the cost-cutting will be savage.

There has been some stiff competition, but there is strong evidence that Blackburn has become the worst run Premier League club ever.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.

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