Before we get to this week’s fixtures and predictions, a few words on the transfer system, which many new American soccer fans may not fully understand.
english premier league
It’s back. Already.
Less than one week following the end of the London Games, the new English Premier League season begins.
It has all come down to this, the 38th and final round of the 2011-12 Barclays Premier League, also commonly known as Survival Sunday.
But there are in reality only two sides that have to sweat the possibility of sudden relegation, the Queens Park Rangers and Bolton Wanderers. Last year the drama involved five teams fighting for the final three positions above the dreaded 18th place.
What this year does have is drama at the top — the title chase between two bitter rivals is separated by mere miles.
Upstart Manchester City put themselves in position to win its first title since 1968 with a 1-nil home victory over Manchester United on April 30. Man City’s most notable win, however, was the shocking 6-1 rout of Man-U back in October. Although the two sides have identical 27-5-5 records, Man City holds the first tie-breaker, with a +63 goal differential to Man United’s +55. Had Man United only conceded two goals as opposed to six in that first meeting, goal differential would be even. Man-U falling apart and conceding those late goals that day counted double and now proves to be the difference in the title race.
Unlike other domestic soccer leagues such as Spain’s or the German Bundesliga (or something called the National Football League), teams’ head-to-head results are not used as a tie-breaker. The English Premier League goes exclusively with (1) goal differential and (2) goals scored. Should those two categories be tied, the two teams would then meet in a playoff game to determine the champion at a neutral site.
In the 20-year history of the Premier League the regular season has never ended with a tie for the championship. The last time the top flight of English football needed a tie-breaker was 1989. Arsenal and Liverpool both had the same number of points and goal differential, but Arsenal scored two more goals during the course of the campaign and thus was crowned champions.
Also to be decided are four teams fighting for the third and fourth place slots and the potential 2012-13 UEFA Champions League berths along with the money and prestige that comes with participation in the European Championships. It is not unlike qualifying for the BCS in U.S. college football or the NCAA basketball tourney.
Survival Sunday is unique in which all 10 games are played simultaneously, at 3 p.m. local time (10 a.m. U.S. East Coast). This Sunday, history will also be made on U.S. television, with seven games airing between ESPN (which gets Manchester City’s game) and FOX’s stable of networks. The remaining three games will be available on FOX’s various Internet/mobile apps.
It will be interesting to see how the full blitz from FOX/Fox Soccer works out. The Fox Soccer channels will have programming to fill out beginning next season – FOX loses the broadcast rights to Italy’s Serie A and France’s Ligue 1 after this weekend on the heels to losing the MLS package to NBC Sports Network last year.
The worldwide contract for the EPL expires after the 2012-13 season and it is unclear whether FOX (Sky Sports) will be able to retain that contract against new and unique (Apple TV) bidders. What is disturbing is the trend of TV contracts for European leagues going to obscure channels that may not be picked up by traditional cable TV carriers, especially just as the sport is finally starting to get a following in the United States.
Here is the list of fixtures, along with the channels and match announcers, and my bold predictions of all ten scorelines in what is sure to be two hours of mayham.
***All games start at 10 a.m. ET on Sunday, May 13, 2012.***
Manchester City vs. Queens Park Rangers
- Manchester City-Queens Park Rangers TV: ESPN2
- Manchester City-Queens Park Rangers Announcers: Ian Darke and Steve McNamaman (Peter Drury and Craig Burley on international feed)
This sounds so easy for the “Noisy Neighbours,” and that’s the problem. In 18 road games this year QPR has only won three times and drawn two other occasions. Meanwhile Man City has won all but one of their home fixtures on the campaign. But that one game they didn’t win wasn’t too long ago. On March 31 Man City was down 3-1 in the second half to mid-table Sunderland and was in danger of slipping further behind Man United. In what turned into a defining moment of the season, Man City tallied two late goals for a 3-3 draw, earning the critical one point that for now proves to be the difference in the title race.
