LONDON – And then there were two.
Unless there is a sack of banana skins waiting for Liverpool and Chelsea in their remaining four games, the Premier League title will be heading for Anfield or Stamford Bridge.
Intriguingly, both teams have their fate in their own hands and the showdown between the clubs on April 27 should effectively decide the 2013-14 champions.
The mind games which Jose Mourinho will inevitably indulge in will, as usual, provide an alternative build-up to what promises to be English football’s version of El Clasico.
Manchester City appear to have hit a wall and after its 2-2 home draw with Sunderland on Wednesday. Manager Manuel Pellegrini admitted his side was “mentally shattered.”
City failing to beat a Sunderland team facing almost certain relegation on the night when Crystal Palace defeated Everton 3-2 at Goodison Park is a reminder for Liverpool and Chelsea fans whose title confidence is growing after each game — the players should be too professional to take anything for granted — that chickens should not be counted yet.
On Saturday, Sunderland, three points adrift at the foot of the table, travels to Stamford Bridge buoyed by its display against City and believing it can throw another spanner in the title race while clinging to a slim hope of survival.
Under Jose Mourinho, Chelsea invariably manages to do whatever it takes to win, though unlike Liverpool which has no European distraction, the Blues face a two-leg Champions League semifinal against Atletico Madrid to add to its domestic workload.
While Brendan Rodgers can spend all week preparing his team for the visit of Chelsea, Mourinho cannot work with his players toward the Anfield game until Thursday because of Tuesday’s match in Madrid. Chelsea’s final two matches are Norwich (home) and Cardiff (away), but Mourinho has rotated his squad superbly and whoever he brings in seems to do the business.
On Sunday, Liverpool plays struggling Norwich at Carrow Road, where the home fans will create the sort of atmosphere that is sure to raise the level of the Canaries as they try for the three points that should secure their Premier League status. It is the first home match for Neil Adams, who took over from Chris Hughton with five games remaining, but Liverpool is on such a roll Norwich may have to wait for its potentially decisive win.
While Liverpool ends the season with a home match against Newcastle, which is in freefall and its players mentally on a Spanish beach. Its biggest challenge, apart from Chelsea, will be playing Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. Tony Pulis has worked a minor miracle at Palace since taking over from Ian Holloway and is as strong a candidate for the Manager of the Year award as Rodgers or Mourinho.
Palace had lost seven of its opening eight league games when Holloway left, it was leaking goals and struggling to score, a rudderless ship heading for a swift return to the Championship. By the time Pulis, fired by Stoke last summer, belatedly took charge, Palace had just seven points from 12 games.
His record of never having been relegated was just months away, we thought, but since then, Palace has won 33 points from 22 matches, conceding 20 goals, a figure only Chelsea can better.
Six 1-0 wins are testimony to the defensive organization Pulis has instilled, and Palace will survive a Premier League season without being relegated for the first time in five attempts.
Palace’s victory meant Everton failed to overtake Arsenal and claim fourth place. Arsenal plays Hull on Sunday in an F.A. Cup final preview, and with the Tigers safe from relegation the momentum at the Emirates should be with the Gunners as they pursue a Champions League spot.
Everton manager Roberto Martinez would probably not have chosen a visit of Manchester United with David Moyes making his first return to Goodison Park as it attempts to get over the Palace defeat. Given what Moyes did for Everton, he should be given a warm reception, but football fans tend not to appreciate a manager choosing to leave their club and then attempting to sign their best players. Moyes will be afforded the most hostile of so-called welcomes.
While sixth place and qualification for the Europa League is the limit of United’s ambitions now, Moyes won rare praise for disciplining Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley, who were photographed partying 24 hours after their Champions League defeat by Bayern Munich.
What on earth were Welbeck and Cleverley thinking of, having a night out so soon after a European exit as United stumble to the end of the worst season many supporters can remember?
It was a slap in the face for the United fans and added no credibility to the players’ usual quotes about defeat hurting so much. Cleverley’s defense that he was drinking only water cut no ice with Moyes, who fined the pair and gave them extra training.
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APRIL 15, 1:18 P.M. — Paul Faulkner, the Aston Villa chief executive, calls for unity at the club. He said: “Now, more than ever, it’s time for us all to pull together — fans, players, the manager, everyone at the club.”
April 15, 3:08 p.m. — Aston Villa suspends assistant manager Ian Culverhouse and head of football operations Gary Karsa pending an internal investigation.
So what happened in the 1 hour and 50 minutes between the plea for unity and the suspension of two high-ranking club officials?
Paul Faulkner must have been aware of the pending news release by the club and the ill-timed statements are further evidence — if, indeed it was needed — of the mess Aston Villa is in.
Apart from the off-field shenanigans, Villa has lost its last four games, has taken just 15 points from the last 19 matches and for the second successive season hover just above the relegation zone.
There is, unsurprisingly, supporter unrest with many believing Villa is at best treading water under manager Paul Lambert — 42 goals in 36 league games in his two seasons in charge — who has worked with Ian Culverhouse and Gary Karsa at his three previous clubs.
Culverhouse was in charge of most training sessions, but amid reports of bullying and a “poisonous atmosphere” with Karsa complicit.
The fact that owner Randy Lerner has suspended the pair — nobody expects them to return — with Lambert’s blessing and is standing by his manager has not exactly had Villa fans organizing street parties.
Lambert will now be assisted by Gordon Cowans, who played 168 consecutive matches for Villa between 1979 and 1983, helping the club win the league and European Cup, plus former Republic of Ireland ‘keeper Shay Given, signed from Manchester City three years ago.
A home defeat by Southampton on Saturday will underline the strength of feeling the Villa Park faithful have against Lambert, but Lerner appears in no mood to appease the supporters and change his manager.
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GARETH BALE tweeted how “good it was working” with Brazuca, the official football for the 2014 World Cup, after his super goal for Real Madrid which won the King’s Cup final against Barcelona.
By an amazing coincidence, the ball is made by Adidas, which also sponsors Bale’s boots.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.