We have a huge week coming up in the world of sports — NFL Draft, some epic first round NHL playoff games, and the Major League Baseball schedule being among the highlights.
But I want to talk soccer.
You see, the end of the regular season in most of the world’s football leagues is upon us (obviously excluding MLS). There is much that on the line in the next few weeks, including the regular season championships in the English Premier League, the UEFA Champions League semi-finals/finals, the FA Cup, the race for the top 3-4 teams in the EPL that will qualify to represent for the 2012-13 Champions League, the fight for the bottom clubs of the 20-team EPL table to avoid being one of the three clubs to be relegated to the Championship Level, and the corresponding battle for promotion to the EPL in Championship.
Just think of it as May Madness. The Australian A-League Championship game between the Perth Glory and Brisbane Roar last weekend even turned out to be a classic, with underdog Perth going down thanks to a late red card followed by a bogus penalty (great post by Zac Wassink) being awarded to the Roar in the final minute of regulation.
The English Premier League season will culminate on Mother’s Day with an unprecedented event, with virtually the entire schedule being aired on U.S media. ESPN2, Fox Soccer, and Fox Soccer Plus will air the usual live games. In addition to that, FOX has upped the ante and will also air games on Fox Sports Net, FX, Fuel TV, and Speed – the remaining three games on the 10-match schedule will be available on FOX Soccer’s mobile apps.
With just three weekends left in the campaign, this is a good time for a rundown on each of the EPL’s 20 entries.
1. Manchester United (26 wins, 5 draws, 4 losses – 83 pts)
Soccer’s answer to the New York Yankees/Los Angeles Lakers/Duke Blue Devils, etc. Title #20 coming to Old Trafford seemed like a foregone conclusion this weekend until conceding two late goals to Everton in an epic 4-4 draw. Suddenly the Red Devils’ lead over rival Manchester City is down to a mere three points – making Man-U’s “Monday Night Football” showdown at Man City next week all the more crucial. At the very least, Sir Alex Ferguson’s troops will be needing a result (as in at least a draw).
2. Manchester City (25-5-5-80)
Became the EPL’s Fourth Beetle soon after wealthy owners took over the club a few years back. But the chances of upstart Man City winning the title seem much dimmer than earlier in the season when they scored a signature 6-1 rout at Man United.
But thanks to MUFC dropping two points v. Everton, Man City now “controls it’s own destiny” – a win over Man United followed by two more wins to close the season would enure Roberto Mancini’s team the trophy (based on winning the goal differential tie-breaker). That’s still a tall order. Remember, they need three wins — a draw in any of the final three fixtures will not do unless Man United does likewise. Man City did well (addition by substraction) by showing Mario Balotelli (the Chad Ochocinco/Metta World Peace of his sport) the end of the dugout a few weeks back.
3. Arsenal (20-5-10-65)
The Gunners were in big trouble earlier in the season, and it appeared they would not be earning Champions League qualification this year. That is before the squad’s form picked up considerably, going 9-1-1 in a recent 11 match stretch. Robin Van Persie is the most feared striker in the league and has been named ‘Footballer of the Year‘. RVP is indeed the ‘Whole Freakin’ Show’ but Arsenal will need major $$$$ to keep him, Van Persie’s agent is already reportedly having talks with perennial Serie A power Juventus.
4. Newcastle United (18-8-8-64)
Operating with just a third of the budget of other EPL powerhouses, Newcastle is the underdog story of the year. Just three years ago the Magpies had spiraled out of control to the point that they were relegated to the Championship for the 2008-09 season.
However, Newcastle regained promotion after one season and have put themselves in position for Champions League consideration by going unbeaten (six wins, one draw) in their last seven matches. But the Magpies have a difficult final four games to close the season, and there is a fly in the ointment that could keep them out of Champions League competition even with a fourth-place finish.
5. Tottenham (17-8-9-59)
After a great first half of the season, the Spurs have been trending downward the past couple of months, starting with the distraction/speculation that coach Harry Redknapp would be tabbed as England’s national manager. The warning signs have been everywhere.
The Spurs were routed by North London rival Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final and needed a replay just to get past third-level Stevenhage earlier in the FA Tourney. Finally, Spurs dropped a game 1-nil over the weekend to the 16th place Queens Park Rangers, and the fitness level of 40-year-old goalkeeper Brad Friedel is coming into question.
6. Chelsea (16-8-10-56)
After becoming one of the EPL’s big spenders in the past decade plus, sixth place does not cut it at Stamford Bridge, and it recently cost manager Andre Villas-Boas his job. CFC’s form has picked up since, but it is likely too late to save them in regards to the EPL regular season. However, Chelsea is very much alive in the UEFA Champions League, and earned a shocking 1-nil triumph in the first leg of their aggregate semi-final over favored Barcelona (two words, Lionel Messi).
If CFC can score a road goal in their return leg at Barca this week, then Barca would need to score three goals to eliminate Chelsea. If CFC were to complete the upset over Barca and then win the Champions League Final, then they earn an automatic bid for next year’s Champions League at the expense of the fourth-place finishers. The EPL reps in that case would be the usual (Man-U/Man City/Arsenal/CFC).
UPDATE: Chelsea has eliminated defending champion Barcelona with a 2-2 away draw at Camp Nou despite going with only ten men most of the game (John Terry red card – no surprise). CFC now faces the winner of Real Madrid/Bayern Munich – the 2012 final will be held at Bayern Munich, which is the 2012 Champions League Final host venue.
And memo to England, you REALLY want John Terry on your national squad – let alone CAPTAIN!!!???
7. Everton (13-9-12-48)
Think of the Everton Football Club as soccer’s version of the Tampa Bay Rays: They always bust their ass and finish in the top half despite operating on a shoestring budget, and manager David Moyes (10 years on the job) is considered one of the game’s finest. And who could not like keeper Tim Howard and his camo kit and 100-yard, coast-to-coast goals.
8. Liverpool (12-10-12-46)
The Reds have fallen from “Big Four” status in recent years, and supporters have not been fond of the ownership group led by John Henry (Boston Red Sox). However, Liverpool still does well in tourney play – the Reds won the League Cup earlier in the season and will be going for a “double” against Arsenal in the FA Cup Final. The League Cup trophy ensures Liverpool entry into the UEFA Cup (the NIT version of the Champions League) for next year. Also look for controversial forward Luis Suarez to be cut loose during the summer transfer window.
9. Fulham (12-10-12-46)
Ninth place is a little above the norm at Craven Cottage, as U.S. International Clint Dempsey (16 goals in league play) has established himself as one of the EPL’s most feared scorers.
10. West Brom (13-6-16-45)
Most years WBA is satisfied merely having breathing room from the drop zone – this year’s current 10th place standing is above par for the course for them.
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