The dilemma is Man City is facing a team playing for survival and not just playing out the string. QPR was just minutes away from being in serious trouble last week as their match with Stoke City was scoreless late, with supporters at old/cramped Loftus Road being heard cussing on television. That was before mid-season acquisition Dijbril Cisse scored off a corner kick in the 88th minute for the dramatic win and mandatory three points. Now QPR just needs a mere draw at Man City to ensure next season in the top flight.
And one more storyline, QPR Manager Mark Hughes is an ex-Man City’s manager. He was sacked there in December 2009. Of course he and all the pundits are downplaying that angle – but it is an angle, and Mark Hughes-coached teams also tend to be play a bit (or a lot) chippy.
Look for the match to be close before a QPR player gets sent off, then there should be little suspense. Man City would be the fifth different team of the Premier League era to hoist a title.
Prediction: Man City 4, QPR 1
Sunderland vs. Manchester United
- Sunderland-Manchester United TV: FX, also simulcast on FOX Deportes
- Sunderland-Manchester United Announcers: Jon Champion and Kevin Gallacher
Man United took care of business last week in a 2-nil win over Swansea, but the post-game victory lap was more subdued than recent season finales at Old Trafford, as United needs a Manchester City choke to have a chance at a 20th league title. MUFC also crashed out early in the Champions League as well as in the FA Cup, where they were paired against Man City in the Round of 64, then Liverpool in the following round. Those types of seasons at Old Trafford are usually considered epic failures. That is how high the bar is traditionally set.
Prediction: Man United 2, Sunderland 0
West Brom vs. Arsenal
- West Brom-Arsenal TV: FSN
- West Brom-Arsenal Announcers: Gary Weaver and Trevor Francis
Outside of the battle for the championship, Arsenal has perhaps the most to play for on the final Sunday, as a win will ensure the Gunners a third-place finish and an automatic bid for the 2012-13 Champions League. With 31 goals on the season, Robin Van Persie would set a league record for a 38-game season with one more tally (the Premier League had 22 teams and played 42 games from 1992-95).
West Brom sits mid-table in 10th place and thus are only playing the potential spoiler role. Look for the Gunners to take care of business in the Midlands and for RVP to enter the record books in perhaps his final game for Arsenal. The betting sites have him at slightly better than 50/50 odds of going elsewhere.
Prediction: Arsenal 3, West Brom 1
Tottenham vs. Fulham
- Tottenham-Fulham TV: Fox Soccer
- Tottenham-Fulham Announcers: Tony Jones and Davie Provan
Well at least the Spurs no longer have to worry about losing manager Harry Redknapp to the England National team. Now Tottenham just needs to pull out of a second-half tailspin that has seen the Spurs fall out of once seemed to be a certain UCL berth. It won’t be easy as Clint Dempsey scored his 23rd goal in all competitions last week, a incredible total for a midfielder. Fulham has nothing to play for but is not letting off the gas. I’m looking for a result from Fulham and for Spurs to settle again for the Europa League (NIT) tourney.
Prediction: Spurs 1, Fulham 1
Everton vs. Newcastle
- Everton-Newcastle TV: FOXSOCCER.COM
- Everton-Newcastle Announcers: Gary Taphouse and Garry Birtles
Just two years removed from a season in the NPower Championship Division after being relegated, most neutrals have been pulling for Newcastle United to defy the odds and earn a Champions League berth over the usuals (Man United/Chelsea/Arsenal). But it’s always been a longshot, and the goal differentials prove that the Magpies have been doing it more with smoke and mirrors than the other contenders. But a 2-nil win at Chelsea a couple weeks back capped by an incredible goal by Papiss Cisse have kept Newcastle in the mix.
I don’t like this matchup though. Everton’s Goodison Park is a tough road venue, and manager David Moyes always has his lads playing a no-nonsense brand of football. Newcastle needs a win and for Arsenal AND Tottenham to stumble. I don’t fancy that combination.
Prediction: Everton 2, Newcastle 0
Stoke City vs. Bolton Wanderers
- Stoke City-Bolton TV: Fox Soccer Plus
- Stoke City-Bolton Announcers: Daniel Mann and Tony Gale
For the last several weeks, Bolton and QPR have been seemingly square on the bubble for what would be a precious 17th place finish. BWFC has been in the top flight since 2001, surviving several close calls in the process. The order this time is a little taller, they need a win plus a QPR loss. Anything else sends the Whites back to the championship.
