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The last mile is always the longest


By Thom Watt.

With only two hurdles to negotiate before the destination of the Premiership title will be known, both Manchester United and Chelsea know any slip ups now will likely be fatal to their chances. Although it hasn’t been widely reported, Chelsea could win the league this weekend. If they can dispose of a wounded Liverpool side, and Manchester United fail to beat an in-form Sunderland team at the Stadium of Light, then the title would be all but a formality for the Stamford Bridge side. Anything less than a win for Chelsea and Manchester United would become favourite going into the last day of the season.

Certainly, most would rather be in Chelsea’s position, with a point advantage and a goal difference worthy of, to use a cliche, “an extra point”. However, Anfield has not always been a happy hunting ground for the men in blue, and even a psychologically and physically depleted Liverpool side will want to show they can compete with the Champions Elect. There have been some mischievous suggestions that the Reds will let Chelsea win in a desperate attempt to stop Manchester United overtaking their record of 18 league titles. One only needs to look back to the final day of the 94/95 season, to a game in which John Barnes and Jamie Redknapp goals defeated Blackburn, and handed Manchester United the opportunity to win the title, only to be held 1-1 at West Ham. Chelsea will have to earn this title.

This season, the title race has been a strange one. In recent seasons the Premiership has been won by the side which puts together the best run of form, and dominates their opposition for the longest period. Whichever of the title chasing pair wins the league this season will do so by making fewer mistakes than the other, rather than sweeping all aside. Should United take the title, they will have been defeated seven times this season, the first time the winners have suffered so many losses since Blackburn’s triumph in 1995. Even so, that was in the days of a punishing 42 game season.

Chelsea too have been a little more inconsistent than the recent title winners. Their home form has been magnificent, with only one defeat, and sixty goals scored – the most by any top flight side since free scoring Tottenham team of 1964/65. But away defeats to Wigan, Aston Villa, Man City, Everton and Spurs have hinted that this side is not yet the finished article. Indeed, were Chelsea to take the title, they would likely finish on 86 points, the same as Liverpool managed last season and the lowest points haul in seven years.

Does this suggest that the league is getting tighter, or that the top two are a little less strong than they have been in the past decade? There is definitely an argument for each case. Whilst the likes of doomed Burnley, Hull and Portsmouth have been little more than shooting galleries on occasion, the emergence of Spurs as a competent outfit has certainly made life more difficult at the top. Manchester City have also proved more than capable of spoiling title charges, whilst Aston Villa and Everton have proved that they can (and will) beat anyone who takes them too lightly.

Recent history has shown that the league usually splits into The Title Contenders, The European Contenders and The Relegation Battlers. This season has seen a number of sides – Sunderland, Bolton, Birmingham, Fulham – that do not fit into any of these categories. They haven’t ever really troubled the European places, but they have been far too strong for the teams in danger of demotion. This improvement in the middling Premiership sides has only served to increase the difficulties in winning the top prize in England.

It would seem that neither title contender is a vintage side just yet. They are still very good sides, but shortcoming in Europe and more regular defeats at home suggest that both sides have some growing to do before they reach their full potential. Manchester United are in the process of another Ferguson Evolution, with some players coming to the end of their careers, whilst others are beginning to make a big reputation for themselves. Chelsea too look as if they are a work in progress. Ancelotti may have had his hands tied because of a transfer embargo, but he may have to tinker with his playing staff this summer to fulfil the chairman’s dream of Champions League glory. The spine of the side is not getting any younger, with  Carvalho, Ballack, Lampard, Anelka and Drogba all over thirty, and so the manager will have to use this summer to blood and blend new faces to secure Chelsea’s long term future. With a few tactical signings Ancelotti will not only stamp his name on this Chelsea side, but may take them to another level.

What is certain is that there is still all to do to win the title. The last mile is the longest, as the saying goes. Manchester United must take six points from their last games, and hope Chelsea have at least one off day. Chelsea know that six points gives them their first title in four years. Regardless of the winner, this piece of silverware should be the springboard for even better things in the coming season.

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