With innumerable plots and sub-plots, and a cast of footballing villains, the 20th season of football’s Premier League, which concludes on Sunday, has been one of the best ever.
The 20th Premier League season, which ends on Sunday with – unusually – all 20 clubs playing on the same day and at the same time, has been exceptional.
Not for the consistent quality of its football, which has at times been second rate, nor for some of its less savoury aspects – racism, for example, has reared its head on several occasions, and in situations involving well-known players.
What the 2011-12 season has been exceptional for is its innumerable plots and sub-plots, involving clubs, managers, owners and, of course, players.
We might have predicted last August that Manchester United, one of the world’s richest clubs, would be vying with Manchester City, owned by the richest man in world football, for the league title come the business end of the season.
But that the two clubs would be neck and neck on 86 points come the final day? Or that Manchester United, led by veteran Premier League mind-gamester Sir Alex Ferguson, would have ceded an eight-point lead in the last few matches of the campaign?
City’s significantly superior goal difference means that to secure the league title, they have simply to equal United’s result today. But while United visit mid-table Sunderland, the Eastlands club host Queens Park Rangers, who must at least draw to ensure top-flight survival.
Behind the two Manchester clubs, the contest for Champions League qualification has preoccupied four clubs: Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle and Chelsea.
Arsenal, after a disastrous start to the campaign, enjoyed a successful mid-season spell – despite ejection from the Champions League at the hands of AC Milan. But the north Londoners have faltered in the run-in and are now only third because both Spurs and Newcastle have failed to take advantage.
If Chelsea win the Champions League, they will occupy the fourth English place in next season’s premier European competition.
Newcastle, along with Swansea and Norwich, have been the revelation of the season. Many expected their early challenge to fall away – but it did not. Reinforced by Senegal striker Papiss Cisse, who has scored 13 goals in 12 matches, the Magpies need to beat Everton tomorrow to have a chance of Champions League football.
Before Christmas it seemed that Spurs were the team most likely to come between, or ahead of, the two Manchester clubs. But their form has fallen away badly in recent months – approximately from the time of Fabio Capello’s resignation as England manager and Harry Redknapp’s installation as hot favourite to replace him.
Chelsea’s defeat at Liverpool during the week means they can no longer qualify for the Champions League via the Premiership. But they could yet undermine the achievements of the fourth-placed club by defeating Bayern Munich in the Champions League final on 19 May. If Chelsea win, they will occupy the fourth English place in next season’s premier European competition.
Liverpool, revitalised last season under Kenny Dalglish, have never been in serious contention for a top-four spot. Despite securing the Carling Cup and making the FA Cup final, they have won only five out of 18 Premier League matches since the start of the year.
2011-12 will be seen as a work in progress at Anfield, but the club’s US owners will undoubtedly expect more next season. As things stand, Liverpool, in eighth place, are vying with Everton, one place above them, for bragging rights as top Merseyside club.
At the bottom of the table, Wolverhampton Wanderers were relegated weeks ago, cast adrift after the puzzling decision to sack manager Mick McCarthy in the middle of February and replace him with coach Terry Connor. Wolves have not won a single league game under Connor.
Going down with Wolves are Blackburn Rovers, whose manager, Steve Kean, has suffered a season of near-constant attack from a section of the club’s fans.
Mark Hughes’ presence in the dugout this afternoon will bring added spice to the Eastlands clash.
Like Connor, Kean was an unlikely candidate for the managerial seat when Venky’s, Rovers’ Indian owners, decided last season that they could do without the services of Sam Allardyce. Allardyce’s new team, West Ham, who are in the Championship play-off final, could well change places with Blackburn at the end of the season.
Bolton Wanderers and QPR are contesting the third relegation place. Bolton’s already flagging season was disrupted in March when their midfielder, Fabrice Muamba, suffered heart failure during a game with Tottenham Hotspur.
QPR, meanwhile, were among the first Premier League clubs to sack their manager. Neil Warnock, who led the club to the Championship in 2011, was dismissed in January and replaced by Mark Hughes. If QPR beat Manchester City on Sunday, they will survive in the top flight – but it could mean City fail in their bid to win the league for the first time since 1968.
Hughes’ presence in the dugout will bring added spice to the Eastlands clash. He was sacked as Manchester City boss – unjustly, some believe – in December 2009. What is more, he is a legend at Manchester United, where he played between 1980 and 1995. Rangers would not be the only club to benefit from a positive performance this afternoon.