25 April 2013

Race for 3rd: Grow out those nails so you have something to bite...

As we prepare for Man U, we should take stock of where things stand going into the last four weeks of the season. Our most difficult match has become somewhat less compelling but not necessarily easier. Man U has already clinched the Prem and has little else to play for other than chasing Chelsea's record of 95 Prem League points. Most of the talk in the run-up to this game has centered on whether or not we should offer a guard of honor, which I believe we should, and whether or not Man U will show much intensity, which I figure they will. It's not like Ferguson has a history of doing us any favors, and I certainly wouldn't put it past him to do whatever he can to stick to his bestest buddy Arsène, including starting van Persie in as strong an XI as he can find (Vidic and Ferdinand are fit to return, for what that's worth). Even if the players themselves might arrive a little less hungry, we had better be ready for a knock-down, drag-out.

As it stands, we still have to endure some tight times. First, though, a moment of silence as we mourn the demise of Everton's Champions League hopes. With 56 points from 34 games, they sit in sixth place, six points off the pace. Even if the Merseyside derby just got a little less, um, tasty due to Suarez's ten-game suspension, Everton still has to face Chelsea on the final day of the seasona game that could just decide who finishes 3rd, 4th, and 5th. I sincerely regret that the door looks to have closed on Everton. I would have loved to see them dislodge Spurs and/or Chelsea from the top four. Alas, unless something dramatic happens, it may have to wait until next year.

Speaking of Chelsea, they have taken an inside track on advancing to the Europa final thanks to a 2-1 win at FC Basel. Here's to hoping that the Europa continues to sap their energy and attention in the Prem. I wouldn't mind in the least if Benitez gets that trophy while letting Chelsea slip out of the Champions League for next year (might that be enough to convince Mourinho to stay away?). They may now have the toughest remaining schedule with the Europa and some tricky Prem matches: a visit to Old Trafford, at home against Spurs (sure to be a dog-fight), at Aston Villa (striving to stave off relegation), and Everton (still hoping to clinch a Europa berth). The Europa final is set for May 15th, smack-dab between the Aston Villa and Everton matches. Quite a few potential pit-falls there, to say the least.

That brings us to Spurs. Now that they've dropped out of the Europa League, they actually have a tolerably manageable schedule. They face a number of teams just above relegation (Southampton, at Stoke, Sunderland) but it could still be difficult. Stoke is notoriously tough at home, and Sunderland may have been re-invigorated by Di Canio. Nonetheless, they can probably count on keeping most of those points. Their stirring comeback against Man City could generate some momentum, similar to our win over Bayern. Their trip to Stamford Bridge will no doubt be full of drama, with one or both teams guaranteed to drop points. We'll have to wait to see how each of them does in the two Prem matches they each have between now and then before deciding on whom to support there.

Finally, us. We go into the last few weeks a bit short-handed now that Giroud's three-game suspension was upheld. However, after we face Man U, we have one of the lightest schedules (on paper) of any of the remaining teams fighting for a Champions League spot. We'll travel to Loftus Road to face QPR, who will have faced Reading in a death-match to avoid relegation. If QPR fails to take all three there, they're all but relegated. Even if they're still scrabbling, I like our chances. From there, we host Wigan, striving to avoid relegation, and finish at a Krul-less Newcastle, who, if QPR stumbles at all, will be safely above relegation. In other words, we really should take a minimum of nine of our twelve remaining points. We'd better.

It's all still a bit white-knuckled, though. Let's say we do take nine of twelve. This puts us at 72. Chelsea would then have to take 11 of 15 to overtake us, and Spurs would have to take 12 of 15 to do the same. If they draw with each other, Spurs can only drop one point from their remaining games to finish above us. In that same scenario, Chelsea can only drop two other points to finish above us. Tricky, tricky stuff, as the dynamics behind who "should" win any given game depends heavily on these calculations. If we beat Man U, for example, does this mean Man U goes on cruise control against Chelsea the following week?

If we win all four, we climb to 75, but Spurs could get as high as 76 and Chelsea could climb as high as 77but they can't both max out thanks to their head-to-head. Let's imagine that we, Chelsea, and Spurs win all remaining games except their head-to-head, which ends in a draw. Spurs falls out of the top four with 74 points, and Chelsea climbs up to 75, meaning that goal-differential determines whether we're in 3rd or 4th. Win out, and we almost certainly finish in 4th. I won't even put the next outcome in words. It's that nail-bitey.