Stoke has struggled somewhat in the second half of the season but still have a veteran striker in Peter Crouch, who seems to end up being the difference in many fixtures. Winnable game, but somehow I don’t think Bolton gets out with the result they need.
Prediction: Stoke 2, Bolton 2
Norwich City vs. Aston Villa
- Norwich City-Aston TV: FOX Soccer 2 Go
- Norwich City-Aston Announcers: Jon Beck and Dean Ashton
Sitting at 16th place, AVFC is technically 100% safe from relegation but is 99.9999999%. Even if AVFC loses and Bolton wins, AVFC comes into the weekend +17 in goal differential. Norwich has had a nice season in their first year back in the EPL, sitting in 13th place. If QPR stays up, it would mean all three promotions from last year (Norwich/Swansea/QPR) will survive. The first time that happened in the Premier League era was 2001.
Prediction: Norwich 1, AVFC 1
Chelsea vs. Blackburn
- Chelsea-Blackburn TV: SPEED TV
- Chelsea-Blackburn Announcers: Joe Speight and Dean Sturridge
It somehow didn’t turn out to be a bad year at Stamford Bridge after all, as Chelsea has a great chance at taking two championships. The Blues downed Liverpool last week in the FA Cup Final and face Bayern Munich next week for the Champions League crown. On the downside, CFC lost their league game at Liverpool during the week that eliminated Chelsea from having any chance of earning a 2012-13 UCL berth with a top-four league finish. CFC will now need to win the Champions League to earn an automatic UCL berth, which would be bad news for the fourth place Pemier League finisher.
So look for Chelsea to be in Indianapolis Colts/Tony Dungy Week 17 mode, as it will basically be their reserve squad playing against already relegated Blackburn, whose supporters protested their team’s fate this week by sending a live chicken onto the pitch during the match (Blackburn’s owners are in the Indian chicken business).
Prediction: Chelsea 2, Blackburn 0
Swansea vs. Liverpool
- Swansea-Liverpool TV: FUEL TV
- Swansea-Liverpool Announcers: Phil Blacker and Barry Horne
I’ll give you a reason to watch. Swansea manager Brendan Rodgers (not related to Aaron) is encouraging fans to wear Elvis gear to Liberty Stadium for the season finale. Reason being is the pre-season experts claimed that there was a better shot at an Elvis sighting than Swansea surviving their first-ever season in the EPL. Welsh costume shops are said to already be out of EP stock, another incredible missed business opportunity. Elvis is in the building, and Liverpool walks home alone.
Prediction: Swansea 1, Liverpool 0
Wigan vs. Wolverhampton
- Wigan-Wolverhampton TV: FOX SOCCER 2 GO
- Wigan-Wolverhampton Announcers: Andy Clarke and Bradley Allen
These are two teams that have gone in opposite directions in the waning weeks of the campaign. Wigan appeared to be dead meat just a few weeks back while facing a daunting schedule. But unlikely wins over Liverpool, Manchester United (first win ever v. MUFC), Arsenal, and finally Newcastle United (four first half goals) got Wigan out of danger.
A relative newcomer (team formed in 1932), Wigan first made the big-time in 2005 and will now be staying in the top flight for an eighth consecutive season. As far as last-place Wolves are concerned, they have managed to draw three of their last four fixtures – but with the organization in flux it may be a while before we see Wolverhampton back at the EPL level.
Prediction: Wigan 3, Wolves 0
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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On Super Bowl Sunday, FOX Sports televised the English Premier League showdown between Chelsea and Manchester United. FOX has upped its commitment to televising soccer in the past year and went overboard in hyping the match, calling it ‘The Game Before the Game’ and ‘The Most Watched English Premier League Match in U.S. Television History’.
The game lived up to the hype, as Man-U rallied from a three goal deficit to earn a 3-3 tie at Stamford Bridge (Chelsea’s home stadium). It was a contest that wound up providing many talking points.