This weekend is all about the moneyed glamor of the Barclay Premier League. And I don’t just mean the visit to Crystal Palace of Manchester United, who have just pledged $37 million to PSV Eindhoven for Dutch attacker Memphis Depay and are expected to spend a lot more before heading to the United States to prepare for next season. Nor do I mean Liverpool’s attempt to intrude on the title celebrations at Chelsea. There are also the strivings of less lofty clubs either to stay among the elite or to join it.
There is big money at stake in the Championship playoffs, with Middlesbrough at modest Brentford and the other first leg an East Anglian derby between Ipswich and Norwich. When the survivors eventually meet at Wembley to decide who goes up, victory’s value will be conservatively put at $150 million. And the question of who makes way for them, suffering not just a loss of pride but a serious financial hit – see how the likes of Wigan, Cardiff, Reading and Fulham have floundered over the past couple of years — will also be resolved shortly.
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It’s getting to the desperate stage. Bottom club Burnley could win each of their three remaining games and still go down, so it’s just a fraying lifeline Sean Dyche’s team will try to grab at Hull, where the home side are almost as acutely in need of points.
Much the same applies to Queens Park Rangers, who travel to meet a Manchester City side anxious to secure an automatic UEFA Champions League place and give their fans some consolation for the loss of the title. Both Burnley and QPR could have their fate sealed over the weekend, and a return to the Championship would have especially worrying consequences for the London club, who are threatened with a hefty fine for breaking the Football League’s Financial Fair Play regulations on the way to promotion under Harry Redknapp.
It doesn’t take much courage to predict that both Burnley and QPR are about to go back down again. But which club will join them in the second tier of English football? It’s between Hull and Sunderland at the moment, although Newcastle, having plummeted since Alan Pardew left to rejoin Crystal Palace and was replaced by his assistant John Carver, could be dragged ever deeper into trouble by yet another loss – so far they have incurred eight in a row – at home to West Bromwich Albion.
Newcastle will be without defenders Mike Williamson and Daryl Janmaat, who got themselves sent off during an abject display at Leicester last weekend for which captain Fabricio Coloccini later issued a public apology. Among those not too bothered about the Tyneside club’s woes were Leicester and their supporters, who are hugely enjoying the magnificent fight against relegation being put up by Nigel Pearson’s team – and contributing to it with their noise.
Two of Leicester’s last three games are at the King Power Stadium. Southampton arrive first and, if safety is not all but achieved then, it could be when QPR visit on the final day. In between there is a trip to Sunderland and they, despite a game in hand over all fellow strugglers, have three of their four matches away from home. Under temporary coach Dick Advocaat, they will be grateful for anything this weekend at Everton, where Manchester United were spanked a couple of weeks ago, because the other two visits are to Arsenal and Chelsea.
Sometimes games towards the end of the season turn out to be less daunting than they look on paper. Arsenal may still be hungry enough on the night of May 20 and, as for Chelsea, Jose Mourinho will not want a second home defeat on his CV; Sunderland, who won 2-1 at Stamford Bridge last April, are the only club ever to have taken three points from that stadium on Mourinho’s watch.
This assumes, of course, that Chelsea will not be beaten at home this weekend. But faded Liverpool, preparing to bid farewell to Steven Gerrard and digesting the news that striker Daniel Sturridge, who underwent hip surgery in New York on Tuesday, could be out of action until the third month of next season, must hope that their hosts have been unable to resist an odd drop of champagne in the days since.
Whether or not Gerrard plays – whether or not he is subjected to the inevitable ridicule for expensively slipping against Chelsea while Liverpool were chasing the title a year ago – it is bound to cross his mind that at least twice he could have joined Mourinho at Stamford Bridge. He would surely have won that craved Premier League medal if he had joined the Blues. But he would not have won it with the club he loves. For all the money and the glamor – and even in the Premier League – there are other values.