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Who will secure a European spot?
We are within sight of the finish line of the Barclays Premier League season, and all the action is happening out of sight of the leaders. Manchester United will win their 20th title after another industrious win this weekend, and while you cannot assure them mathematically, it’s hard to see anyone catching them now.
Hats off to Sir Alex Ferguson for going out and getting the player he needed to take down Manchester City. Robin van Persie has tailed off at the end of this year, but he still has to be a player of the year candidate as it was his play and his goals that gave United that early edge. Ferguson has got nearly everything right this season – had it not been for a very soft red card, United would still be in the UEFA Champions League, after all – and this team looks like it will be very dangerous for years to come.
Gunners making claim
Now, we have to look at the battle for those European spots, and it is Arsenal who are making the late charge. Santi Cazorla has been the player of the year for them, cultured and calm. But the addition of Nacho Monreal and the switch to Lukas Fabianski in the nets is what may get them back to the top four slot. They’ve now won five of six in the league, and they really thumped Reading 4-1 at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
Better yet, Arsenal saw their London rivals Chelsea slump to yet another disappointment. It’s clear that Rafa Benitez has his eyes on Monday’s morning game against Manchester United (live, FOX Soccer, 7:30 a.m. ET) – and the possibility of an FA Cup final – but he had also better keep an eye on a Champions League place. Right now, the Blues look like they are sliding out, allowing Arsenal to slip in with a late charge. Though Benitez didn’t have a fully fit team, it is clear the Blues are a very dangerous team with Juan Mata and Eden Hazard in the lineup – and look average without them.
Chelsea looks like the wild card. In years past, we would have not picked Tottenham, but this Spurs team looks like they have staying power. Gareth Bale continues to astonish – his winner against Swansea City was real class – and Andre Villas-Boas seems to have gotten everything right to earn a place in the Champions League next season. There’s still a lot of games left – and there are only six points between Spurs in third and Everton in sixth – but expect Spurts to break through this year.
Division of labor
Time finally ran out for Martin O’Neill at Sunderland, but it’s hard to see this as a positive sign. Numbers show that dismal record clubs almost always end up going down when they sack managers within ten games left in the season. Certainly, the season has not gone as Sunderland wanted. With Steven Fletcher and Lee Cattermole now out, don’t anticipate things to change at the Stadium of Light.
Sunderland didn’t have the talent to compete this season, and just about everyone knew that from the outset. American owner Ellis Short has big dreams, but if you don’t have the players, this league can be extremely cruel. There is no doubt that Sunderland are in a relegation dogfight – especially without O’Neill’s services and experience. If you were going to make a change, why not pull the trigger back in the winter transfer window? At least then, the new manager could get players of his choice.
Aston Villa are also in deep. You cannot fault them for losing to a very good Liverpool side, but they have shown little ability to hold on to leads. They have some young talent, but Paul Lambert has been very naïve this season, playing a young squad for far too long. They have a very tough run in now; two true six-pointers against Sunderland and Wigan, and three very big games against Manchester United, Chelsea and Stoke. If Villa could avoid the fall, it would be great for American goalkeeper Brad Guzan and his prospects for the United States men’s national team come Brazil 2014.
Set your DVR sets!
As always, you can follow me on Twitter @warrenbarton2 and ask a question any time to our main @FOXSoccer account using the hashtag #heywarren. I love hearing from you guys! We also have some great Champions League games coming up this week and I hope you join us for all of them. Barcelona travel to Paris to take on Paris Saint-Germain (live, FOX Soccer, Tuesday, 2 p.m. ET) in what could be a real shootout, while Real Madrid lock horns against a reloaded Galatasaray (live, FOX Soccer, Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET).