Manchester United stitched up the Premier League title at long last on Monday night as they downed Aston Villa to end what has been one of the least competitive championship races in recent memory.
Manchester City never really got out of the blocks as off-field dramas took centre stage; Chelsea’s bid was ruined by the baffling sacking of Roberto di Matteo before Christmas (and the equally controversial appointment of Rafa Benitez as interim boss); while dark-horse Tottenham Hotspur were hurt early on by their inability to close out games, and later by their obvious reliance on Gareth Bale.
Now, as Sir Alex Ferguson and his charges look to topple the record points haul set by Jose Mourinho’s Blues in 2004-05, for the majority of punters and pundits the focus will move to the battle to determine the best – and worst – of the rest.
Spurs’ scintillating come-from-behind win over Man City on Sunday threw a monkey wrench into the tussle for Champions League qualification. With the Lilywhites sitting fifth on 61 points behind Chelsea (62) and Arsenal (63), who are a game ahead, it’s not just third and fourth place that are up for grabs.
The loss at White Hart Lane leaves the Citizens just five points clear in second spot while ending what has been a limp excuse for a title defence. One would expect Roberto Mancini’s men to dispatch the likes of Norwich City, West Ham United and Reading over the closing weeks, but you can never bank on beating a straggler at this end of the season – as Queens Park Rangers showed last year on that unforgettable day at Eastlands.
And that brings us to the relegation battle, and chiefly the unmitigated disaster that has been QPR’s campaign.
There were high hopes in August with the new owners flashing the cash to bring in players from big clubs all over Europe. However, these offcuts of title-winning teams – read Julio Cesar from Internazionale, Esteban Granero from Real Madrid, Jose Bosingwa from Chelsea – have fallen spectacularly short of even middling expectations, with the Londoners some 10 points shy of safety with just four games remaining.
Accompanying them at the foot of the table on 24 points are Reading, whose comparative lack of resources always made them a likely candidate to return to the Championship. But while the Royals and QPR are all but certainties to go down, picking victim number three is a much tougher task.
Wigan Athletic currently occupy that unwanted slot but hold a game in hand on all their adversaries in the relegation equation. Aston Villa are just a win further ahead, with only five points separating them from 12th-placed Southampton. However, with the Latics to host a fired-up Spurs side next time out, their bid for survival may have to wait till the last minute.
A number of this weekend’s fixtures loom as crucial in the race against the drop. Reading and QPR will face off with the potential for one or both to be officially relegated; Villa face a Sunderland outfit rejuvenated by the appointment of Paolo di Canio; and Norwich host Stoke City as both teams look to pass the 40-point mark that usually ensures survival.
And while the rest of the league toughs it out, Man United will head to Arsenal for the first in a series of glorified victory laps.