Not long after the drama of Yaya Toure’s goals last weekend for Manchester City confirmed the state of play for Sunday’s Premier League climax, the sub plots, the agendas and the rivalries emerged to make a spicy situation even spicier.
There is so much raw emotion at stake in three big English soccer cities this weekend. Not so long ago, if somebody predicted that City would finish above Manchester United, Tottenham above Arsenal and Everton above Liverpool in the same year, they would have been sent to have their head examined. That it might happen, with all three scenarios going down to the wire, marks out a season that has been wonderfully unpredictable.
In fact, 14 of the Barclays Premier League’s 20 teams are involved in matches which really count for something at its climax. Come Survival Sunday, try not to miss a single twist or turn in this tale of the unexpected.
Most eyes will be on Manchester, where City faces QPR in the match that will decide their title fate. It escapes nobody that QPR are coached by Mark Hughes, the man who was unceremoniously dumped by City to make way for Roberto Mancini.
Anybody who has ever come across Hughes would back up the assertion that he is not a man who appreciates being crossed. Should he wish to, he can fix you with a stare that makes you feel decidedly uncomfortable. As a player – particularly famously in the red shirt of City’s great rivals Manchester United – his reputation as a hard opponent was legendary. He was a muscular striker that bulldozed the best defenders. In addition, he was strong mentally and was not easily cowed. Summing up, you would imagine he would take a certain amount of pleasure to make his point to the owners of Manchester City who booted him out the door in a very unceremonious manner.
Hughes first got wind of it through messages from friends when he switched on his phone in the morning. Then he saw it on newspaper headlines. Nobody from the club had the decency to let him know before the rest of the world was talking about his sacking. Naturally, United’s manager Sir Alex Ferguson was keen to mention all this in a bid to tweak up the pressure on City. "Mark knows his job all right. He was sacked by City in a very unethical way and he’ll remember that,” Fergie noted.
Hughes himself has not shied away from the revenge talk. He often likes to tell people that as far as City are concerned, he had all the pain and other people are now getting the gain. "Maybe it’s a little bit fated that I’m going back to City on the final day," Hughes reckons. "If we were to get something, it would be a fantastic story. They’re going for the title, we’re trying to stay in the league. That fixture loomed quite ominously in the distant future when I first took over [at QPR in January]. But maybe now the stars have aligned and things have fallen on our side of the line." Just in case there was not enough riding on this match anyway, QPR have a final chance to stave off relegation.
In a final day that has numerous compelling stories on the line, the emotions that are gripping the city of Manchester are also felt elsewhere as big rivals are competing for prizes and pride.
In north London, such are the hiccups afflicting both Arsenal and Tottenham, it feels more like both teams are competing not to finish in the highly coveted third position. Third means guaranteed Champions League qualification, and Arsenal and Tottenham have been tossing the initiative between them as if handling a hot potato. Neither team are playing well. The anxiety is increased by the fact Arsenal have not finished lower than Tottenham during all of the 16 years Arsene Wenger has been at the club.
Arsenal, who travel to West Brom, have the advantage of being one point in front going into the final weekend, but Tottenham have the kinder looking fixture, at home to Fulham. The layers of intrigue come in various shapes and sizes. Tottenham’s manager, Harry Redknapp, needs a favor from Roy Hodgson, the man who beat him to the England job. Hodgson will take charge of his last game for West Brom. Fulham’s coach, Martin Jol, is a former Spurs manager, and will also enjoy making – as well as taking – a point.
The race for a Champions League position also includes Newcastle, who are a single point behind Tottenham and two behind Arsenal. In theory, the Magpies could overtake both. They too have a tricky assignment away to Everton, who are locked in their own local dispute as they hope to finish in front of Liverpool. It would be a fantastic achievement considering how frugal they have to be in comparison with their more lavish spending neighbors, and how long it has been since they had the bragging rights. Since Everton last won the title a quarter of a century ago, only once have they finished top dog in the city in terms of the table since 2005 – an experience usurped by the fact Liverpool won the Champions League.
In terms of relegation, it is a straight fight between QPR and Bolton, who visit Stoke, for the last unwanted slot. If Bolton can win, and QPR are beaten as expected despite the best efforts of Hughes and his old manager Ferguson, Owen Coyle will be thankful for a happy ending to what has been a tremendously trying campaign.