Can a title win ever be underwhelming? The answer to that should be a categorical no, but there is a strong sense that Chelsea are stuttering their way to ultimate victory.
This is not a question of points, for Jose Mourinho’s side have dropped just six since New Year’s Day, a record bettered only by Arsenal. In fact, Chelsea could still reach a total of 94 points, just one away from the record set in Mourinho’s first season.
Yet Chelsea have not found top gear since the 5-0 away win at Swansea on January 17. For the last three months they have won games in spite of their performance levels, not because of them. Their last six victories have all been by a single goal, and they’ve scored 13 goals in their last nine games. More shackles than a Mary Mary one-hit wonder.
The visit of Manchester United provides Chelsea’s sternest domestic test since the capitulation at White Hart Lane. Will Mourinho revert to type and shut out the match, edging his team closer to the title? Or will we finally see some attacking inventiveness from someone other than Eden Hazard? Unfortunately, the answer is predictable.
Last week’s display against Manchester City may have generated enough positivity and goodwill to last until the summer, but such joy is addictive. Louis van Gaal will be desperate for his side to impose their new-found style on another high-profile opponent.
Beating the champions-elect would make the mouth water even more for next season’s title assault. It would also end a run of seven matches without victory against Chelsea.
The likelihood is that West Brom will not be relegated, but the players are doing their best to sap any joy out of the club’s Premier League survival. Having conceded four goals to QPR a fortnight ago, Tony Pulis’ side lost 3-2 to Leicester last Saturday. West Brom should at least be congratulated for giving us a six-team relegation battle.
Pulis had a creative explanation for dreary end to the season. “The problem today is players listen to social media and media and they might think this is job done,” he said. “But it isn’t, we need points to stay in the league. It’s a relentless league.” Bloody Twitter, tricking players into thinking they’ve already stayed up.
Pulis is now on the warpath. The Welshman is likely to be afforded the funds and freedom to change his squad this summer, and he is not in the habit of being let down by players winding down in late March. West Brom’s squad might be playing for their individual futures at the Hawthorns.
Newcastle supporters have finally had enough. The protest group AshleyOut has organised a boycott of the club’s home game against Tottenham this weekend. As many as 5,000 are expected to forgo the match.
Will boycotting one match persuade owner Mike Ashley to stop embracing mediocrity? Probably not. Will it make a noticeable difference to his bank balance? Of course not.
But that isn’t the point. This is about a group of fans realising that something is always better than nothing. It is about sending a message that change is needed, and that they will no longer be treated as dirt.
Throughout all that has happened to Newcastle, however much their worship has been tested, they have kept on going to church. This Sunday, a group of fans will take the step that they never wanted to take. They will leave their seats at St James’ Park empty.
Another must-win match to keep allowing me to beat this ‘Southampton for the top four’ drum. They’ve got Graziano Pelle scoring again, which is a start.
The return of Martin Skrtel from suspension but injury to Mamadou Sakho means that Brendan Rodgers must choose between Dejan Lovren and Kolo Toure for the third member of Liverpool’s back three.
If Lovren was left out of such a showpiece occasion in favour of a 34-year-old in rusty form, it might be time to start considering his options. Liverpool’s most expensive defender shouldn’t be jostling in such company.
Does Rodgers make a sacrifice to the gods of football romance and pick Steven Gerrard in a Wembley semi-final, or just pick his best side? Whatever his answer, that those two options are now mutually exclusive indicates that it was the right decision for Gerrard to move on this summer.
Leicester and Burnley
A week off for QPR, Aston Villa, Hull and Sunderland. Which makes it doubly important that both Burnley and Leicester take positive steps in their unlikely bids for survival.
Arsenal’s FA Cup triumph last season may have moved the sword of Damocles from above Arsene Wenger’s head, but supporters will remember just how close they came to another Arsenal-esque disaster. Even before the comeback against Hull in the final, it took a late equaliser from Per Mertesacker to take Championship Wigan to penalties. Kim Kallstrom scored one of Arsenal’s spot-kicks; what a difference 12 months makes.
Facing another Championship side this year, Wenger will hope that his side have learned from such a fright. For all the plaudits earned during the recent run to second in the Premier League, winning another trophy would add a layer of gloss to a mixed season. It’s still only one trophy in nine years. Fewer than Jurgen Klopp at Dortmund, ‘hipsters’ would no doubt remark.
“We felt [pressure] last season a lot, said Mertesacker this week. “No one expected us to lose, for Wigan to go through and that will be the case again. We are more prepared but you are never perfectly prepared. There will be different situations and the team will have to grow in the match again, we will have to face the expectations and pressure.”
The last cup tie in which Arsenal were favourites didn’t end well. It’s time to prove that they can do panic-free at Wembley.
It is the final box for Alan Pardew to tick. Having already relegated Tony Pulis’ spell at Selhurst Part to the status of last year’s miracle, Pardew can equal his record of five consecutive league wins in March and April 2014.
Although the results may be similar, Palace’s approach under Pardew could not be more different. In his 12 matches in charge, Palace have scored 22 goals and conceded 13. In the same period under Pulis, they scored eight and conceded 12. The startling thing about this current Palace team is not that they are winning, but that victories are being achieved with panache and style.
One day less than a year since a 1-0 away win at West Ham made it five in a row, Pardew can bust that last ghost. He will attempt to do so against Pulis himself.